Oklahoma!

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The song, of course, became world famous virtually overnight, and it is impossible for us today to comprehend how fresh and captivating it must have sounded to that first-night audience of fifty years ago, virtually none of whom had ever heard it before. But in those first few moments they were transported by it, away from a New York theater and the blood and horror of the Second World War and off to an Oklahoma farm at the turn of the century where the biggest problem around was whether Curly could persuade Laurey to go with him to the box social that night.

 

And from those first few moments, too, Rodgers and Hammerstein had the audience in the palm of their hand. “Not only could I see it and hear it,” Hammerstein remembered of the audience’s reaction, “I could feel it. The glow was like the light from a thousand lanterns. You could feel the glow, it was that bright.”

Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times drama critic for many years, believed that it was this very song that changed the history of musical theater.Quotingthe song’s last verse, “All the sounds of the earth are like music—/All the sounds of the earth are like music./The breeze is so busy it don’t miss a tree/And an ol’ weepin’ wilier is laughing at me!”

Atkinson wrote, “After a verse like that, sung to a buoyant melody, the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable.”

Thus the importance of Oklahoma! to the American musical theater can be simply stated. All musicals written before it immediately seemed old-fashioned, even, in some ways, Show Boat . No musical written since has been unaffected by it.

It is not that it had the greatest score in Broadway history, although it’s probably on most people’s top-ten list. It was not the first musical to incorporate elements of the classical ballet ( On Your Toes did that in 1936). Its plot was not very original; indeed, it was basically boy-meets-girl. It was not the first musical to be set in a genuine American past ( Show Boat had done that in 1927).

Rather, what Oklahoma! did was to weave these elements together into a seamless web of theatrical magic that was, in its whole, strikingly original. Further, because it had been written as dramatic logic rather than Broadway musical convention dictated, it liberated the Broadway musical forever from much of that very convention.

This in turn—thanks in part, of course, to the staggering commercial success of the show—stimulated a burst of creativity at the hands of not only Oklahoma! ’s own authors but Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Lerner and Loewe, Burton Lane, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen, E. Y. Harburg, Frank Loesser, Jule Stein, Comden and Greene, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Kander and Ebb, Jerry Herman, Stephen Sondheim, and many others as well.

Thus Oklahoma! proved to be nothing less than the beautiful morning of the golden age of the Broadway musical. And if Oklahoma! is not itself the greatest modern musical ever written—a decision for the eye and ear of the beholder—it is without doubt the immediate artistic ancestor of any conceivable claimant to that title.

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