75 Years Old, Oklahoma! is still a Beautiful Mornin’
Can it be true? Is Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first masterpiece, Oklahoma!, really approaching its 75th anniversary? The answer is Yes, and on October 14 and 15, TMTP will mark the occasion with a special concert celebrating a true milestone in musical theater.
In our concert “The Impact of Oklahoma!,” we’ll perform all of the songs from the treasured score and share the fascinating story of the musical’s creation in 1942-43. Bill Rudman and Nancy Maier co-host, with Joe Monaghan singing the role of Curly, Lindsey Sandham Leonard singing Laurey, Shane Patrick O’Neill singing Will Parker, Ursula Cataan singing Ado Annie and Fabio Polanco singing Jud.
In July, Bill talked with Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, about a musical that is still produced somewhere in the world every day.
BR: Ted, you and I have been friends ever since you took the reins at R&H back in 1981, and for many years I’ve been curious: How many productions of this show do you think you’ve seen?
TC: Oh, at least 30. And not just in New York and London, but a European tour and shows all over this country including, as you might expect, a production in Oklahoma.
BR: I assume that TMTP is by no means the only company exploring it these days.
TC: No, everyone wants to come to the birthday party. Right now there are new productions at Goodspeed Musicals! in Connecticut, and at the renowned Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York. And as we get closer to the actual Broadway opening—March 31, 1943—there will be a bright golden haze on lots more meadows.
BR: Can I put you on the spot? Do you have a favorite production?
TC: I do. In 1998, when Trevor Nunn’s production, starring Hugh Jackman, opened in London.
BR: That surprises me, because Nunn is a Brit. Here we have one of the quintessential “Americana” musicals.
TC: Yes, and I remember that when he came in to seek the rights from me, he quoted Aunt Eller: “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be damned if I ain’t just as good.” And he was. What Trevor did so well was tell a story that’s universal. He dove into the text, knowing that although this is a fun piece, it’s not a frivolous one.
BR: It’s kind of incredible that with this, their very first show—their first collaboration—R&H created the longest-running musical up to that time.
TC: For one thing, they tapped into our country’s psyche during World War II. We were just 16 months into the war when Oklahoma! opened, and the show made a deep impression on Americans, reminding us of what we were fighting to protect. But there’s also a freshness about this piece that remains extraordinary. Laurey and Curly are youthful, yes—but the whole show has that quality. It’s as though the two still-young authors were holding hands, hesitating, deciding whether or not to go out on the dance floor. As we know, they danced together for the next 16 years.
BR: Do you have any favorite moments from this musical?
TC: The song “All Er Nuthin’ ” always delights me. And of course, “Surrey,” which is such a wonderful song to act because it’s about so much more than a horse and buggy. And the scene in the smokehouse, which seems to come out of nowhere, thrillingly ratchets up the character of Curly as he confronts Jud.
BR: How do you like the 1955 film version?
TC: It ages well. It’s a bit stagey, but it’s interestingly directed by Fred Zinnemann, and Shirley Jones and Gordon McRae are perfectly fine.
BR: Whenever we talk, I feel I know Richard Rodgers because you knew his daughter Mary so well.
TC: She had some great stories about seeing the original production when she was 12. The morning after Oklahoma! opened, she asked her mother, “Who’s more famous? Irving Berlin or Daddy?” Mother Dorothy replied: “Before last night, Mr. Berlin. Now
it’s your father.” Mary was a superb critic. When she saw Molly Smith’s production with me at Arena Stage, she marveled at how good Hammerstein’s script is. And she was totally connected to her father’s music: At Trevor Nunn’s production, she identified an errant note in the title song—a D-flat instead of a D—which I can assure you was corrected the next day!
BR: Why should we be interested in this musical 75 years later?
TC: Because the characters are examined as carefully as they would be in a play; there are timeless principles of craftsmanship in this work. And because these characters are going through things we all go through. It’s about two young people growing up and finding their way to each other—taking the next step in life.