, Research Paper
Two great writers of American musical theatre, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, had one idea in common. They wanted to present to the American public a new and revolutionary musical that would stand out above the rest. They wanted to make an impact on the societies of the era. They wanted to be creative and do something that was considered rebellious. When they finally combined their ideas together they created an American masterpiece in musical theatre: Oklahoma!. It was the first Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration, starting the most successful creative partnership in the history of American musical theatre.
According to Joseph Swain in his book The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey, there are a number of reasons why a particular work of art might be considered a milestone in the history in its genre. It might introduce innovations of technique and style so convincing that they may become extremely influential. It might attract such wide acclaim that it cannot be ignored by the artists who come after, even if the acclaimed fame eventually fades with time. It could stand as the first work of an important series. Or perhaps, it sets a new standard of artistry. (73) For whatever factors that influenced the writers to create the works they did, they produced some of the most successful and incredibly influential works of musical theatre in their time.
In the years before Oklahoma! was created, Broadway was dying. New and refreshing musicals were a rare occasion and when an artist tried to create something that he hoped his audience would like, he was sadly disappointed. Broadway was suffering from a lack of what it was revered for: astounding plays and musicals. Its time of glamour and glitz was almost forgotten, and was in need of being saved. That is why Oklahoma! is considered a rebirth of the American musical theatre at the time. It brought Broadway back to life, filling theatre seats with enthusiastic audiences who embraced the changes of this new theatre musical with open arms and made it a legend. Oklahoma! set new standards for classic American theatre by introducing new techniques of presenting the musical to the audience, introducing a new genre of music into the theatre, and strayed away from the usual classic form and structure of a musical that audiences had grown used to. It was a time of change, a time of excitement, and a time of setting standards for the future.
Almost from the first performance at the St. James Theatre on March 31, 1943, Oklahoma! has been recognized as a new kind of musical play that denied its Broadway audiences many of their most treasured traditions, says David Ewen in American Musical Theatre. There was no opening chorus line, no chorus until midway through the first act, in fact. There was rather a serious ballet and other serious overtones, including a killing in act two. The story, which was so simple, seemed to engage the audience in more than mere evening diversion. (248) These changes, far from disappointing to viewers, were upheld by a success that had never been seen in the history of musical theatre.
He continued to say that with their first collaboration, Rodgers and Hammerstein ushered in a new era for the musical theatre. This beautiful folk play realized fully that which the earlier Rodgers and Hart musicals had been striving to obtain: a synchronization of all the elements of the musical theatre into a single entity. At best Oklahoma! could lay legitimate claim to have carefully woven a new element, dance, into the artful fabric of the modern musical. No longer would singers sing and then go into their dance, a purely decorative dance at that. (248)
Dance was not a new element in the theatre realm. It had been used for years as a way of interpretation of feelings of a character that the writer or director wanted the audience to feel visually. Through movement, expression of those feelings was portrayed and helped the audience to somewhat experience that single emotion of fear, hate, love, or guilt right along with the character on stage. But what was usual was that it was never brought together with the music and singing. The song was usually followed by the decorative dance. A song followed by a dance would usually lost the audience?s attention, or even if the dance was too long or did not correspond to the song or story line what so ever. Rodgers and Hammerstein set a standard that incorporated the two elements (music/song and dance) so that the audience would find more logic in the dance. It would have a meaning and a purpose in the play and heighten the excitement in the musical. And in many instances, it would further the plot or at best help the audience to fully understand the individual character?s feelings at that point in the musical. David Ewen uses the example of Agnes de Mille’s (choreographer of Oklahoma!) ballet, which brought to life the heroine’s dream and provided her motive for refusing the hero’s invitation to a box special. it was part of the story. (248)
According to Gerald Bordman, the author of American Musical Comedy, the idea that integration was something new and desperately needed took hold of Broadway’s thinking. In fact, it became so fashionable to integrate dance into the musical, that it was sometimes injected when it served no dramatic purpose, and sometimes even when it hindered the unfolding of the story. (160) After awhile dance became overused, which seemed to ruin what Roadgers and Hammerstein had set out to do (the incorporation of dance to heighten the meaning of the musical). Other writers or choreographers who inserted dance were not adding it when it would help the musical. Directors came to believe that dance was a necessity in a musical, for it was one of the key reasons why Oklahoma! was so successful. So the additions were made, but were not really thought about their purpose when they were added. What was forgotten was the obvious need for the dance at all. Dance was thought to be a want of the audience, not taking into consideration if the musical even required the dance at all. So, this problem developed into an ?insertion frenzy?, adding dance just for the mere spectacle of it.
But in Oklahoma!, everything fit into its place. For the first time, not only were the songs and story inseparable, but the dances heightened the drama by revealing the fears and desires of the leading characters. According to Bordman, Richard Rodgers once said,
when a show works perfectly, it’s because all the individual parts complement each other and fit together… in a great musical, the orchestrations sound the way the costumes look. That’s what made Oklahoma! work… it was a work created by many that gave the impression of having been created by one. (160)
Dance was not the only idea that Rodgers and Hammerstein brought into their new collaboration. Joseph Swain adds that much was made at the time of the hero’s killing the villain on stage in Oklahoma!. This too was not new. But while the claim to originality was once again exaggerated, Oklahoma! by virtue of its huge popularity, a popularity in no way reduced by an unpleasant scene, did open doors. (74) Oklahoma! was in fact in the genre of Musical Comedy, and many critics felt that villains and murder were not elements that should appear in a comedy. It was thought that such items would turn audiences away from Oklahoma!, having the idea of going to see a comedy and leaving feeling like they had seen a murder mystery, and not laughing at all was not the main objective of comedy theatre. But once again, these elements were a key part of the musical. David Ewen pointed out in The Story of America?s Musical Theatre that the original play had both villains and a murder, and Rodgers and Hammerstein had no intention of removing them from their musical. Ewen quotes Hammerstein saying,
We realized that such a course was experimental, amounting almost to the breach of an implied contract with the musical-comedy audience. I cannot say truthfully that we were worried by the risk. Once we had made the decision everything seemed to work right and we had the inner confidence people feel when they have adopted the right and honest approach to a problem. (180)
But once the doors opened and tickets began to sell and shows eventually became sold out, Rodgers and Hammerstein really did not have anything to fear. Their show soon showed itself to be a success, even with a villain and a murder. The audiences were at first disturbed to see these elements in a comedy, but soon came into agreement with these new additions and liked its originality and creativeness. Also if these two elements had been removed, it would have disturbed the synchronization and union of all the other elements of song, dance and plot in the musical, which was what the writers were trying to avoid at all costs.
Just like the dance element, the villain and the murder were a key part of the story line, and to remove them just to make the audience feel more comfortable would in turn shake the foundation of the plot. This was a chance Rodgers and Hammerstein were willing to take; a risk that proved to be a wise one to take in the end. Audiences found relief in the killing of the villain and a certain justice in the conclusion of the musical. The ?bad guy? had lost and ?justice reigned supreme?.
In The Story of America?s Musical Theatre, Ewen states that there were ?no tickets?. Oklahoma! had proved, on opening night, a stunning stage experience such as one does not often encounter in a lifetime of play going. From the moment the curtain rose and the first lines of the first song were sung, down to the final scene with the presentation of the title number, the audience sat spellbound as a new kind of stage art unfolded with incomparable beauty and majesty. (181)
Along with dance and villains, Rodgers and Hammerstein also took on a new approach to forming the music that they included in the musical. In Gerald Bordman?s second book American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, he stated that long before they wrote their first lyric to “Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ “, Rodgers and Hammerstein had arrived at an all-important decision. The “flotsam and jetsam” of musical comedy would have to be abandoned in translating a sensitive, poetic folk play for the musical theatre. Musical comedies traditionally opened with a big, crowded stage scene. Oklahoma! would begin simply: a single character would be seen on the stage (a woman churning butter), and from off-stage would come the strains of the first song. Musical comedies usually started with a dazzling line of chorus girls from the stage aprons early in the production, but Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to delay its appearance until halfway through the first act. (535)
Audiences had become accustomed to the grand opening number and chorus. It did bring a certain magical and triumphant beginning to a musical, starting with excitement and volume. This was also criticized, many feeling an audience would not stand for their most treasured attributes of a play being taken away. But Rodgers and Hammerstein once again took another risk, and it proved to be a risk that was not too bad to take. Audiences were at first disappointed with the deletion of the opening chorus, but eventually excused it, for they fell in love with the style of musical that Rodgers and Hammerstein were presenting to them. The play grew from a simple opening to a grand finale, which built the excitement of the audience and kept them stimulated and interested in the unfolding of the musical until the final chorus line and curtain call. It built suspense and a burning for more. Rodgers and Hammerstein obviously knew what they were doing, even if the critics thought they did not.
Bordman also noted that the show’s musical director, Jay Blackton, appreciating the work’s nature, discarded the common musical comedy practice of having the entire chorus sing only songs’ melodies. Instead, he reverted to the tradition of operetta and comic opera by dividing his singers and assigning them various parts, not always the principal melodic line. (535) Once again, Oklahoma! was making breakthrough innovations in the world on Musical Theatre. A denial of basic characteristics of the original musical comedy could have upset the audience, and push Oklahoma! into an area of outcast musicals that all writers fear. But Rodgers and Hammerstein?s ideas were undeniably refreshing to the American audiences.
Rodgers’ music also marked a new direction for the writer in Oklahoma!. He reinvented his style of music from what he knew was popular to the audience to a rugged flatness. Davis Ewen also states in his book The Story of America?s Musical Theatre, that most musical comedies expected the music to be written before the lyrics, since the lyrics were something functional tacked on to the melody. But the writers were so determined to make each word an essential part of the text that they agreed at once for Hammerstein to write the lyrics first, and Rodgers would write the music from the lyrics. (180)
Bordman reiterates that it is sometimes hard to realize that “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ ” is a waltz. The melody of “The Surry With The Fringe On Top” captures the clippety-clop of a horse pulling the vehicle. Rodgers’ long-sustained opening note of his title song coupled with the driving melody that follows was of the freshest inventions of the sort and the impeccable blending of words and music in “People Will Say We’re In Love” justifiably made it the most popular of the year. Much proclaiming ensued over how well the songs and plot were integrated. (535)
This coordination of musical rhythm and words was amazing. They were able to catch simple sounds of the actions on stage and incorporate them into the song, as if the lives of the characters could only survive with the music. This combination of music, sound, and stage movement is an essential key in musical theatre. The audience must be made to believe that the character?s life is a song. It is essential that the character make the audience feel like the music is not just a silly addition to the developing plot, but an existing item that has and will always exist at that point in time. The audience must be pulled into the world of the musical, not just simply entertained. And once again, Rodgers and Hammerstein had achieved that goal. The integration was complete to the ?T?. They were well on their way to creating a musical that was so seamless that extracting one minor detail of it would throw the whole work of art off. It was a work of complete union and an accomplishment that was in no way easy to create in the first place.
One factor in the success of Oklahoma! that cannot be overlooked was the attitude of the American people at the time it was presented. In The World of Musical Comedy, Stanley Green adds that World War II was more than a year old when the musical opened, and those who remained at home were becoming increasingly aware of the heritage they enjoyed as a free people. Seeing the happier, sunnier days that were so much a part of this heritage gave audiences both an escape from daily headlines and a feeling of optimism for the future. (212) In American Musical Comedy, Bordman believed that Oklahoma!’s importance lay elsewhere. The show made the American musical theatre look at America’s own heritage for inspiration. Members of the American past hereafter provided a fertile field for librettists. (160) Playwrites were beginning to recognize the vast amount of inspiration the American country could provide for the new revolution of musicals. During the time of and after World War II, pride in America was gaining strength and so was the interest of writing plays and musicals that showed that pride of how great America was. Oklahoma! in turn brought more than just new innovations of song, music, and dance to the stage, but a love for musicals that showed how beautiful older American culture was. Oklahoma! was a musical of America?s expansion into the western front and the western culture. In more ways that one, Oklahoma! was a way for city dwellers in New York City who sat in the audience to find their way to the west without ever leaving the city. Rodgers and Hammerstein had experienced achievement when they could tell a story through song and dance and transport the audience into the setting of the musical. Playgoers would leave the theatre feeling like they had just returned from an adventure out west, which is a playwrite?s exclusive objective when creating a play. The audience must be made to believe that they are experiencing the plot right along with the actors on stage. Thus is the main objective of theatre in general; to capture the audience and bring them to a different place and time where the plot of the play is the only struggle in the world at the time. Rodgers and Hammerstein captured the essence of the musical art in Oklahoma!. The audience was able to experience the sounds and motions of the west through the characters, music, lyrics, costumes, sets, and dance of the musical. All aspects had been woven together to form a ?musical quilt? that attracted a spectrum of attention and amazement like no other play or musical had done before.
Bordman writes in American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle that what started in 1927 was perfected in 1943 when Oklahoma! premiered. It is considered by many to be the first musical comedy to have a plot, musical score and dances that were necessary ingredients to advance the story line. (536) It is only fair to agree with him. Rodgers and Hammerstein added the exact ?ingredients? to create a magical and seductive musical that riveted audiences and even continues to attract audiences all over the world to this day. Although Oklahoma! premiered some 40 years ago, and its style of music and dance have grown old with the passing of time, it still demands respect for its combination and imaginative ideas that revolutionized the musical industry at the time. Rodgers and Hammerstein were the dominate force in musical comedy in the 1940’s and 50’s. Even their flops had notable songs. Several of their shows became successful films. Oklahoma!’s importance in opening a new era in the American Musical Theatre will never be challenged. It has become an American classic that society will forever treasure for its beautiful integration of song and dance.
Works CitedBordman, Gerald. American Musical Comedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.
—. American Musical Theater: A Chronicle. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.
Ewen, David. American Musical Theater. New York: Henry Holt, 1959.
—. The Story of America?s Musical Theater. New York: Chilton, 1968.
Green, Stanley. The World of Musical Comedy. Washington, DC: Da Capo, 1980.
Swain, Joseph P. The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.