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June 2024
19min read

It opened fifty years ago and changed Broadway forever

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.”

In his early days Hart made up for his loneliness with both his work and his frenetic personality. Hammerstein, who knew him well, recalled him after his death as having been like “an electrified gnome,” always on the run, tossing off jokes, grabbing checks, throwing parties, trying—a little too hard—to be everyone’s friend. Later Hart turned more and more to alcohol. He took to disappearing for days at a time or showing up in no condition to work.

Rodgers, a fastidious, careful, punctual man, bore Hart’s deteriorating behavior with great patience, not usually a virtue for which Rodgers was noted. When Hart would disappear while a deadline loomed, his partner would search for him, get him dried out, and then more or less lock the two of them in a room with a piano until Hart had produced the needed lyrics. This Hart would do with astonishing facility, often in little more time than it took him to write down the words. The job done, Rodgers would let him go, and he would hurry back to the oblivion that now alone dulled the pain of being Larry Hart.

Together they created extraordinary songs, songs that often achieved their power and longevity from the very tension between the opposite natures of the two creators.

Just consider one of their most famous, “Falling in Love with Love,” from The Boys from Syracuse (1938). The music is one of Rodgers’s sunniest, most lilting waltzes, but set in a minor key to match Hart’s lyric, which speaks for itself: “Falling in love with love,/Is falling for make-believe./Falling in love with love/Is playing the fool./Caring too much is such/A juvenile fancy./Learning to trust is just/For children in school./I fell in love with love/One night when the moon was full./I was unwise, with eyes/Unable to see./I fell in love with love,/With love everlasting,/But love fell out with me.”

Even before By Jupiter opened in 1942 and became the biggest hit Rodgers and Hart ever wrote, Rodgers realized that his partner’s ability to write another show was problematic at best. He also knew that he himself needed to keep on working, even if his partner could not. Rodgers didn’t know where to turn, so he turned, as so many in the New York theater did when they needed advice, to Oscar Hammerstein II.

Unlike Rodgers, Hammerstein was born to the theater as few Broadway giants were. His grandfather and namesake was probably the most famous person in American show business in the two decades surrounding the turn of the century. His Victoria Theatre of Varieties on Times Square, which opened in 1904, was an enormously successful vaudeville house, providing the money Oscar Hammerstein needed to fulfill a dream. He wanted to compete head-on with the Metropolitan Opera Company, the most important, and by far the richest, opera company in the Western Hemisphere.

For four years the plucky, theatrically innovative immigrant with a genius for publicity and a passion for opera battled the august, stodgy, endlessly wealthy Metropolitan. The contest transfixed the world of opera and titillated the nation. Hammerstein’s vibrant, totally professional productions were remembered by all who saw them for the rest of their lives, but finally even Hammerstein had to accede to reality. He was broke. Asked by a friend what he was opening his season with, Hammerstein snapped, “With debts.” He got some of it back, however, when he sold out to the Metropolitan for a million dollars.


While Oscar I was using the profits of the Victoria to fight for supremacy in opera, his son William (the father of Oscar II) worked as the Victoria’s manager to see that those profits kept rolling in. While far more down-to-earth than his father, William was equally creative as a theatrical manager. It was Willie Hammerstein who was credited with having invented that perennial favorite of lowbrow comedy, the pie-in-the-face routine.

Under the circumstances, young Oscar, who was born in 1895, could hardly have escaped a careful education in the theater, from La Bohème to blackface, but Willie did not want his children to take up show business as a career. So Oscar II went to Columbia University and then entered Columbia Law School. But the law bored him, and he dropped out. His father now dead, he pestered his uncle Arthur Hammerstein, a well-known Broadway producer, for a job and was soon working as a stage manager and writing plays and songs, usually in collaboration with others.

He married early, and unsuccessfully, but soon had his first Broadway hit, the musical comedy Wildflower , in 1923. It had music by Vincent Youmans and a book and lyrics written jointly by Hammerstein and Otto Harbach. Although Wildflower was a big hit for the time (in fact, it ran longer than any show ever written by Rodgers and Hart), there was little to distinguish it from all the other musical comedies that opened and closed on Broadway with great regularity at the time.

Musical comedy had its roots in vaudeville. The plots of these shows were slight, the characters pasteboard, and the jokes and songs often had little, if anything, to do with either. But musical comedies could also be very inventive, often on the cutting edge of popular music. Moreover, musicalcomedy lyrics, at least for the major songs, were carefully written, poetically sophisticated, and often extremely witty. As with Gilbert and Sullivan, and unlike European musical theater, they were as important as the music itself.

From early on Hammerstein sought to expand the boundaries of the purely American musical-comedy form. He wanted to bring it closer to the op- eretta, a much more dramatically solid kind of musical theater that had roots in Berlin and especially Vienna, as well as a long Broadway tradition. With his next big hit, Rose Marie , in 1924, he began to do so. Then, in 1927, he and Jerome Kern wrote Show Boat .

Hammerstein sought the rights to the failed play and learned that Rodgers and Hart had already been given them.

Today Show Boat is the only musical of the 1920s that can hold the boards in its own right, not just as a historical curiosity with good songs. It is, in every sense of the word, a masterpiece. Hammerstein was always at his best adapting the work of others, and his dramatization of Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel was a marvel of concision. The score was an integrated whole, arising out of the dramatic situation. Yet it produced no fewer than six songs that became standards.

In one of these songs, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” Hammerstein for the first time expressed what would become a constant theme in his later work: the idea that human love is an elemental force in human nature, quite beyond the control of those who experience it. “Tell me he’s lazy, tell me he’s slow./Tell me I’m crazy (maybe I know)—/Can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine.”

Doubtless this expressed a long-held belief. Doubtless also, it reflected his recent encounter “across a crowded room” with Dorothy Blanchard, who was to be his second wife and the love of his life. Twenty years later, when his lyrics were published in book form, he dedicated the volume, simply, “To Dorothy, the song is you.”

But as the twenties gave way to the thirties, and boom to depression, Hammerstein’s style of musical—romantic, concerned with character and the nature of love—went out of style. Instead shows featuring the lives of the rich and set in penthouses and ocean liners—the Broadway-musical version of Hollywood screwball comedies—came into vogue.

Although Hammerstein and Kern’s Music in the Air was the big hit of the dismal 1932 season, it would be Hammerstein’s last success for eleven long years. His only hits thereafter were occasional individual songs such as “All the Things You Are” and “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”

This last song was most atypical of Hammerstein. For one thing, it was one of the very few he ever wrote not intended for a particular play or movie. (It was later interpolated into the movie Lady Be Good and won the Academy Award for best song in 1941.) He had written the lyric only because he was so saddened by the fall of Paris, a city he deeply loved, to the Nazis in the early summer of 1940. Jerome Kern then set it to music.

Further, it showed a side of Hammerstein that was not often revealed in his work. For if he was not a particularly urban man, he was a thoroughly urbane and sophisticated one and was quite as much at home in Paris as at his beloved Pennsylvania farm. Even there, as his potégé Stephen Sondheim explained, if the cattle were often standing like statues, they did so right beyond the tennis court.

Despite the success of “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” when Rodgers called him in the summer of 1941, the wisdom on that hard-nosed thoroughfare they both knew so well had it that Hammerstein’s Broadway career was washed up.

Hammerstein’s response to Rodgers’s plea for advice was typical of the man. He told Rodgers that he should keep working with Hart for as long as possible. He thought that for Rodgers to walk away from his partner now would kill him. But he told Rodgers that if the time came when Hart was unable to finish a job, he should let him know and he would finish it for him, with no one but the two of them the wiser.

After Rodgers and Hart completed By Jupiter (Rodgers got Hart to check into a hospital until the score was completed), Rodgers, as always, immediately looked for another project.

The Theatre Guild, in 1931, had produced a play by Lynn Riggs called Green Grow the Lilacs . It had been a flop then, but Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner, who ran the Guild, thought it had possibilities as a musical. Rodgers immediately saw the potential; Hart was less enthusiastic.

To be sure, Hart had reasons beyond a desire to just drink. Rodgers and Hart had never written a musical with a Western setting. Most of their shows had been set either in semimythical places, like ancient Greece, or in great cities. Indeed, the most Western song they had ever written was probably “Way Out West on West End Avenue,” from Babes in Arms .

By pure coincidence, Hammerstein also had sensed the musical in Green Grow the Lilacs , in early 1942. He went to California and tried to interest Jerome Kern, then living in Beverly Hills, but Kern just didn’t see it. Returning East, Hammerstein nonetheless asked the Theatre Guild for the rights. He was told that Rodgers and Hart had already been given them, but that they needed someone to write the book. Hammerstein jumped at it.

On July 23, 1943, there appeared a notice in The New York Times that the trio would begin work shortly, Rodgers on music, Hart on lyrics, and Hammerstein on the book.

But the more Hart thought about it, the less he wanted anything to do with it. He wanted to go off to Mexico. He didn’t want to think about doing another show. And he certainly didn’t want to make a musical of Green Grow the Lilacs .

Rodgers, perhaps sensing with the instincts of genius a golden opportunity, was determined. He warned Hart that the show meant a lot to him. If Hart refused, he said, he would have to look for another collaborator to write the lyrics.

“Anyone in mind?” Hart asked.

“Yes, Oscar Hammerstein.”

“Well,” said Hart, who had destroyed only himself, not the feel for theater that made him great, “you couldn’t pick a better man.” Rodgers and Hart had become Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein had become Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Hammerstein was as different from Hart as two great lyricists could possibly be. Hart’s lyrics were intricate, witty, bittersweet. His talent for rhyming was surpassed by no one and equaled, perhaps, only by W. S. Gilbert and, later, Stephen Sondheim. Hammerstein’s lyrics were carefully wrought and deceptively simple, more concerned with character than with being clever. Hammerstein could never have written the words to “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” or “Glad to Be Unhappy.” But equally Hart could never have written “Ol’ Man River” or “If I Loved You.”

They changed the rules by writing the lyrics before the tunes and ignoring old conventions about stage action.

There were great personal differences as well. Hammerstein was large, over six foot two. He was at peace with himself. He rose early and drank little. He was a careful and very hard worker. The methodical Rodgers, after years of having to pry his lyricist out of gin mills and steam rooms to get a song written, found Hammerstein’s work habits a great relief, and the two hit it off as collaborators from the start.

As they set to work on turning Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical, they made two decisions almost immediately that had a deep impact on Oklahoma! The first was that Hammerstein would write the lyrics and Rodgers would then set them to music.

Hart had always needed a tune to provoke the lyrics out of him. Indeed, writing the music first had long been the usual, and peculiar, Broadway custom. It stemmed, perhaps, from the fact that many early Broadway composers had been European, with limited command of English and its stress patterns.

By reversing the procedure, Hammerstein had a much freer hand to find the exact right words for the character and the situation. The effect of this way of writing songs on Rodgers’s music was marked, and the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein would sound very different from that of Rodgers and Hart, while still always sounding ineluctably of Richard Rodgers.

The second decision was to let the dramatic situation, not Broadway musical conventions, dictate what happened onstage. For instance, convention said that it was important to get the chorus line on view as soon as possible, preferably for the opening number. But it would be nearly forty minutes before the chorus of Oklahoma! appeared onstage. (This, of course, was the origin of Mike Todd’s “no legs” complaint.)

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.”)

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.”

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.

The 10 Greatest Musicals

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