About this Recording
8.120787 - RODGERS: Oklahoma! (Original Broadway Cast) (1943)

Music by Richard Rodgers • Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Original Broadway Cast and Bonus Recordings, 1943-1944

Sometime after 11:00 pm on 11 March 1943, the curtain fell at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre on the world première of a new musical entitled Away We Go!

One of the first people up the aisle was Rose Bigman, personal secretary to Broadway’s most feared columnist,Walter Winchell. She wasted no time in sending a telegram to her boss telling him what she thought of the show:

‘No legs, no jokes, no chance’,was her nowlegendary message.

Some sources attribute the remark to producer Mike Todd, but that isn’t as likely, because he was spotted leaving during the show so he could catch an early train back to New York.

The once-mighty Theatre Guild was in a panic, since this project was all that was standing between them and bankruptcy. In fact, they had to chase frantically after investors for the $100,000 necessary to get this musical onto the stage.

It looked like their efforts had been in vain, because the Gotham ‘wrecking crew’ who had come up to the opening either joined Todd in his early departure, or let the Guild know this latest piece was ‘weak…dull…unappealing’.

But the next day, the newspaper critics were optimistic, if guarded, and the box office, which had been empty, started doing brisk business.

Audiences liked this show. It opened the following week in Boston to even better reviews and the creative team kept honing and working down to the wire.

Then on 31 March, the day it was set to open on Broadway, a freak early spring snowstorm hit the city and that, coupled with the low-key feeling about the show in the theatre community,was responsible for a première performance filled with empty seats.

But that would be the last time there were any empty seats for the next five years. The next morning’s reviews were almost universally ecstatic and by noon, the box office was under siege.

Oh yes, between Boston and New York, they had changed the name of their troubled tuner. It was now called Oklahoma!

Considering the fact that the show is regarded today as one of the greatest and most influential musicals of all time, you may find it hard to imagine how everyone could have been so wrong about it until you look at these facts.

Composer Richard Rodgers had just been obliged to end a successful twenty-year partnership with Lorenz Hart due to the latter’s alcoholism. No one knew if Rodgers would be as good with another partner, especially not the one he had chosen.

Oscar Hammerstein II had once been a great lyricist/librettist with hits like Show Boat to his credit, but his work in the past decade had consisted of nothing but flops and he was generally perceived as yesterday’s man.

The same thing with director Rouben Mamoulian. He had once electrified Broadway with his stagings of the original play Porgy and its operatic sequel, Porgy and Bess, but he hadn’t done a legit show in eight years and his once-soaring film career was in freefall.

Ballet-trained Agnes DeMille had been fired as choreographer from her first two musicals, leading man Alfred Drake’s career had stalled since he did Babes In Arms for Rodgers and Hart, and high-powered Mary Martin had turned down the female lead to appear in a show called Dancing In The Streets (which would later close in Boston).

The final nail in the coffin was that the whole project was based on a folksy cowboy play called Green Grow The Lilacs, which had only run for two months back in 1931.

Of course it would be a disaster, right? Well, no one could have counted on two things. The first was that the partnership between Rodgers and Hammerstein turned out to be pure magic.

The work that Rodgers had done with Hart was jazzy and sophisticated. He always wrote his music first and Hart set his clever lyrics into the existing template like some sort of verbal mosaic.

But Hammerstein liked to create the lyrics first and he laboured over them for weeks at a time. He worried about what a character was feeling, what the dynamics of a scene needed, not what would make a snappy opening number for Act II.

His simple poetic images brought out a new Rodgers, with long, flowing melodic lines and rich foursquare harmonies. It was a collaboration that might have fallen on deaf ears in the Roaring Twenties or the Dirty Thirties, but as America struggled to get through the Second World War, it was just what was needed.

That’s the second major factor: timing. The kind of simple, homespun affirmation that Oklahoma! offered was balm to the soul of a nation mired in a war they were starting to wonder if they could ever win.

The cynical Broadway crowd, obsessed with nothing more than their own narrow kingdom, couldn’t see that and felt the show was oldfashioned. But sometimes, especially in the world of the musical, everything old is new again.

Another novelty that Oklahoma! was on the cutting edge of was the original cast recording. Decca had actually launched this revolution with their selections from Porgy and Bess and This Is The Army. But then the famous ‘Petrillo Ban’ took place, in which the American Federation Of Musicians went on strike to protest the uncompensated use of their work on recordings.

Decca was so eager to get a recording of Oklahoma! into the studios while it was still hot, that it became the first to sign an agreement with the union in September of 1943. The album was recorded a month later.

It was released as a series of six 78 discs and included most of the major songs of the show, carefully trimmed to suit the roughly three minutes that a side could accommodate in those days.

Even in this somewhat strait-laced format, you can hear the fresh, young charm that captivated the world. Drake once described Oh, What A Beautiful Morning as ‘the closest thing to lieder ever written by an American’, and he sings it that way, with rich, pure tones.

Joan Roberts’ clear, bright voice soars effortlessly in numbers like Out of My Dreams, Celeste Holm remains the most humorously innocent of all Ado Annies and Lee Dixon has such easy charm that one can comprehend why the cast chose to cope with his problem drinking – as well as the onion sandwiches he ate to mask the liquor on his breath.

Demand for the original recording of Oklahoma! was so great that in May of 1944 Decca decided to press another two discs with the remaining songs. An interesting note from this release is that Howard DaSilva didn’t record his big solo as Jud, Lonely Room, but leading man Drake sang it instead. As the rest of the songs on this second recording were comedy numbers featuring non-singers like Joseph Buloff and Ralph Riggs, it may have been felt that Drake’s voice would provide a welcome change.

Decca also capitalized further on Oklahoma! mania by recording Robert Russell Bennett’s Symphonic Suite on themes from the show in August of the same year.

By December of 1944, RCA Victor had finally settled with the Musicians’ Union as well, and one of their first recordings was – you guessed it! – Oklahoma!

They turned to a cast from the Metropolitan Opera for this version, featuring tenor James Melton, who had appeared in several 1930s movie musicals like Stars Over Broadway before concentrating exclusively on his classical work.

West Virginia-born soprano Eleanor Steber was thirty when this recording was made and about to enter what many consider her ‘golden years’ as the Met’s leading lady. And baritone John Charles Thomas began his career on Broadway, appearing in numerous musical comedies and operettas with titles like Apple Blossoms before finally moving to the Met in 1934.

Although no one could have guessed it when Away We Go! opened so tentatively in New Haven that March night in 1943, within the year – once it became Oklahoma! – it would trigger a whole new fashion in recording show tunes: from the Original Cast recording, through the Symphonic Version, right through a series of operatic covers.

Many A New Day, indeed.

– Richard Ouzounian

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