RODGERS: Oklahoma! (Original Broadway Cast) (1943) (Naxos: 8.120787)
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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, thecurtain fell at New Haven's Shubert Theatre onthe world premi?â?¿re of a new musical entitledAway We Go!One of the first people up the aisle wasRose Bigman, personal secretary to Broadway'smost feared columnist,Walter Winchell. Shewasted no time in sending a telegram to herboss telling him what she thought of the show:'No legs, no jokes, no chance',was her nowlegendarymessage.
Some sources attribute the remark toproducer Mike Todd, but that isn't as likely,because he was spotted leaving during theshow so he could catch an early train back toNew York.
The once-mighty Theatre Guild was in apanic, since this project was all that wasstanding between them and bankruptcy. In fact,they had to chase frantically after investors forthe $100,000 necessary to get this musical ontothe stage.
It looked like their efforts had been in vain,because the Gotham 'wrecking crew' who hadcome up to the opening either joined Todd inhis early departure, or let the Guild know thislatest piece was 'weak...dull...unappealing'.
But the next day, the newspaper critics wereoptimistic, if guarded, and the box office, whichhad been empty, started doing brisk business.
Audiences liked this show. It opened thefollowing week in Boston to even betterreviews and the creative team kept honing andworking down to the wire.
Then on 31 March, the day it was set toopen on Broadway, a freak early springsnowstorm hit the city and that, coupled withthe low-key feeling about the show in thetheatre community,was responsible for apremi?â?¿re performance filled with empty seats.
But that would be the last time there wereany empty seats for the next five years. Thenext morning's reviews were almost universallyecstatic and by noon, the box office was undersiege.
Oh yes, between Boston and New York, theyhad changed the name of their troubled tuner.
It was now called Oklahoma!Considering the fact that the show isregarded today as one of the greatest and mostinfluential musicals of all time, you may find ithard to imagine how everyone could have beenso wrong about it until you look at these facts.
Composer Richard Rodgers had just beenobliged to end a successful twenty-yearpartnership with Lorenz Hart due to the latter'salcoholism. No one knew if Rodgers would beas good with another partner, especially not theone he had chosen.
Oscar Hammerstein II had once been a greatlyricist/librettist with hits like Show Boat to hiscredit, but his work in the past decade hadconsisted of nothing but flops and he wasgenerally perceived as yesterday's man.
The same thing with director RoubenMamoulian. He had once electrified Broadwaywith his stagings of the original play Porgy andits operatic sequel, Porgy and Bess, but hehadn't done a legit show in eight years and hisonce-soaring film career was in freefall.
Ballet-trained Agnes DeMille had been firedas choreographer from her first two musicals,leading man Alfred Drake's career had stalledsince he did Babes In Arms for Rodgers andHart, and high-powered Mary Martin had turneddown the female lead to appear in a showcalled Dancing In The Streets (which wouldlater close in Boston).
The final nail in the coffin was that thewhole project was based on a folksy cowboyplay called Green Grow The Lilacs, which hadonly run for two months back in 1931.
Of course it would be a disaster, right?Well, no one could have counted on twothings. The first was that the partnershipbetween Rodgers and Hammerstein turned outto be pure magic.
The work that Rodgers had done with Hartwas jazzy and sophisticated. He always wrotehis music first and Hart set his clever lyrics intothe existing template like some sort of verbalmosaic.
But Hammerstein liked to create the lyricsfirst and he laboured over them for weeks at atime. He worried about what a character wasfeeling, what the dynamics of a scene needed,not what would make a snappy openingnumber for Act II.
His simple poetic images brought out a newRodgers, with long, flowing melodic lines andrich foursquare harmonies. It was acollaboration that might have fallen on deaf earsin the Roaring Twenties or the Dirty Thirties, butas America struggled to get through the SecondWorld War, it was just what was needed.
That's the second major factor: timing. Thekind of simple, homespun affirmation thatOklahoma! offered was balm to the soul of anation mired in a war they were starting towonder if they could ever win.
The cynical Broadway crowd, obsessed withnothing more than their own narrow kingdom,couldn't see that and felt the show was oldfashioned.
But sometimes, especially in theworld of the musical, everything old is newagain.
Another novelty that Oklahoma! was on thecutting edge of was the original cast recording.
Decca had actually launched this revolutionwith their selections from Porgy and Bess andThis Is The Army. But then the famous 'PetrilloBan' took place, in which the AmericanFederation Of Musicians went on strike toprotest the uncompensated use of their workon recordings.
Decca was so eager to get a recording ofOklahoma! into the studios while it was stillhot, that it became the first to sign an agreementwith the union in September of 1943. Thealbum was recorded a month later.
It was released as a series of six 78 discsand included most of the major songs of theshow, carefully trimmed to suit the roughlythree minutes that a side could accommodatein those days.
Even in this somewhat strait-laced format,you can hear the fresh, young charm thatcaptivated the world. Drake once describedOh, What A Beautiful Morning as 'the closestthing to lieder ever written by an American',and he sings it that way, with rich, pure tones.
Joan Roberts' clear, bright voice soars effortlesslyin numbers like Out of My Dreams,Celeste Holm remains the most humorouslyinnocent of all Ado Annies and Lee Dixon hassuch easy charm that one can comprehend whythe cast chose to cope with his problemdrinking - as well as the onion sandwiches heate to mask the liquor on his breath.
Demand for the original recording ofOklahoma! was so great that in May of 1944Decca decided to press another two discs withthe remaining songs. An interesting note fromthis release is that Howard DaSilva didn't recordhis big solo as Jud, Lonely Room, but leadingman Drake sang it instead. As the rest of thesongs on this second recording were comedynumbers featuring non-singers like JosephBuloff and Ralph Riggs, it may have been feltthat Drake's voice would provide a welcomechange.
Decca also capitalized further onOklahoma! mania by recording Robert RussellBennett's Symphonic Suite on themes fromthe show in August of the same year.
By December of 1944, RCA Victor hadfinally settled with the Musicians' Union as well,and one of their first recordings was - youguessed it! - Oklahoma!They turned to a cast from the MetropolitanOpera for this version, featuring tenor JamesMelton, who had appeared in several 1930smovie musicals like Stars Over Broadwaybefore concentrating exclusively on his classicalwork.
West Virginia-born soprano Eleanor Steberwas thirty when this recording was made andabout to enter what many consider her 'goldenyears' as the Met's leading lady. And baritoneJohn Charles Thomas began his career on Broadway,appearing in numerous musical comediesand operettas with titles like Apple Blossomsbefore finally moving to the Met in 1934.
Although no one could have guessed itwhen Away We Go! opened so tentatively inNew Haven that March n