In preparation of the production of Oklahoma!, our Dramaturg, Skylar Westberg, thoroughly researched the not only history of the musical, but also the time period in which the story takes place. Here, we provide you with insider access to her findings.
About the Play
It all started with a song.
“Green Grow the Lilacs” was a common folk song sung by Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century. There are many versions of the songs, but most commonly they all begin:
Green grow the lilacs, all sparkling with dew
I’m lonely, my darling, since parting with you;
But by our next meeting I’ll hope to prove true
And change the green lilacs to the Red, White and Blue.
I once had a sweetheart, but now I have none
She’s gone and she’s left me, I care not for one
Since she’s gone and left me, contented I’ll be,
For she loves another one better than me
This song proved the inspiration for and was featured in Lynn Riggs’ play of the same name, which premiered on Broadway in 1930, produced the the Theatre Guild. The play featured three other songs by Tex Ritter who played the role of Cord Elam, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Thirteen years later, the Theatre Guild commissioned famous songwriting duo Rodgers and Hart to adapt it into a musical. Due to Hart’s failing health, Rodgers was forced to find a new partner, and thus the famous pairing of Rodgers and Hammerstein was born.
The pair agreed that they would not bend to genre conventions and just stick songs into a plot, but instead would write songs that arose out of and furthered the plot, thus ushering in the age of the “book musical”. The writing pair changed very little about the plot; the only difference between the play and the musical is the circumstances of Jud’s death. In Green Grow the Lilacs, Jud lights a stack of hay on fire in an attempt to kill Curly and Laurey, and ends up falling on his own knife. Due to staging conventions, the musical is staged so that Jud Fry and Curly struggle in hand-to-hand combat which culminates in Jud’s death.
In 1955, the stage musical was adapted into a film. It was shot primarily in Nogales, Arizona, and was filmed with a new widescreen process called the Todd-AO. Because some movie theatres were not compatible with the new technology, the film version of Oklahoma! was actually filmed with two cameras; the new Todd-AO and CinemaScope. The film adaptation is true to the original staged version, with only a few small changes in location, except for the ending. Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to give an homage to Green Grow the Lilacs and change the circumstances of Jud’s death back to what it had originally been in the play.
- Premiered March 31st, 1943 at the St. James Theatre
- Commissioned by the Theatre Guild
- Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
- Choreography by Agnes de Mille
- Cast: Alfred Drake (Curly), Joan Roberts (Laurey), Celeste Holm (Ado Annie), Howard Da Silva (Jud)
- Ran for 2,212 performances (closed 1948)
- The first Tony Awards was in 1947, so Oklahoma!’s premiere was not eligible
Original West End
- Premiered April 30th, 1947 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
- Used original de Mille choreography
- Cast: Howard Keel (Curly), Betty Jane Watson (Laurey)
- Ran for 1,543 performances
- Choreography by Agnes de Mille
- Directed by Fred Zinnemann
- First feature film photography in Todd-AO 70 mm widescreen
- Rodgers and Hammerstein personally oversaw the film
- Many nods to Lilacs; Jud’s death is true to the play rather than the musical, etc.
1951, the Broadway Theatre
- Revived by the Theatre Guild
- Cast: Ridge Bond (Curly), Patricia Northrop (Laurey), Henry Clarke (Jud)
Mamoulian and de Mille returned
1953, New York City Center Theatre
- 10th anniversary
- Cast: Florence Henderson (Laurey), Ridge Bond (Curly)
- Mamoulian and de Mille returned
1979, Palace Theatre (London)
- Directed by William Hammerstein (Oscar’s son)
- Choreography by Gemze de Lappe (in the spirit of de Mille)
- Nominated for two Tony Awards and a Drama Desk Award
1998, Olivier Theatre (London)
- Directed by Trevor Nunn
- Choreography by Susan Stroman (new choreography)
- Cast: Hugh Jackman (Curly), Josefina Gabrielle (Laurey), Shuler Hensley (Jud)
- Hensley won an Olivier Award
- Filmed, shown on Public TV in 2003
2002, Gershwin Theatre
- Repeated 1998 London production on Broadway
- Cast: Patrick Wilson (Curly)
- Nominated for seven Tony Awards
- Hensley won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical
Rodgers & Hammerstein
- June 28th, 1902 – December 30th, 1979
- German Jewish family in Queens, New York
- attended Columbia University, then transferred to the Institute of Music and Arts (now Juilliard)
- married Dorothy Belle Feiner in 1930worked with Lorenz Hart (the team’s breakout song was “Manhattan”) until Hart’s death in 1943
- daughter Mary Rodgers composed Once Upon a Mattress
- grandson Adam Guettel composed The Light in the Piazza, won two Tony Awards
- composed 43 Broadway musicals
- first to win the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony)
- one of two people to win EGOT and a Pulitzer Prize (Marvin Hamlisch is the other)
Oscar Hammerstein II
- July 12th, 1895 – August 23rd, 1962
- Jewish father, Scottish and English mother in New York City
- father produced vaudeville shows, would not let Hammerstein participate in the arts
- quit law school at Columbia to pursue theatre after his father’s death
- worked with many great composers, but met his greatest success in his early career with Jerome Kern and Show Boat
- close family friend and influence on Stephen Sondheim
- co-wrote 850 songs
- won 8 Tony Awards
- on the day of his death, the lights in Times Square were turned off for one minute
Agnes de Mille
- September 18, 1905 – October 7, 1993
- originally wanted to be an actress, but was told she “wasn’t pretty enough”; her love of acting influenced her choreography
- opportunities were limited as a child due to lack of flexibility and technique; instead, she was self-taught
- worked for the American Ballet Theatre in 1939 when it had first opened
- first significant work was Rodeo (1942) by Aaron Copland
- her choreography for the staged version of Oklahoma! was so successful that she was brought on to choreograph the 1955 film
Below is a video of the original 1979 choreography.
The World of the Play
- Initial land run into the Unassigned Lands: “[…] the number of settlers exceeded the requirements for creating a territorial government, but the area’s citizens waited for a year before the U.S. Congress took action. In the meantime, settlers quarreled over contested claims[…]” 
- Cherokee Commission: allowed immigrants to legally acquire land occupied by Cherokees and other tribes.
- Organic Act for the Territory of Oklahoma: provided framework of laws. Divided the Unassigned Lands into six counties, with No Man’s Land (the Panhandle) becoming the unofficial seventh territory.
- Population aligned with Democratic Party in order to control territorial legislature in the congressional delegate’s seat.
- War against Spain: hundreds of young men volunteered to be a part of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Rider regiment.
- Free Homes Act: Dennis T. Flynn passed legislation dissolving debt for hundreds of settlers in the territory.
- Theodore Roosevelt stepped in to dismiss several members of the Republican party in Oklahoma, namely Governor Jenkins, due to a conflict of interest — many party members held shares in the mental sanatorium.
- Act passed instituting segregation at public high schools.
- Oklahoma Enabling Act: local government wrote a constitution
- National American Woman Suffrage Association lobbied for women’s suffrage; Oklahoma Constitutional Convention delegates voted against women’s suffrage, thus classifying women with illiterates, felons, insane persons, and others denied the right to vote
- Became a state on November 16th, 1907
- Oklahoma! takes place
Works Cited:  Oklahoma Historical Society. “Oklahoma Territory.” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society, n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2013.
Click for full-size image.