Authored by Paulette Zander
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote many successful Broadway plays in the 1940s and 1950s, including The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma!, and Carousel. Their first musical, Oklahoma!, debuted in 1943 and ran for an unprecedented 2,212 performances – 5 years and 9 months. This was a record that it held for 15 years (Stavropoulos 2019). These four plays share some common societal elements such as marginalization and interracial relationships, but their first musical, Oklahoma!, introduces other disturbing themes. What might seem on the surface to be a lighthearted musical about simple people negotiating their relationship dilemmas, all the while engaging in snazzy dance routines and singing now timeless classic songs, it is in reality a much more complex look at the early American west (Indian Territory) during the Depression.
Oklahoma! Can be described as “loosely a coming of age story set in the romanticized Western Frontier on the cusp of the Oklahoma territory joining the union,” but that description glosses over darker undertones of the play. The catchy tunes and expertly choreographed dance numbers overpower the underlying themes of jealousy, poverty, sexism, violence, and abuse. An excerpt from the Georgetowner offers a valid explanation as to why theater goers embraced this play:
The time and the mood of the country were also contributing factors to the success of “Oklahoma!” The show hit a nostalgic chord with audiences just out of the Depression and into World War II. The show was a favorite date for servicemen on leave. In 1943, when the show opened, Oklahoma the state was only 36 years old. It reminded many of their pioneer past, of immigrants struggling to put down roots in a new world. America suddenly found itself at war with three fascist powers and its people longed to believe in a brighter future. “Oklahoma!” was about home, family, love, and the triumph of good over evil—precisely what Americans were fighting for (Malet 2011).
The plot of the story centers around a love triangle:
Laurey is a headstrong farm girl and the woman with whom both cowboy Curly and farm hand Jud have fallen in love. When she plays hard-to-get with earnest Curly and instead accepts dangerous Jud’s invitation to the upcoming box social, tensions rise between the men and capture the interest of the whole town (Rigsbey 2020).
While the plot of the play centers around three Venetian values of truth, love, and respect (St. Johns 2017), The real lesson obscured by song and dance is that skewing those basic values via deception, jealousy, and retaliation results in grief and death for some, whether intended or not. It is remarkable that this writing team produced a play with multiple dark elements that is still to this day thought of as a happy and snappy musical. Although not surprising when considering the opening, uplifting song is, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” More sad than remarkable is that 77 years after the play’s debut, the elements of male jealousy, rage, poverty, and violence are still prevalent and still play a central role in today’s society (Verfaillie 2014). In Oklahoma!, one character is marginalized and poverty-stricken, his antagonist is cruel and demeaning, and the woman he is smitten with callously plays with the feelings of both men. One wonders what our society would be like today if more people devoted themselves to using the Venetian approach to searching out the causes of poverty, social injustice, and the marginalization of women to encourage solutions that are adaptable, effective, and concrete (St John’s 2017).
Even so, it is clear this musical is beloved. It has withstood the test of time for more than a half century. 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 (The Citizen 2014).
The Citizen 2014. “’Oklahoma’ Opens This Week.” The Citizen, September 2, 2014. https://thecitizen.com/2014/09/02/oklahoma-opens-week/.
Malet, Jeff, and Jeff Malet 2011. “‘Oklahoma!” a Historical Perspective.” The Georgetowner, July 26, 2011. https://georgetowner.com/articles/2011/07/26/oklahoma-historical-perspective/.
St. John’s Mission and Values.” 2017. St. John’s University, May 23, 2017. https://online.stjohns.edu/about-us/mission.
Stavropoulos, Laura 2019. “How Oklahoma! Birthed The Modern Musical:
UDiscover.” uDiscover Music, July 31, 2019. https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/how-oklahoma-birthed-the-modern-musical/.
Verfaillie, Nina 2014. “The Connection Between Poverty and Domestic Violence.” BORGEN Magazine, April 16, 2014. https://www.borgenmagazine.com/connection-poverty-domestic-violence/.