By the early 1940s, Rodgers and Hammerstein were each well known for creating Broadway hits with other collaborators. Rodgers, with Lorenz Hart, had produced over two dozen musicals since the 1920s, including such popular successes as Babes in Arms (1937), The Boys from Syracuse (1938) and Pal Joey (1940). Among other successes, Hammerstein had written the words for Rose-Marie (1924), The Desert Song (1926), The New Moon (1927) and Show Boat (1927). Though less productive in the 1930s, he wrote musicals, songs and films, sharing an Academy Award for his song with Jerome Kern, "The Last Time I Saw Paris", which was included in the 1941 film Lady Be Good. By the early 1940s, Hart had sunk into alcoholism and emotional turmoil, and he became unreliable, prompting Rodgers to approach Hammerstein to ask if he would consider working with him.
In 1931, the Theatre Guild produced Lynn Riggs's Green Grow the Lilacs, a play about settlers in Oklahoma's Indian Territory. Though the play was not successful, ten years later in 1941, Theresa Helburn, one of the Guild's producers, saw a summer-stock production supplemented with traditional folk songs and square dances and decided the play could be the basis of a musical that might revive the struggling Guild. She contacted Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, whose first successful collaboration, The Garrick Gaieties, had been produced by the Theatre Guild in 1925. Rodgers wanted to work on the project and obtained the rights for himself and Hart. Rodgers had asked Oscar Hammerstein II to collaborate with him and Hart. During the tryouts of Rodgers and Hart's Best Foot Forward in 1941, Hammerstein had assured Rodgers that if Hart was ever unable to work, he would be willing to take his place. Coincidentally in 1942, Hammerstein had thought of musicalizing Green Grow the Lilacs, but when he had approached Jerome Kern about it, the latter declined. Hammerstein found out that Rodgers was seeking someone to write the book, and he eagerly took the opportunity. Hart lost interest in the musical; he preferred contemporary, urbane shows that would showcase his witty lyric-writing, and he found the farmers and cowhands in Green Grow the Lilacs corny and uninspiring. Moreover, spiraling downward, consumed by his longstanding alcoholism, Hart no longer felt like writing. He embarked on a vacation to Mexico, advising Rodgers that Hammerstein would be a good choice of a new collaborator.
This partnership allowed both Rodgers and Hammerstein to follow their preferred writing methods: Hammerstein preferred to write a complete lyric before it was set to music, and Rodgers preferred to set completed lyrics to music. In Rodgers's previous collaborations with Hart, Rodgers had always written the music first, since the unfocused Hart needed something on which to base his lyrics. Hammerstein's previous collaborators included composers Rudolf Friml, Herbert Stothart, Vincent Youmans, and Kern, who all wrote music first, for which Hammerstein then wrote lyrics. The role reversal in the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership permitted Hammerstein to craft the lyrics into a fundamental part of the story so that the songs could amplify and intensify the story instead of diverting it. As Rodgers and Hammerstein began developing the new musical, they agreed that their musical and dramatic choices would be dictated by the source material, Green Grow the Lilacs, not by musical comedy conventions. Musicals of that era featured big production numbers, novelty acts, and show-stopping specialty dances; the libretti typically focused on humor, with little dramatic development, punctuated with songs that effectively halted the story for their duration.
Between the world wars, roles in musicals were usually filled by actors who could sing, but Rodgers and Hammerstein chose the reverse, casting singers who could act. Though Theresa Helburn, codirector of the Theatre Guild, suggested Shirley Temple as Laurey and Groucho Marx as Ali Hakim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, with director Rouben Mammoulian's support, insisted that performers more dramatically appropriate for the roles be cast. As a result of this decision, there were no stars in the production, another unusual step. The production was choreographed by Agnes de Mille (her first time choreographing a musical on Broadway), who provided one of the show's most notable and enduring features: a 15-minute first-act ballet finale (often referred to as the dream ballet) depicting Laurey's struggle to evaluate her suitors, Jud and Curly.
The first title given to the work was Away We Go! which opened for out-of-town-tryouts in New Haven's Shubert Theatre on March 11, 1943. Expectations for the show were low; Hammerstein had written six flops in a row, and the show had no star power. Producer Mike Todd walked out after the first act during the tryout and wisecracked “No legs, no jokes, no chance.” But Rodgers and Hammerstein were confident. The New Haven audiences and then Boston critics were enthusiastic. Only a few changes were made before it opened on Broadway, but two would prove significant: the addition of the show-stopping musical number, Oklahoma! and the decision to retitle the musical after that number.
Todd had been wrong, the show opened to raves from the critics, sold out and won a special Pulitzer Prize. Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times that the show's opening number, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" changed the history of musical theater: “After a verse like that, sung to a buoyant melody, the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable." The New York Post was the only major paper to give Oklahoma! a mixed review. Its critic felt that while the songs were pleasant enough, they sounded much alike. The show's creativity stimulated Rodgers and Hammerstein's contemporaries and ushered in the "Golden Age" of American musical theatre.
The original Broadway production opened on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre in New York City. It was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and choreographed by Agnes de Mille. It starred Alfred Drake (Curly), Joan Roberts (Laurey), Celeste Holm (Ado Annie), Howard Da Silva (Jud Fry), Betty Garde (Aunt Eller), Lee Dixon (Will Parker), Joseph Bulloff (Ali Hakim), Jane Lawrence (Gertie) and Barry Kelley (Ike). Marc Platt danced the role of "Dream Curly", Katharine Sergava danced the part of "Dream Laurey" and the small dancing part of Aggie was played by Bambi Linn. George Church danced the part of "Dream Jud" but was replaced by Vladimir Kostenko only two months after the premiere.
The production ran for 2,212 performances, finally closing on May 29, 1948. "The demand for tickets was unprecedented as the show became more popular in the months that followed" the opening. Oklahoma! ran for over five years, a Broadway record that "would not be bested until My Fair Lady (1956)." A year and a half after the Broadway opening, the "first of several" national tours began in New Haven, Connecticut. "Productions of 'Oklahoma!' would remain on the road in the United States and Canada" through 1954. A 1953 article in The New York Times reported that the show "not only holds the record for the longest run of a musical on Broadway but is believed to be the only musical to have enjoyed a consecutive run of ten years. It ran on Broadway for five years and two months, grossing $7,000,000. The tour of the national company, which started late in 1943, has grossed $15,000,000." The Tony Awards and other awards now given for achievement in musical theatre were not in existence in 1943, and therefore the original production of Oklahoma! received no theatrical awards.
The United Service Organizations sponsored a tour to U.S. military bases in 1945 that lasted for many years. The New York Times reported: "The tenth anniversary of the Broadway opening of Oklahoma! will be celebrated in Washington, where the Theatre Guild's touring company of the phenomenal musical will be playing at that time. ... According to a Guild estimate, 'upwards of 20,000,000 people thus far have seen the show in the United States, England, Sweden, Denmark, South Africa, Australia and through a special company that toured the U.S.O. Camp Shows circuit during the war'."
Original West End
Oklahoma! was the first of a post-war wave of Broadway musicals to reach London's West End. It starred Howard Keel (then known as Harold Keel) and Betty Jane Watson, opening at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on April 30, 1947 to rave press reviews and sellout houses, running for 1,543 performances. A pre-London run opened a day late at the Manchester Opera House on April 18, 1947, after the ship carrying the cast, scenery, and costumes ran aground on a sandbank off Southampton.
1951 Broadway revival
A 1951 revival produced by the Theatre Guild opened at The Broadway Theatre on May 9, 1951, and ran for 100 performances. Ridge Bond played Curly, Patricia Northrop played Laurey, Henry Clarke was Jud, and Jacqueline Sundt played Ado Annie. Mamoulian and de Mille returned to direct and choreograph, and the production was restaged by Jerome Whyte. In 1953, a 10th anniversary revival opened on August 31 at the New York City Center Theatre. It ran for a limited engagement of 40 performances before going on tour. The cast included Florence Henderson as Laurey, Ridge Bond as Curly and Barbara Cook as Annie. Mamoulian and De Mille directed and choreographed.
1979 Broadway revival
A 1979 revival opened at the Palace Theatre on Broadway on December 13, 1979 and closed on August 24, 1980, running for 293 performances and nine previews. William Hammerstein (Oscar's son) directed, and Gemze de Lappe recreated Agnes De Mille's choreography. The show starred Christine Andreas as Laurey, Laurence Guittard as Curly, Mary Wickes as Aunt Eller, Christine Ebersole as Ado Annie, Martin Vidnovic as Jud Fry, Harry Groener as Will Parker and Bruce Adler as Ali Hakim. Andreas and Groener both received Tony Award nominations for their performances, and Vidnovic won a Drama Desk Award. This production started as a cross-country national tour, beginning at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles on May 1, 1979.
1980 West End revival
The following year, William Hammerstein revived his 1979 Broadway staging in England with a new production at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester, in 1980. A UK tour followed, produced by Emile Littler and Cameron Mackintosh. It eventually settled in the West End, opening at the Palace Theatre, London, on September 17, 1980, and running until September 19, 1981. This production starred John Diedrich as Curly and Alfred Molina as Jud Fry. John Owen Edwards acted as Musical Director/Supervisor for this production. He would later reprise his work for Mackintosh's 1998 London revival. A cast recording of this production was issued by JAY Records and on the Showtime! label. Both Diedrich and Molina received Olivier Award nominations.
1998 West End revival
A new production of the musical was presented by the National Theatre in London at the Olivier Theatre, opening on July 15, 1998. The production team included Trevor Nunn (director), Susan Stroman (choreographer), John Owen Edwards (musical director) and William David Brohn (orchestrator). This production received numerous Olivier Award nominations, with Hensley winning the award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical. According to the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, the limited engagement was a sell-out and broke all previous box office records, and so the show was transferred to the Lyceum Theatre in the West End for a six-month run. Plans to transfer to Broadway with the London cast were thwarted by Actors' Equity, which insisted that American actors must be cast. Eventually a U.S. cast was selected.
Music supervisor John Owen Edwards, orchestrator William David Brohn and dance arranger David Krane adapted Robert Russell Bennett's original orchestrations and extended some of the dance sequences. A brand new Dream Ballet was composed for Susan Stroman's new choreography and the dances to "Kansas City", "Many a New Day" and "The Farmer and the Cowman" were all radically redesigned. The overture to the show was also altered, at the request of director Trevor Nunn. The international cast included Hugh Jackman as Curly, Maureen Lipman as Aunt Eller, Josefina Gabrielle as Laurey, Shuler Hensley as Jud Fry, Vicki Simon as Ado Annie, Peter Polycarpou as Ali Hakim and Jimmy Johnston as Will Parker. This production was filmed and issued on DVD, as well as being broadcast on U.S. Public Television in November 2003.
2002 Broadway revival
The London production was repeated on Broadway at the George Gershwin Theatre on March 21, 2002, with direction by Nunn. The production closed on February 23, 2003 after 388 performances. Only two of the London cast, Josefina Gabrielle as Laurey and Shuler Hensley as Jud, were in the production, which also featured Patrick Wilson as Curly and Andrea Martin as Aunt Eller. It was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Featured Actress in a Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (which was awarded to Hensley). The musical was also nominated for nine Drama Desk Awards, with Hensley winning as Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical and Susan Stroman winning for choreography.
Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times: "At its best, which is usually when it's dancing, this resurrection of Rodgers and Hammerstein's epochal show is dewy with an adolescent lustiness, both carnal and naive, exuberant and confused." The review stated that "Anthony Ward's harmoniously curved set, in which the sky seems to stretch into eternity, again pulses with the promise of a land on the verge of transformation." The New York Daily News review commented that "Visually, this one is stunning – at times, Anthony Ward's sets have a pastoral, idyllic quality, like Thomas Hart Benton's paintings. At other times, especially in lighting designer David Hersey's lustrous palette, they convey the bleakness of the frontier." The review also stated that the Royal National Theatre "brought it back to us in a way that makes it seem fresh and vital." However, USA Today gave the production a tepid assessment, its reviewer writing that "A cold breeze blows through this beautiful mornin', and that golden haze is never quite bright enough." The production went on to tour nationally from 2003–2006.