- Historic Sites
It opened fifty years ago and changed Broadway forever
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
Agnes de Mille insisted at the outset that she have complete control over casting the chorus, but Hammerstein told her, deadpan, that she’d have to make room for everyone’s mistresses. Once she realized he was kidding, she relaxed a little. Rouben Mamoulian took the clause in his contract that gave him “a free hand” very seriously and was soon at loggerheads with de Mille. He banished her from the stage, and she was forced to rehearse the dancers in the downstairs lounge of the Guild Theatre (now the Virginia) on West Fifty-second Street, where the rehearsals were taking place.
When Rodgers and Hammerstein saw the sketches for the costumes before he did, Mamoulian had a thorough-going temper tantrum. Marc Platt, the male lead dancer, had to drag de Mille off screaming from one rehearsal that was going badly and hold her head under a cold-water faucet until she calmed down. Mamoulian wanted to enhance the farm atmosphere with live horses, cows, and chickens, a dramatic device that is expensive, difficult, risky, and notoriously unpopular with actors. He finally settled for a few pigeons, but the birds flew around the theater on opening night in New Haven and were never seen again.
Although everyone else lost their tempers, Rodgers and Hammerstein did not. Both were quietly confident throughout. One night in New Haven after a performance, when other members of the production, seated in the orchestra, were sniping at one another, Rodgers, onstage, said to them: “Do you know what I think is wrong? Almost nothing. Now why don’t you all quiet down?”
Hammerstein, whom de Mille described as “quietly giving off intelligence like a stove,” wrote his son, serving overseas in the Navy, “I think I have something this time.”
The show opened in New Haven on March 11, 1943, to audience enthusiasm and critical approval. Like all musicals in the process of creation, it ran too long and dragged in spots, but the changes made on the road were relatively small. To speed up the second act, they cut one song and reprised instead the first act’s big duet, “People Will Say We’re in Love.”
And they added one new one, “Oklahoma.” At first it was staged as a solo for Alfred Drake, but it was soon converted into a rousing full-company chorus number. They also changed the show’s title. It had opened in New Haven as Away We Go! , a name that no one liked. Many wanted to call the show Oklahoma , and everyone agreed when someone—apparently Hammerstein, but there is some confusion—suggested adding the most famous exclamation point in Broadway history.
Moving to Boston, the show was even better received than in New Haven, and the biggest problem was a wave of illness that swept through the chorus and others. Dorothy Hammerstein even had to be hospitalized.
If her husband was calm on the outside, he knew he had more riding on Oklahoma! than anyone else. If it was a seventh flop, he might well never get to write another Broadway show. A few hours before they left for New York and the opening, Hammerstein and his wife took a walk near their farm in Pennsylvania. “I don’t know what to do if they don’t like this,” he told her. “I don’t know what to do because this is the only kind of show I can write.”
At the St. James Theatre that night, Hammerstein, as was his custom, sat calmly in the orchestra, holding hands with Dorothy. Rodgers and most of the others paced the back of the theater. The overture over, the curtain went up to reveal an old lady churning butter on the front porch of a farmhouse. Off in the wings a baritone voice could be heard singing a cappella, “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow …”
Hammerstein once said that if you get a musical off on the right foot, you can read to the audience from the Manhattan phone book for the next forty-five minutes and still not lose them. But if you get off on the wrong foot, it’s uphill work for the rest of the show. Perhaps that is why he spent three full weeks writing the words to “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’!”
“I could feel it,” said Hammerstein about opening night. “The glow was like the light from a thousand lanterns.”
His inspiration was Lynn Riggs’s stage directions for Green Grow the Lilacs , which Hammerstein liked so much he thought it a pity the audience didn’t get to hear them. “It is a radiant summer morning,” Riggs had written, “several years ago, the kind of morning which, enveloping the shapes of the earth, men, cattle in a meadow, blades of the young corn, streams—makes them seem to exist now for the first time, their images giving off a golden emanation that is partly true and partly a trick of the imagination, focusing to keep alive a loveliness that may pass away.”