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The original poster for the New York Production of OKLAHOMA!

Oklahoma was the first collaborative project between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II based on Lynn Riggs' 1931 play,Green Grow the Lilacs, for the Theatre Guild. A short announcement in The New York Times advertised a collaboration between The Theatre Guild with Oscar Hammerstein II writing the external image arrow-10x10.png, and a musical score written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

Unfortunately, when the announcement was made, the Theatre Guild was on the brink of bankruptcy and Lorenz Hart was becoming increasingly unreliable because of his growing alcoholism and because he did not want to work on the project. He felt that the "playwas corny, that it wasn't their style, and that it wouldn't be any good" (Nolan, 2). After Hart said no to the project, Rodgers reached out to Hammerstein, not just as his collaborator on this project, but permanently, therefore ending a 25 year partnership with Hart.

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When Rodgers and Hammerstein first sat down to discuss the project, they discovered that they had similar writing styles that resulted in a wonderful chemistry between them. Up until this point, both men had to adapt their writing styles of those of their partners, but together, they were allowed to write the way they wanted. For Hammerstein, Lilacs gave him an opportunity to really explore what he was really interested in bringing to the stage. Instead of the traditional fluff that had been seen on stage up until this point, Hammerstein wanted to bring a seriousness to the stage, something with purpose. He had come close to this goal with Jerome Kern when they wrote Show Boat, but he wanted to continue on towards that goal and Lilacs gave him the perfect foundation.

Rodgers and Hammerstein decided that their new show would dictate what technique they used, instead of vice versa. They also decided that the task of integrating music and text should the most important and that the lyrics would decide the form of the song. In order to write the lyrics, Hammerstein went back to Lynn Riggs' stage directions:

"It is a radiant summer morning several years ago, the kind of morning which , enveloping the shapes of 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 visible golden emanation that is partly true and partly a trick of the imagination focussing to keep alive a loveliness that may pass away" (Riggs, 3).

These stage directions became the base of the opening and title song of the show, "Oklahoma!", for which, supposedly, Rodgers wrote the melody to in 10 minutes. From that point on, Hammerstein was to use a majority of the dialogue from Riggs' play in his own lyrics. A scene where Curly tells Laurie about his brand new Surrey is transposed almost word for word into "A Surrey With a Fringe on the Top". However, there were many changes between the original and the musical, especially in terms of characters.
From that moment, the lyrics and music melded into one. However, Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Theatre Guild were facing bigger obstacles in terms of funding.

The Theatre Guild was broke. In order to fund the show, the production team had to find an appropriate name for the show, the backers, and a cast that will create a draw. The list of names for the show ranged from Oklahoma to Cherokee Strip to Away We Go! Oklahoma was turned down because there was a fear that the backers would believe that "show was about 'Okies' in the Depression. Cherokee Strip was likewise abandoned for fear people would think it was a burlesque show. So, although no one really liked it (most of the participants preferred to call it Green Grow), the safe Away We Go! - borrowed from square dance lingo - became the working Gclub title" (Nolan, 13).

Despite a large number of financial issues and trouble with backers, casting started in 1942 with Rodgers and Hammerstein's insistence that the actors be cast based on their talents versus their name. The creative team included Rouben Mamoulian as the director and Agnes de Mille as choreographer, along with Rodgers and Hammerstein. The rehearsal process was riddled with temper tantrums from both Mamoulian and de Mille who each wanted their visions realized for the piece.

On March 11, 1943, Away We Go! had its first of three tryouts (previews) at the Shubert Theatre In New external image arrow-10x10.png, CT. The audience, which was made up of mostly theatre professionals, were full of criticisms: "the girls needed to come out sooner in Act 1, more comedy, drop "People Will Say We're in Love", or that the show was just plain bad (Nolan, 18). Heeding the unsolicited advice, Rodgers and Hammerstein rewrote the play, adding more comedy and action, in time for the second stage of tryouts at Boston's Colonial Theatre (Nolan, 20). An all cast finale was also added to the show for the last chorus of the song "Oklahoma!", a stroke of genius from Royal1688 director, Mamoulian and it worked. The show was rechristened Oklahoma!, but the new title would not make its debut until it opened in New York, for now, the title remained Away We Go! (Nolan, 21). The Boston critics were a lot happier with the result than the Connecticut critics. The show was still too long, but the dancing, music, and lyrics were perfect.

The show with its new title, Oklahoma!, opened at New York's St. James Theatre on March 31, 1943. On an uncluttered stage, a woman sat churning her butter, while one single male voice offstage sang of the landscape. The New York audience was hooked as the creative team stood in the back, amazed at the audience response. Their success was cemented by the newspapers that were released:

"The most thoroughly attractive American musical since Show Boat" - Burns Mantle, the Daily News
"Wonderful is the nearest adjective" - Lewis Nichols, The New York Times
(Nolan, 23)

The New York production ran for five years and nine weeks, 2,212 performances. This was an astonishing number for any show at that time during World War II and would not be surpassed for another 15 years! Two days after the show closed in New York, it went on the road, playing 70 cities. The National Company, which was founded in 1973, played for another 10 years, while other companies went to Germany, South Africa, Denmark (Nolan, 24).

Ever since then, Oklahoma! has become of the most popular musicals of all time, with over 600 performances world wide. It was, and is, quite an achievement.

- YL

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