The song "Oklahoma!" not only became the state's official song in 1953, but the musical of that title also changed the nature of the Broadway genre.
The narrative originated in a stage play, Green Grow the Lilacs (titled from an Irish folk song and subtitled "A Folk-Play in Six Scenes"), by Oklahoma native Lynn Riggs. Riggs's play was produced in New York, opening at the Guild Theatre in January 1931. It closed after only sixty-four performances. Set in 1900 rural Indian Territory, seven years before Oklahoma statehood, the plot revolves around the conflict between ranchers and farmers and plays itself out in a romantic triangle comprised of cowboy–farm girl–hired hand. A charming, conceited cowboy, Curly McClain (played by Franchot Tone), is trying to court an innocent, unfulfilled farm girl, Laurey Williams (played by June Walker), but a lascivious, menacing farm hand, Jeeter Fry (played by Richard Hale) also wants her. At a festive play-party and dance Laurie rejects Jeeter's violent advances, and Curly asks to marry her. After the wedding, at a traditional "shivaree," the two men argue and fight, and Jeeter dies by falling on his own knife. The play ends as Curly escapes jail and spends his wedding night with his new wife.
In 1942 the Theatre Guild planned a musical adaptation of the play, first naming it Away We Go! and later Oklahoma! With script and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and musical score by Richard Rodgers (their first collaboration), choreography by Agnes DeMille, and direction by Rouben Mamoulian, the production opened on March 31, 1943, at the St. James Theater on Broadway. Curly was portrayed by Alfred Drake, Laurey by Joan Roberts, and Jud (formerly Jeeter) by Howard Da Silva. The parts of Ado Annie Carnes and an unnamed cowboy (now Will Parker) were elevated into a romantic subplot, and Celeste Holm and Lee Dixon were cast. Betty Garde played Aunt Eller Murphy.
Broadway audiences and theater critics, accustomed to a standard musicals formula, were surprised by Oklahoma! It broke the rules and invented a new formula. It was a play, with music (and was billed as "a musical play"), rather than the customary show with a thin plot that marketed new songs. In Oklahoma! lyrics served as additional dialogue, rather than simply showcasing a player's vocal skills. Dance provided an integrated dramatic element, with skillfully choreographed ballet "dream" sequences illuminating the characters' unspoken emotions and thoughts. The characters were strong and well defined. There was scant comedy. As Hammerstein noted, "'Mr. Riggs' play is the wellspring of almost all that is good in Oklahoma! I kept many of the lines of the original play without making any changes in them at all for the simple reason that they could not be improved on. . . . Lynn Riggs and Green Grow the Lilacs are the very soul of Oklahoma!'" Critics have often deemed the musical a folk opera.
Various developments made this Broadway musical unique. An "album" of show tunes, performed by the original cast in 1943 for recording in 78 rpm format, was the first use of this music-marketing technique. The production was the longest-running, thus far, in Broadway history, closing on May 29, 1948, after 2,212 performances. Ten million people saw the show on its national tour of 250 cities from October 1943 through April 1954.
In November 1946 the company came to Oklahoma for the first time, giving eight performances in Oklahoma City at the Municipal Auditorium. A lavish premier hosted by Gov. Robert Kerr entertained the Theatre Guild producers as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein. Over the life of the production McAlester native and University of Tulsa graduate Ridge Bond sang the role of Curly in fifteen hundred performances in New York and in the national touring company.
In 1955 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer put Oklahoma! on the screen. The Hollywood adaptation was generally faithful to both of the earlier versions. However, producer Arthur Hornblow, noting that "Oklahoma just doesn't look like the Oklahoma of 1907 any more," filmed the outdoor segments near Nogales, Arizona. The movie starred Gordon MacRae as Curly, Shirley Jones as Laurey, Rod Steiger as Jud, Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie, Gene Nelson as Will Parker, and Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller. Oklahoma-born Barbara Lawrence played Gertie Cummings. The world premier, held in New York, included a parade led by Oklahoma Gov. Raymond Gary. In 1956 the film won Academy Awards for best musical score and best sound recording and was nominated for film editing and cinematography.
In April 1953 Oklahoma State Rep. George Nigh of McAlester introduced a bill to replace Oklahoma's official song, "Oklahoma, A Toast," with the title song of the musical. A few legislators and residents objected. Some found the song hard to sing and thought it would be difficult for students to learn. Others condemned the tune's "slangy language" or wanted a song written by an Oklahoman. The State Federation of Women's Clubs campaigned for the traditional Camden tune. Conversely, legislator Boyd Cowden favored "Oklahoma!" because he believed that the song and the Broadway show had done much to erase the negative image created by Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. The measure passed, Gov. Johnston Murray signed it, and it became effective on September 5, 1953.
At Oklahoma!'s twenty-fifth anniversary and just after the state's sixtieth, in January 1968 Gov. Dewey Bartlett received a congratulatory telegram from Richard Rodgers saying that it was "remarkable that your state has made such an enviable record of progress in the sixty short years since statehood." The show was subsequently revived on Broadway in 1951, 1979, and 2002. A general consensus remains that the musical has done more to improve the state's public image than any other effort ever made.
Gerald Bordman, American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (2d ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Ethan Mordden, Beautiful Morning: The Broadway Musical in the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Max Wilk, OK! The Story of Oklahoma! (New York: Grove Press, 1993).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dianna Everett, “Oklahoma!,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=OK090.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.