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Oklahoma! premiered on Broadway in 1943 under the auspices of the Theatre Guild, and today it is performed more frequently than any other Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. In this book Tim Carter offers the first fully documented history of the making of this celebrated American musical.
Drawing on research from rare theater archives, manuscripts, journalism, and other sources, Carter records every step in the development of Oklahoma! The book is filled with rich and fascinating details about how Rodgers and Hammerstein first came together, the casting process, how Agnes de Mille became the show’s choreographer, and the drafts and revisions that ultimately gave the musical its final shape. Carter also shows the lofty aspirations of both the creators and producers and the mythmaking that surrounded Oklahoma! from its very inception, and demonstrates just what made it part of its times.
— Diana Calderazzo
— Pamella R. Lach
— Elizabeth A. Wells
Sixty-four years ago, Oklahoma!, by songwriting duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, premiered on Broadway. Carter (music, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Monteverdi's Musical Theatre) has written what must surely be the last word on this iconic musical (pending the discovery of material in a warehoused trunk somewhere in New Jersey). He charts the work's beginnings from its source, Lynn Riggs's 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, through to the eventual 1955 movie version. (This story was retold most recently in the various editions of Max Wilk's Ok! The Story of Oklahoma!.) He also tracks the attachment of the "myth" label to many of the show's aspects (e.g., fresh cast, incorporation of dance), which will be of use to future directors and producers; meticulously analyzes Rodgers's music; and concludes with a close reading of the libretto. Carter's notes and bibliography attest to the time he must have spent in the Rodgers/Hammerstein and Theatre Guild collections of Yale, the Library of Congress, and the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. This is not a book for the casual fan, but it will give depth to the serious student's appreciation of everything that came to make up Oklahoma!
WHY WRITE A BOOK ON OKLAHOMA!? -BECAUSE IT IS A landmark in the Broadway musical, because it is a glorious show, and because it raises important issues about the genre, the theater, and its times. Why write a scholarly book on Oklahoma!?-because it has never been done, and because musicals are no less worthy of serious treatment than any other art form. The question for the moment, however, is where a history of Oklahoma! might best begin.
The Theatre Guild
The formation of the Theatre Guild from the Washington Square Players in 1919 marked a new direction in the New York theater immediately after World War I. Its chief founder, Lawrence Langner (1890-1962), soon formed a partnership with Theresa Helburn (1887-1959), who became the Guild's executive director. Their aim was to leaven what they perceived as the usual Broadway dross by offering professional performances of high-class plays in strong productions presented by a cohesive acting ensemble; the emphasis on the last, as distinct from box-office stars, had the double advantage of keeping costs down and professing artisticintegrity. Cash flow, brand identity, and venture capital were secured by offering a subscription series for each season (which in principle ran from Labor Day to Memorial Day), both in New York and on tour to the major East Coast and midwestern cities: the Guild promised its subscribers six productions per year. In seasons when subscription levels were high, any Guild play could be guaranteed at least a six-week run on its main stage-initially the Garrick Theatre but then, beginning in 1925, its own newly built theater at 252 West Fifty-second Street at Broadway-plus a decent tour. The Guild also used other Broadway theaters to continue longer runs of its offerings, often by arrangement with the Shuberts. Eventually, the system emerged of preceding a New York run with one or more out-of-town tryouts, normally in New Haven and/or Boston (and often in Shubert-associated theaters).
Lawrence Langner was a leading patent attorney and a playwright of some achievement, with performances on and off Broadway and in London in the 1920s and early 1930s. He was passionate about the stage: in addition to leading the Theatre Guild, he founded the Westport Country Playhouse and the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, both near his country home in Connecticut. He worked half-time and was often away on business, although he would take leave to oversee Guild matters when needed. The Guild's powerhouse, however, was Theresa (Terry) Helburn, in charge of the day-to-day running of the office, and also of devising and presenting creative strategies to the management board. She was educated at Bryn Mawr and Radcliffe (in George Pierce Baker's "47 Workshop"), and then by the almost obligatory trips to France, one a longer stay (1913-14) when she came to know the likes of Gertrude Stein and Isadora Duncan. On her return, Helburn continued to pursue what she later admitted were limited skills as a poet, writer of short stories, and playwright-the Washington Square Players did her Enter the Hero in 1917, and B. Iden Payne produced her Crops and Croppers (the title was later changed to Alison Makes Hay) the next year-moving in New York literary circles and acting as drama critic for the Nation. According to her autobiography (published posthumously in 1960), in 1919 the "two most important events in my life took place": she met her future husband, the English teacher John Baker Opdycke (known as Oliver), and she joined the administration of the Theatre Guild, which took over her professional life. Whatever her own literary abilities, she became renowned as a theatrical force, selecting plays, advising authors, auditioning cast members, and minding the Guild's artistic standards. She claimed in her autobiography that she had always harbored dreams of a new kind of theater, where drama, music, and ballet would work together to forward a plot. Everyone lauded her skills and vision. At her funeral, on 20 August 1959, Oscar Hammerstein 2nd said:
A producer is a rare, paradoxical genius ... hard-headed, soft-hearted, cautious, reckless. A hopeful innocent in fair weather, a stern pilot in stormy weather, a mathematician who prefers to ignore the laws of mathematics and trust intuition, an idealist, a realist, a practical dreamer, a sophisticated gambler, a stage-struck child. That's a producer. That was Theresa Helburn. ... She seemed never to be still, never to be letting you or anyone else alone. Always prodding like a very small shepherd dog, pushing you relentlessly to some pasture, which she had decided would be good for you.
By the mid-1920s the Guild had gained a reputation as the foremost repertory theater in New York, chiefly by way of inspired literary connections -it had the rights to American performances of George Bernard Shaw's plays-and of daring choices, such as Ferenc Molnár's Liliom (1921). To counter criticisms that they were focusing too much on European repertory at the expense of native theater, Helburn and Langner cultivated relationships with American playwrights, most notably Eugene O'Neill and, later, S. N. Behrman and Philip Barry; they also explored American themes, as with Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's Porgy (1927) and Lynn Riggs's Green Grow the Lilacs (1930-31). Langner himself also contemplated writing a play "to deal with the opening up of Oklahoma, especially the Cherokee Strip," no doubt influenced by the fact that his wife, Armina Marshall, whom he married in 1925 and who later became involved in the Guild administration, was half Cherokee and brought up on the Strip. Meanwhile, Porgy also had the distinction of bringing African-American actors to the Guild stage, a trend that Langner wished to continue with his proposed foundation of an American Negro Ballet in 1928. By the 1930s the Depression was taking its toll on audience figures, and the Guild was afflicted with personal rivalries. In 1931 Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg broke away to form the Group Theatre, seeking greater political radicalism, and in 1938 a group of American writers forsook the Guild's protection to start the Playwrights' Company. The Guild responded to the competition, and to the financial pressures that ensued, by basing artistic choices on more commercial considerations, and also by making a greater effort to recruit Broadway and Hollywood stars; both strategies may have been realistic, but they involved a repudiation of principles for which the Guild had stood for more than a decade. Nevertheless, the mid-1930s brought a series of disastrous production choices and a run of flops at the same time that the Guild was losing its best artists to Hollywood-or, in the case of the husband-and-wife pair Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, to other producers. (The Lunts joined Noël Coward in a management partnership.) The 1938-39 season promised to be a disaster, with the Guild in serious debt and only two plays to offer. Helburn and Langner sought to counter the decline by seizing greater control of the Guild from its board and running things themselves. They were also rescued by Philip Barry's offer of his new play The Philadelphia Story to fill out the season: with Katharine Hepburn in the lead, it became a smash hit. Helburn and Langner then inaugurated a revival series at reduced prices-presenting repeat productions of Guild classics-and attempted a more effective compromise between the needs to maintain high artistic standards and to secure enough box-office success to ensure financial stability. But matters remained so tenuous during the war period that the mood of the Guild staff in late 1942 and early 1943 was at a low ebb. All that was to change with Oklahoma! which far exceeded even The Philadelphia Story as the Guild's financial lifesaver.
The Guild had already displayed some interest in music and dance, encouraging sometimes quite extensive use of incidental music in plays, as in Liliom, Ibsen's Peer Gynt (1923; music by Grieg), Green Grow the Lilacs, Philip Barry's Liberty Jones (1941; Paul Bowles), and Sheridan's The Rivals (1942; Macklin Marrow). Langner had hoped to tempt Agnes de Mille with the choreography for his verse translation with Arthur Guiterman of Molière's L'Ecole des femmes as The School for Husbands in 1933 (music by Edmond W. Rickett), but she was in Europe and unavailable. The Guild also used Martha Graham to choreograph scenes to incidental music in its 1934 production of Maxwell Anderson's Valley Forge. It was probably for less "artistic" reasons that Langner and Helburn occasionally turned to the money-earning formula of the revue (new "editions" of which could be brought out in successive years) with the Garrick Gaieties chiefly by Rodgers and Hart: it first appeared in the 1924-25 season (performed by the Guild Studio), with revisions in 1925-26 and a new version (without Rodgers and Hart) in 1929-30. The Guild did another review, Parade, in 1935. Their most extensive musical production, however, was the reworking of Porgy as George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which opened at the Alvin Theatre in New York on 10 October 1935 after a tryout at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. The obvious precedent was Virgil Thomson's and Gertrude Stein's all-African-American musical, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934); perhaps surprisingly, only one cast member overlapped (Edward Matthews as St. Ignatius in Four Saints and Jake in Porgy and Bess), although Eva Jessye directed the chorus in both works. But Porgy and Bess was to be the first of a number of attempts by Helburn and Langner to revive plays staged by the Guild in a new musical format. That it was something of an experiment was clear from their apparent nervousness about crossing the boundaries between theater and opera: before the Boston tryout, there was a concert performance at Carnegie Hall before an invited audience. Porgy and Bess was well regarded by those in the know but was not a box-office success: it had only 124 performances before beginning a standard (for the Guild) tour of cities judged capable of accepting "high art"-Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Washington-that ended on 21 March 1936. However, it sparked significant critical interest, and in subsequent years Langner and Helburn recalled it with some pride. Even before Oklahoma! established itself on the New York stage, there were attempts to associate it with the cachet earned by Gershwin's "folk opera."
Helburn had not been involved in the premiere of Porgy and Bess-she was in California exploring a potential career in Hollywood with Columbia Pictures-although she became interested in the search for some kind of successor. Her first thoughts for an "operetta" concerned Molnár's Liliom, which the Guild had staged in 1921. In late 1936 or early 1937 Helburn started discussions with Kurt Weill about turning it into a musical. Weill, an exile from Nazi Germany, had recently arrived in the United States with a reputation for abrasive political theater gained from his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht on Mahagonny (1927, revised in 1930 as Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny [Rise and Fall of the Town of Mahagonny]) and Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera , after John Gay's The Beggar's Opera of 1728). He was also coming into demand after the succès d'estime of his antiwar musical play (with Paul Green) Johnny Johnson, which ran on Broadway from 19 November 1936 to 16 January 1937. Weill pursued the Liliom initiative enthusiastically in a series of letters written from Hollywood from February to May 1937. Even before his first letter, he had spent some time considering Helburn's proposal. After outlining various plans to work on Broadway, he continued:
But what interests me much more than all this, is your idea of doing Liliom as a musical show. The more I think about this idea, the more I feel that it would be absolutely ideal. I have now very definite ideas about it, I know what to do with the book, how to introduce songs, in what style I would write and what form I would give it. The record of Mahagonny which I sent you, will give you a little idea how I would conceive a musical version of Liliom: with all kinds of music, spoken scenes, an orchester [sic] of not more than 16 pieces, no chorus, good singing actors (or good acting singers).
I would like very much to know what you have found out about the rights and if you think that the Guild would be interested in this project. When we talked about it, you mentioned also the possibility of doing it in collaboration with another producer. And here I had an interesting experience. I met [Erik] Charell, he was very pleased with my successes on Broadway, and suddenly he said: "I know exactly what you should do next: Liliom. It could be a success like Dreigroschenoper and I would very much like to do it with you." He seemed terribly excited about it. What would you think of such a combination? But if you don't like it, I am sure there are many possibilities. Burgess Meredith for instance would be crazy to do it and he has a charming voice. Charell, by the way, thinks I should do it with Francis Lederer (which is not a bad idea).
I don't like to bother you, dear Terry, because I know how busy you are. On the other side I have to make up my mind within the next 4 weeks what I am going to do next and I feel very strong that here is a unique chance of a success. I would have plenty time out here to work on the book and I am sure I could find here the man who could write the lyrics.
I don't know anything about the rights, but if it is difficult for you, I could easily get in touch with Molnár directly.
Please let me know how you feel about the whole affair.
Weill further outlined his plans for "not an opera, but a play with songs and music, like 'Three Penny Opera"' (20 March 1937), and for the casting (he suggested Jimmy Cagney as Liliom) and for a collaborator (15 March): "The ideal situation would be to find a 'poet' or 'lyric writer' with a good sense of theatre, with whom together I could make the adaptation, for I know pretty well how the music should fit in and how the musical scenes should be rewritten." Lorenz Hart was also a possibility, he said, although Weill did not know how exclusive was his current relationship with Richard Rodgers. Helburn, in turn, was less than keen on Charell as a possible director and suggested instead Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed Porgy and Bess and other Guild plays. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Oklahoma! by Tim Carter Copyright © 2007 by Timothy Carter. Excerpted by permission.
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