- Historic Sites
It opened fifty years ago and changed Broadway forever
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
With this decision made, the new partners soon worked out the basic plot and the placement of the songs. The plot revolves around the mutual attraction of Curly, a cowboy, and Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller and the sinister farmhand Jud. While both are determined not to appear too anxious, it is obvious early on that Curly and Laurey are hopelessly in love. This mutual ambivalence underlies all the songs involving the two, from “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” to “Many a New Day,” “Out of My Dreams,” and even their big love song, “People Will Say We’re in Love.” A subplot involving a farmer, Will Parker, of no great brains, and Ado Annie, his girl who just “Cain’t Sav No,” provides comic relief.
Jud, also smitten with Laurey, complicates matters considerably and adds what dramatic darkness there is to a mostly sunny and positive show, especially with the brooding song “Lonely Room.” He scares Laurey into accepting his offer to take her to a box social. In the dream ballet Laurey’s anxieties about men in general and Jud in particular come out.
At the box social Jud tries to force himself on Laurey, who summons her courage and fires him. He vows revenge and slinks away, while Curly comes to Laurey’s rescue and they both finally admit how much they love each other. On their wedding day the couple and their guests sing, in the song “Oklahoma,” about their upcoming life together in what will soon be a brand-new state. Then, suddenly, Jud shows up and gets into a fight with Curly. He attacks with a knife but accidentally falls on it and is killed. Curly is quickly found not guilty of any wrongdoing, and he and Laurey set off on their honeymoon.
The writing of Oklahoma! moved along relatively easily. But as Stephen Sondheim would explain many years later, “Creating art is easy. Financing it is not.” And never was that more true than with Oklahoma! The Theatre Guild had usually financed its shows out of its own resources. Now it no longer could afford the eighty-three thousand dollars at which Oklahoma! was budgeted.
To help raise the money, Rodgers and Hammerstein were forced to take to the “penthouse circuit,” where, in the early days, Rodgers would play the piano and Hammerstein would sing the lyrics. After Alfred Drake and Joan Roberts were cast as the leads, Hammerstein was mercifully relieved of this task.
Rodgers remembered one night going to an apartment that “was not only large enough to have a ballroom in it, it actually had a ballroom in it.” But while seventy people listened politely, nibbled canapés, and sipped champagne, they subscribed not one dime. Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner, who headed the Theatre Guild, called on everyone they knew and called in every chit they had out there. But it was long, slow work. Howard Cullman, a long-time Broadway angel, turned them down flat. (He later framed and hung Helburn’s letter over his desk to remind himself of what he had missed.) Max Gordon, another producer, invested, however, and in turn interested Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures. Cohn loved the show and tried to get the Columbia board to agree to provide the rest of the financing. For a brief period it seemed that the troubles were over.
Agnes de Mille had to be dragged screaming from a rehearsal, but Rodgers and Hammerstein stayed quietly confident.
But Cohn, who usually ruled Columbia with a firm hand, this time could not get the board to go along. He put up fifteen thousand dollars of his own money, but the Theatre Guild was still short of what was needed.
Theresa Helburn went to see S. N. Behrman, a playwright who had had many successes produced by the Theatre Guild over the years. “Sam, you’ve got to take twenty thousand dollars of this,” she said, “because the Guild has done so much for you.”
“But, Terry,” Behrman responded, “that’s blackmail.”
“Yes,” she admitted, “it is.”
Blackmail or not, he gave her the money and thereby enriched himself by $660,000.
Rehearsals began in February 1943.
The Broadway musical is the most technically complex of all dramatic art forms for the simple reason that it includes elements of all the other forms. Composers, lyricists, directors, book writers, choreographers, actors, and set, costume, and lighting designers, musicians, dancers, singers, must all work together to create a finished whole.
As talented people usually come equipped with fully functional egos, the mounting of a new musical, even one with relatively few problems, is a trying time for all concerned. (Larry Gelbart, the librettist for several musicals, once said, “If Hitler’s still alive, I hope he’s out of town with a musical.”)