- Historic Sites
It opened fifty years ago and changed Broadway forever
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
Only in retrospect does it seem surprising that there were empty seats in the St. James Theatre the night Oklahoma! opened, on March 31, 1943.
After all, no member of the cast could have remotely been called a star. The Theatre Guild, which produced it, was at the end of its financial rope after a disastrous series of failure. Agnes de Mille, the choreographer, well known and respected in the small world of serious dance, had not yet had a Broadway success. Rouben Mamoulian, principally a film director, had done only one prior Broadway musical, Porgy and Bess , an artistic success but a financial failure. Richard Rodgers, for the first time in his career, was writing songs with someone other than Lorenz Hart, and no one, including himself, knew how he would do. Oscar Hammerstein II, meanwhile, had had six Broadway flops in a row.
The smart money certainly wasn’t expecting much. The producer Mike Todd, who walked out after the first act during the show’s New Haven tryout, had returned to New York to wisecrack, “No legs, no jokes, no chance.”
But Mike Todd was wrong. Instead Samuel Johnson, as usual, had proved to be right, and the prospect of being hanged, at least professionally, had concentrated minds wonderfully. The next day the reviews were nearly unanimous raves, and Mike Todd was hastily denying he had ever bad-mouthed the show. The police had to be summoned to cope with a near-riot at the box office. Oklahoma! won a special Pulitzer Prize. By the time it closed half a decade later, Oklahoma! had run more than three times as long as any book musical in history. Its investors earned thirty-three dollars in return for each one they had risked. And the following seventeen years are still remembered on Broadway as the Rodgers and Hammerstein era.
The show that had had no chance became the most important musical in Broadway history.
Richard Rodgers was born in New York City in 1902 into a prosperous family. His father was a doctor (as, later, would be his older brother, Mortimer). Although no relative had ever been a professional musician, there was a strong family love of music. His mother played the piano well, and group singing of the latest hit songs was a common evening’s entertainment in the household. Rodgers, at a very early age, showed extraordinary musical aptitude, playing easily by ear. Before long he was displaying that rarest of all musical talents, a gift for melody, picking out tunes of his own devising.
Its investors earned thirty-three times what they risked, and the next seventeen years became the Rodgers and Hammerstein era.
He soon decided on a career in the theater, and his family, most unusually, encouraged him in this, even backing his decision to transfer from Columbia University to the Institute of Musical Art (now known as the Juilliard School). Because of his Juilliard training, Rodgers was among the most musically well educated of the Broadway composers of his time. (Irving Berlin, by way of contrast, could not even read music.)
At Columbia, Rodgers had met the budding lyricist Lorenz Hart and soon started writing songs with him. For the next twenty years Rodgers and Hart were to be that great exception in the artistically promiscuous world of the musical theater: an exclusive songwriting team. (Indeed, there had been only one earlier, Gilbert and Sullivan, and even today, nearly fifty years after Hart’s death, there have been only two others, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Kander and Ebb.)
From the beginning in 1925, with The Garrick Gaieties , when Rodgers was not quite twenty-three and Hart was thirty, the pair knew almost nothing but success. In the late thirties and early forties, after a frustrating period in Hollywood, they returned to Broadway and turned out one big hit show after another: On Your Toes , Babes in Arms , Pal Joey , and By Jupiter among them. Many of the Rodgers and Hart shows were highly innovative, pushing the musical-comedy form in new directions.
Rodgers married in 1930 and fathered two daughters. With his success and his happy family, he had the world on a string. But Hart, as he moved into middle age, was an increasingly tormented man. Although he was enormously gifted with language, that did not compensate for the fact that he was only about five feet tall, with the big head and short limbs of the dwarf he very nearly was. Further, he was a homosexual in a time when homosexuality was considered at best a grave personal misfortune, at worst a matter of moral turpitude.
Hart spent his life deep in the closet, and this, in turn, engendered in him a sadness at the core of his being that slowly congealed into a profound selfloathing. He would have subscribed fully to what his contemporary and fellow poet Samuel Hoffenstein meant when he wrote, “Everywhere I go, I go too, and spoil everything.”