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 By Jupiter 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 learned 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, conversely, to cast 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 Mamoulian's support, insisted that performers more dramatically appropriate for the roles be cast. As a result, 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 and Boston audiences were enthusiastic, although the reviews were only fair. Of the changes made before the show went to Broadway, 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 on Broadway 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 Mornin'" 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.
In Oklahoma territory in 1906, cowboy Curly McLain looks forward to the beautiful day ahead as he wanders into farm girl Laurey Williams's yard ("Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'"). He and Laurey tease each other, while her Aunt Eller looks on. There will be a box social dance that night, which includes an auction of lunch baskets prepared by the local women to raise funds for a schoolhouse. The man who wins each basket will eat the lunch with the lady who prepared it. Curly asks Laurey to go with him, but she refuses, feeling that he has waited too long. He attempts to persuade her by telling her that he will take her in the finest carriage money can buy ("The Surrey with the Fringe on Top"), but she teases him about it until he says he made it up to get back at her. She flounces off, not realizing that he really has rented such a rig.
The lonely, disturbed farm hand Jud Fry has become obsessed with Laurey and asks her to the dance. She accepts to spite Curly, although she is afraid of Jud. Meanwhile, cowboy Will Parker returns bedazzled and souvenir-laden from a trip to modern Kansas City ("Kansas City"). He won $50 at the fair, which, according to his girlfriend Ado Annie's father, Andrew Carnes, is the money he needs to marry Ado Annie. Unfortunately, he spent all the money on gifts for her. Will also purchased a "Little Wonder" (a metal tube used for looking at pictures, but with a hidden blade inside) for Ado Annie's father, unaware of its deadly secret. Later, Ado Annie confesses to Laurey that while Will has been away, she has been spending a lot of time with Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler. Laurey tells her she'll have to choose between them, but Ado Annie insists she loves them both ("I Cain't Say No"). Laurey and her friends prepare for the social, while Gertie Cummings flirts with Curly (her obnoxious laugh floating in to taunt Laurey). Laurey tells her friends that she doesn't really care about Curly ("Many a New Day").
Andrew Carnes discovers Annie with Ali Hakim. After questioning Ado Annie about their relationship, he forces Hakim at gunpoint to agree to marry her. Hakim and the other men lament the unfairness of the situation ("It's a Scandal! It's a Outrage!"). Curly discovers that Laurey is going to the box social with Jud and tries to convince her to go with him instead. Afraid to tell Jud she won't go with him, Laurey tries to convince Curly (and herself) that she does not love him ("People Will Say We're in Love"). Hurt by her refusal, Curly goes to the smokehouse where Jud lives to talk with him. Curly suggests that since Jud does not feel appreciated, he could hang himself, and everyone would realize how much they care about him ("Pore Jud Is Daid"). Their talk turns into an ominous confrontation about Laurey. After Curly leaves, Jud's resolve to win Laurey becomes even stronger, and he vows to make her his bride ("Lonely Room").
Confused by her feelings for Curly and her fear of Jud, Laurey purchases a "magic potion" (referred to as smelling salts, but actually laudanum) from Ali Hakim, which the unscrupulous peddler guarantees will reveal her true love. She muses on leaving her dreams of love behind and joining the man she loves ("Out of My Dreams"), then falls asleep under the influence of the opiate ("Dream Sequence"). In an extended dream ballet sequence, Laurey first dreams of what marriage to Curly would be like. Her dream takes a nightmarish turn when Jud appears and kills Curly. She cannot escape him, confused by her desires. The dream makes her realize that Curly is the right man for her, but it is too late to change her mind about going to the dance with Jud; he has come for her, and they leave for the box social.
At the social, during an upbeat square dance ("The Farmer and the Cowman"), the rivalry between the local farmers and cowboys over fences and water rights has led to fighting, which Aunt Eller ends by firing a gun to silence everyone. Laurey is upset when she sees Curly at the dance with Gertie. In an effort to rid himself of Ado Annie, Ali Hakim buys Will's souvenirs from Kansas City for $50. Jud also contributes to this by purchasing Will's Little Wonder, knowing of the blade concealed within it. The auction starts and Will bids $50 on Ado Annie's basket, not realizing that without the $50, he would no longer have the money her father insisted he needs to "purchase" marriage with her. Desperate to be rid of Ado Annie, the peddler bids $51 to get the basket so that Will can approach Andrew Carnes with the $50 and claim Ado Annie as his bride. The auction becomes much more serious when Laurey's basket comes up for auction. Jud has saved all his money so he can win Laurey's basket. Various men bid, trying to protect Laurey, but Jud outbids them all. Curly and Jud engage in a ferocious bidding war, and Curly sells his saddle, his horse, and even his gun to raise money. Curly outbids Jud and wins the basket. Jud discreetly tries to kill Curly with the Little Wonder, but his plan is foiled when Aunt Eller (knowing what is happening) loudly asks Curly for a dance. Later that night, Will and Annie work out their differences, as she reluctantly agrees not to flirt with other men ("All Er Nuthin'").
Jud confronts Laurey about his feelings for her. When she admits that she does not return them, he threatens her. She then fires him as her farm hand, screaming at him to get off her property. Jud furiously threatens Laurey before he departs; Laurey bursts into tears and calls for Curly. She tells him that she has fired Jud and is frightened by what Jud might do now. Curly, seeing that she has turned to him for guidance and safety, reassures her and proposes to her, and she accepts ("People Will Say We're In Love (Reprise)"). He then realizes that he must now become a farmer. Afterwards, Ali Hakim decides to leave the territory and bids Ado Annie goodbye after telling her Will is the man she should marry.
Three weeks later, Laurey and Curly are married and everyone rejoices in celebration of the territory's impending statehood ("Oklahoma!"). During the celebration, Ali Hakim returns with his new wife, Gertie, whom he unwillingly married after being threatened by her father with a shotgun. A drunken Jud reappears, harasses Laurey by kissing her and attacks Curly with a knife. As Curly dodges a blow, Jud falls on his own knife and soon dies. The wedding guests hold a makeshift trial for Curly, at Aunt Eller's urging, as the couple is due to leave for their honeymoon. The judge, Andrew Carnes, declares the verdict: "not guilty!" Curly and Laurey depart on their honeymoon in the surrey with the fringe on top ("Finale Ultimo").
° denotes original Broadway cast
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), Barry Kelley (Ike) and George S. Irving (Joe). 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)." 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 "first of several" national tours began in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1944. A 1953 article in The New York Times reported that the show was "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." John Raitt played Curly in the original production in Chicago. The United Service Organizations sponsored a tour to U.S. military bases in 1945 that lasted for several 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 [the U.S.O. shows] during the war".
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.
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.
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.
The following year, James Hammerstein directed a production at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester, in January 1980, produced by Cameron Mackintosh. The De Mille choreography was again adapted by de Lappe. A UK tour followed, and 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, both of whom were nominated for Olivier Awards. Rosamund Shelley played Laurey, and Madge Ryan was Aunt Eller. The production was Maria Friedman's debut in the West End, initially in the chorus role of Doris, but she was eventually promoted to the leading role. John Owen Edwards was the musical director. 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.
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) and William David Brohn (orchestrator). 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. Musical director John Owen Edwards, 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 was also altered, at the request of Nunn.
The production received numerous Olivier Award nominations, winning for Outstanding Musical Production, supporting actor (Hensley), set design (Anthony Ward) and choreography (Stroman). 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. The production was filmed and issued on DVD, as well as being broadcast on U.S. Public Television in November 2003.
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.Discoveryland
Oklahoma! was presented nightly except Sundays each summer at the Discoveryland amphitheater, an outdoor theatre near Tulsa, Oklahoma, from 1977 until 2011. In 1993, Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard Rodgers) and William Hammerstein (son of Oscar Hammerstein II) designated Discoveryland the "National Home of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!"2006 Japan
In 2006, Oklahoma! was performed in Japan by the all-female Takarazuka Revue. This revival starred Yuu Todoroki, Ai Shirosaki, and Hiromu Kiriya.2009 Chichester Theatre Festival
In the summer of 2009, British director John Doyle directed the musical at the Chichester Festival Theatre. The production was dark in concept and featured new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. On a spare stage, decorated only with blue sheets, "Confetti of rose petals stains the floor like drops of blood, and a nightmarish dream-dance sequence has Freudian overtones as Laurey's bridal gown becomes her shroud." It received mixed reviews. The Times reviewer wrote: "This is a very stylised, overdrilled production, no friend of intimate moments or quiet depth of emotion." The Guardian liked it the most, stating that "it's a delight, with one brilliant tippy-tappy-toed song after another and a nugget of darkness lodged in its sweet heart." Whats On Stage, like most of the papers, gave the show three out of five stars and wrote that this is a "downbeat vision" and that "all told it's a somewhat disappointing show", but their "average reader rating" was four stars. A review in The Telegraph commented, "Doyle uses shadow and silhouette to bring out the musical's nightmarish aspects but doesn't over-labour them. There are enough sunny spots – no more so than in Act 2's rousing title song – to keep the tone evenly textured."2010 UK tour
The show toured England for nine months in 2010 in a new staging by Julian Woolford, with Marti Webb as Aunt Eller and Mark Evans as Curly.2010 Washington, DC Arena Stage
Oklahoma! opened on October 23, 2010 at the Arena Stage to critical acclaim, inaugurating the redesigned Fichandler "theater in the round" stage. Artistic Director Molly Smith cast African-American actresses as Laurey and Aunt Eller to mirror both modern Washington, D.C. demographics and the diverse population of the musical's 1906 Oklahoma territory setting. The production received ten 2011 Helen Hayes Award nominations in the resident division, winning as Outstanding Resident Musical (tying with Shakespeare Theatre's Candide) and for choreography (Parker Esse), lead actor (Nicholas Rodriguez as Curly) and musical direction (George Fulginiti-Shakar). The production returned to the Arena Stage for a second run on July 8, 2011.2012, Seattle, Washington, 5th Avenue Theater
The 5th Avenue Theatre's 2012 production, directed by Peter Rothstein, included African-American dancers and an African-American actor as Jud. The choice was intended, as in the Arena Stage production, to reflect the historical presence of African Americans in the Oklahoma territory, but it "has some audience members squirming in their seats ... they're seeing on stage one of the ugliest stereotypes in our history: an imposing black man ravaging a petite white woman [and] the white hero ... all but urges Jud to hang himself – and even pantomimes the act. Some see a clear reference to lynching." The "Dream Ballet" had a sinister, sexual tone and ended with Jud dragging Laurey away to be raped. One critic noted the historical "license taken when an African-American farmhand is allowed to escort a white woman to the box dance. ... Maybe some people ... left with not so much a song in their head, but a question in their heart. And isn't that part of what theater is supposed to do?" Another critic called the casting choice distracting and felt that it "forces an uncomfortable racial subtext onto underlying material that doesn't support the weight." Another wrote: "Rothstein's Oklahoma! is now the story of a crazy, sex obsessed black man ... lusting violently after his white mistress, who ends up murdered at the hands of a white man, who gets off scot free after a mock trial."2015 UK tour
A UK tour is scheduled to run from February to August 2015, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh. It stars Ashley Day as Curly, Charlotte Wakefield as Laurey, Belinda Lang as Aunt Eller and Gary Wilmot as Ali Hakim.
The 1955 film adaptation starred Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones (in her film debut), Rod Steiger, Charlotte Greenwood, Gloria Grahame, Gene Nelson, James Whitmore and Eddie Albert. It was the only musical film directed by Fred Zinnemann, and Agnes de Mille choreographed. It was the first feature film photographed in the Todd-AO 70 mm widescreen process.
Rodgers and Hammerstein personally oversaw the film to prevent the studio from making the changes that were then typical of stage-to-film musical adaptations, such as interpolating new songs by others. The film followed the stage version more closely than any other Rodgers and Hammerstein stage-to-film adaptation, although it divided the long first scene into several shorter scenes, changing the locations of several of the songs. For example, Kansas City is performed at the train station, where Aunt Eller and other cowboys meet Will Parker just after he returns from Kansas City. Lyrics in the song about a burlesque stripteaser were slightly changed to pass film censorship. In a nod to Green Grow the Lilacs, which was the basis of the musical, Jud attempts revenge on Curly and Laurey by burning a haystack they stand on, before Curly jumps down, landing on Jud and causing him to fall on his own knife. The film omits only "It's a Scandal, It's an Outrage" and "Lonely Room". The film won Academy Awards for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Sound, Recording.
Most of the songs from Oklahoma! were released on a record album by Decca Records in 1943 containing six 10-inch double-sided discs in 78 RPM format. It was the first U.S. cast album featuring the original Broadway cast of a musical. It sold over a million copies, prompting the label to call the cast back into the studio to record three additional selections that had been left out of the first set. These were issued as Oklahoma! Volume Two. In 1949, Decca re-released the first set on LP but not the second set, which soon became a very rare collectors' item. All subsequent LP releases were similarly incomplete. Finally in 2000, Decca Broadway went back to the original glass masters to generate a new high fidelity transfer of the complete song program and released it on CD, utilizing the original 78 album artwork.
The success of the original Oklahoma! cast album set a precedent for the production of original cast recordings of Broadway musicals, which became an essential part of a musical's dissemination and endurance in popular culture. Later cast recordings of Oklahoma! include the 1979 Broadway revival cast recording, the 1980 London revival cast recording, the 1998 Royal National Theatre revival cast recording, and a soundtrack album of the 1955 film. There have also been more than 20 studio cast recordings of the show, featuring stars such as Nelson Eddy, John Raitt and Florence Henderson in the leading roles.
The original production of Oklahoma! was an unprecedented critical and popular success. John Anderson of the New York Journal American pronounced the musical "a beautiful and delightful show, fresh and imaginative, as enchanting to the eye as Richard Rodgers's music is to the ear. It has, at a rough estimate, practically everything". In the New York Herald Tribune, Howard Barnes wrote, "Songs, dances, and a story have been triumphantly blended.... The Richard Rodgers score is one of his best, and that is saying plenty. Oscar Hammerstein 2nd has written a dramatically imaginative libretto and a string of catchy lyrics; Agnes de Mille has worked small miracles in devising original dances to fit the story and the tunes, while Rouben Mamoulian has directed an excellent company with great taste and craftsmanship." Louis Kronenberger of PM opined that "Mr. Hammerstein's lyrics have less crispness and wit than Lorenz Hart's at their best, but the songs in Oklahoma! call for less sophisticated words, and Mr. Hammerstein has found very likeable ones."
In the New York Daily News, Burns Mantle declared that "Oklahoma! really is different – beautifully different. With the songs that Richard Rodgers has fitted to a collection of unusually atmospheric and intelligible lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein 2nd, Oklahoma! seems to me to be the most thoroughly and attractively American musical comedy since Edna Ferber's Show Boat". New York World-Telegram critic Burton Rascoe particularly emphasized the groundbreaking choreography, stating that "Richard Rodgers has written for the show one of the finest musical scores any musical play ever had. Next to Mr. Rodgers, however, must stand the amazing Agnes de Mille, whose choreography, carried out to perfection by her ballet [corps], is actually the biggest hit of the show. The "Out of My Dreams" and "All Er Nuthin'" dances are such supreme aesthetic delights.... They are spinetingling, out of this world." In The New York Sun, Ward Morehouse commented that "Oklahoma! is charming and leisurely. And tunely. And certainly not topical," as other shows had been in the early years of World War II. "It reveals Mr. Rodgers, shorn only for the moment of Larry Hart, in good form indeed. And nobody in last night's audience seemed to have a better time than Mr. Hart himself, who applauded the proceedings from a seat in Row B." Lorenz Hart himself "pushed his way through the crowd at the after-show party in Sardi's restaurant and threw his arms around his ex-partner, grinning from ear to ear. He told Rodgers he had never had a better evening at the theater in his life."
The only negative review of the musical appeared in the New York Post: The critic wrote that "it all seemed just a trifle too cute", stating that the score consisted of "a flock of Mr. Rodgers's songs that are pleasant enough, but still manage to sound quite a bit alike ... without much variety in the presentation." She concluded that the show was "very picturesque in a studied fashion, reminding us that life on a farm is apt to become a little tiresome."
According to playwright and theatre writer Thomas Hischak, "Not only is 'Oklahoma!' the most important of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, it is also the single most influential work in the American musical theatre. ... It is the first fully integrated musical play and its blending of song, character, plot and even dance would serve as the model for Broadway shows for decades." William Zinsser observed that Oklahoma! broke the old "musical comedy conventions", with the songs "delving into character" and advancing the plot. The show "became a milestone, so that later historians writing about important moments in twentieth-century theatre would begin to identify eras according to their relationship to Oklahoma!" Oklahoma! made Rodgers and Hammerstein "the most important contributors to the musical-play form. ... The examples they set in creating vital plays, often rich with social thought, provided the necessary encouragement for other gifted writers to create musical plays of their own".
Theater historian Ethan Mordden points out that, although Oklahoma! has been called "the first integrated musical, the first American folk musical", Show Boat "got there first on both counts." Even earlier, the Princess Theatre musicals, following Gilbert and Sullivan and French opéra bouffe, began the reintegration of song and story after decades of thinly plotted British and American musicals, paving the way for Show Boat and Oklahoma! by showing that a musical could combine popular entertainment with continuity between its story and songs. These Princess Theatre shows, which featured modern American settings, "built and polished the mold from which almost all later major musical comedies evolved. ... The characters and situations were, within the limitations of musical comedy license, believable and the humor came from the situations or the nature of the characters. Kern's exquisitely flowing melodies were employed to further the action or develop characterization." Mordden also notes that Oklahoma! was called the first great dance musical, but other musicals had earlier focused on dance, among them Gay Divorce and On Your Toes. He concludes: "But Oklahoma! was the first American musical with an ethnic sound, words and music entirely in the folk idiom."1947 Theatre World Award
1980 Tony Awards
Best Leading Actress in a Musical – Christine Andreas (Nomination)
Best Featured Actor in a Musical – Harry Groener (Nomination)
1980 Drama Desk Awards
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical – Martin Vidnovic (Nomination)
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical – Harry Groener (Nomination)
1980 Theatre World Award
Theatre World Award – Harry Groener WINNER
1993 Tony Awards
Special Award in honor of the show's 50th anniversary year
1998 Critics' Circle Theatre Awards
1998 Evening Standard Award
1999 Olivier Awards
Outstanding Musical Production WINNER
Best Actor in a Musical – Hugh Jackman (Nomination)
Best Actress in a Musical – Josefina Gabrielle (Nomination)
Best Supporting Actor in a Musical – Jimmy Johnston (Nomination)
Best Supporting Actor in a Musical – Shuler Hensley (WINNER)
Best Director – Trevor Nunn (Nomination)
Best Set Designer – Anthony Ward (WINNER)
Best Lighting Designer – David Hersey (Nomination)
Best Theatre Choreographer – Susan Stroman (WINNER)
2002 Tony Awards
Best Revival of a Musical (Nomination)
Best Leading Actor in a Musical – Patrick Wilson (Nomination)
Best Featured Actor in a Musical – Shuler Hensley (WINNER)
Best Featured Actress in a Musical – Andrea Martin (Nomination)
Best Lighting Design – David Hersey (Nomination)
Best Choreography – Susan Stroman (Nomination)
Best Direction of a Musical – Trevor Nunn (Nomination)
2002 Drama Desk Awards
Outstanding Revival of a Musical (Nomination)
Outstanding Actor in a Musical – Patrick Wilson (Nomination)
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical – Justin Bohon (Nomination)
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical – Shuler Hensley (WINNER)
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical – Andrea Martin (Nomination)
Outstanding Choreography – Susan Stroman (WINNER)
Outstanding Director of a Musical – Trevor Nunn (Nomination)
Outstanding Set Design of a Musical – Anthony Ward (Nomination)
Outstanding Lighting Design – David Hersey (Nomination)
2002 Theatre World Awards
Theatre World Award – Justin Bohon WINNER
Oklahoma! has frequently been quoted or parodied in films, television and other media. The following list includes some of the more notable references.
FilmsThe songs "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "Oklahoma!" were spoofed in the animated film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. One of the spoofs is the song "Uncle Fucka", which parodies the spelled-out O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A of the musical's title song. A similar spoof is heard in the musical Curtains, concerning the title song of the Oklahoma!-like musical performed within the show.
In the film When Harry Met Sally..., Harry and Sally sing a karaoke version of "Surrey With the Fringe on Top".
In the film Twister, Beltzer is heard singing the song "Oklahoma!" when he is introduced.
In the film Dave, the title character sings the song "Oklahoma!"
In the film All Good Things, the character Katie McCarthy sings a bit of the song "Oklahoma!" at the end of her first date with David Marks.
TelevisionIn the The Simpsons episode "Milhouse of Sand and Fog", the character Milhouse imagines himself and Bart singing "The Farmer and the Cowman".
Sesame Street featured Kermit the Frog as a director making the film "Oklahoma" and Forgetful Jones singing the title song from "Oklahoma!" but forgetting how it begins, trying "Aaaaaa-klahoma", "Eeeeee-klahoma" and "Iiiiii-klahoma". Furthermore, Ray Charles performed "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" on Sesame Street in 1977 and Oscar the grouch a few times sang to himself "Oh what a rotten old morning/Oh what a rotten old day.."
On episode 317 of The Muppet Show, Fozzie Bear, dressed as a cowboy, begins to sing "Oklahoma", but large Muppets dressed as Samurai warriors turn the number into a parody called "Yokohama".
Tiny Toon Adventures did a spoof of the musical called "Ducklahoma", which heavily featured anvils.
In an episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun (Frozen Dick), Dick sings a rendition of "Oklahoma!" in a diner, sparking the patrons in the diner to sing along with him.
In the Fawlty Towers episode "Gourmet Night", Polly serenades the guests with a rendition of "I Cain't Say No".
In episode 9 of Band of Brothers, "Why We Fight" (2001), Captain Nixon mentions that Oklahoma! was still on Broadway, causing the soldiers to break out in song.
On an episode of Friends, "The One Where Emma Cries", Chandler accidentally accepts a job in Tulsa, and his wife Monica says that she does not want to move to Oklahoma or see the musical Oklahoma! Chandler responds by listing the songs from the musical, and Monica asks whether he is telling her that he got a job in Oklahoma or that he is gay.
In the December 31, 2008 episode of The Rachel Maddow Show, comedian Kent Jones sang "Minnesota" to the tune of "Oklahoma!".
Other mediaIn the mid-1940s, radio comedian Fred Allen wrote parody lyrics to the tune of "Surrey With the Fringe on Top": "Union Suit with the Hinge on the Back." The parody was repeated on subsequent programs.
The title song became the official state song of Oklahoma in 1953. (Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907.)
In the song "Oklahoma, U.S.A." by The Kinks, on their album Muswell Hillbillies, the protagonist dreams of "riding in the surrey with the fringe on top".
Uniform, Jerry Seinfeld's first Superman webisode commercial for American Express in 1998, featured a spoof of the musical, "Oh, Yes! Wyoming!"
Truman Capote's 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany's is set in 1943; the protagonist, Holly Golightly, sings music from Oklahoma! while accompanying herself on her guitar.