Sat 10/14 @ 7PM
Sun 10/15 @3PM
March 31, 1943 is a key day in American theatrical history. It is the date that is often credited with introducing the world to the “book musical,” a form of theater in which songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-conceived story, a story that evokes emotions by incorporating themes and motifs that connect all parts of the production.
That March day, Oklahoma!, the first musical written by composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, opened and set the theatrical world on its proverbial head.
Taking Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, which is set in the Oklahoma Territory before the birth of the state to be known as Oklahoma, it looks at a small Okie town in 1906. It showcases the plight of the territory to become part of the USA and the love stories between Curly McLain and Laurey Williams and that of Will Parker and Ado Annie. Pathos and humor abound.
Oklahoma! was the first true book musical. Showboat and Porgy and Bess had story lines, but all the parts, the music, book and dance, were not well integrated. Songs and dances could be dropped or added and the story would continue. Of Thee I Sing (1932) won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the first “musical” to do so, but, again, all the pieces-parts were not tightly woven together.
Oklahoma! set the structure that was followed by most productions during the Golden Age of the American Musical (1943-1959): a story into which dance and music are melded, an overture, a first act that ended with a conflict that would be solved in the second act, and a rousing production finale. Gone were the days of the totally escapist, plotless reviews, spectacles and vaudeville. Now, and forever more, the story holds sway.
The musical, with captivating choreography by Agnes De Mille, ran for a then record 2,212 performances. Numerous revivals and national tours followed and it became an Academy Award-winning film (1955).
The show also highlighted some Rodgers and Hammerstein patterns which are found in their future collaborations. Almost all of their musicals are about community, the formation and/or sustaining of a community. Many of their songs have an Eastern European cantorial musical sound which is highlighted by “exaggerated abrupt shifts of key, tempo, and style — that dramatize the progression from sorrow to joy and vice versa, as well as small melodic ‘cells’ that are combined like building blocks to create tunes.”
R & H plots often have two levels of relationship (e.g., Curly and Laurey/Will Parker and Ado Annie in Oklahoma, Billy and Julie/Mr. Snow and Carrie in Carousel, Nellie and Emile/Lt. Cable and Liat in South Pacific). There is always a song which carries the duo’s social message (e.g., “The Farmer and the Cowman” — Oklahoma!, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — Carousel and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”— South Pacific.
Ready to hear more about Rodgers and Hammerstein III and hear their songs? On Sat 10/14 @ 7pm, The Musical Theater Project will present Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ The Impact of Oklahoma!, at Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center. (for tickets call 440-366-4004 or go on line to stockerartscenter.com). The program will be repeated on Sun 10/15 @ 3pm in the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square (tickets: 216-241-6000 or playhousesquare.org)
The program will be hosted by Bill Rudman and Nancy Maier and will feature Ursula Cataan, Lindsey Sandham Leonard, Joe Monaghan, Shane Patrick O’Neill and Fabio Polanco. For information about the Musical Theater Project go to musicaltheaterproject.org/.