‘Oklahoma!’ sneaks into legit hit status

Tuner burst onto the scene in 1943, took unsuspecting auds and crix by storm

Nowadays when a Broadway musical hits town, the theater world is already braced for its arrival if for no other reason than the fortune it costs to mount these extravaganzas.

Sometimes, however, a show sneaks into town, as it were, and it takes time before its impact is fully appreciated.

So it was with “Oklahoma,” which burst onto the scene March 31, 1943, and took unsuspecting audiences and critics by storm.

The first collaboration between the team of Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein changed the direction of musical comedy, fusing story, songs and dance in newly imaginative ways.

The freshness and vitality of lyrics like “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” guaranteed that they’d become part of the Great American Songbook. Agnes De Mille’s dream ballet sequences illuminated not just the plotlines but also the consciousness of the characters. Curly and Laurey, and the other cowpokes were not just corn-fed cut-outs but people with real-life dilemmas. Rouben Mamoulian’s choreography and design deepened the drama of the storyline

Variety did not immediately get the relevance of these innovations, but it did zoom in on the cash factor.

Buried deep in the paper’s “Legitimate” section on page 41 of the April 7 issue, a small headline read: “Operettas’ Popularity Gets New Impetus by ‘Oklahoma’ Smash.”

“Latest clincher of a show ,” the paper said, “was received enthusiastically at its St. James Theater opening last Wednesday. Since then the line at the box office has been continuous.”

Other papers chimed in. The New York Herald Tribune called “Oklahoma” “jubilant and enchanting”; the Daily News dubbed it “beautifully different.”

Although grosses overall on the Great White Way were off slightly that week, “Oklahoma” and another newcomer, “Ziegfeld Follies,” were off to a fast start. Former grossed $18,000 in its first five perfs, with a weekly pace of $28,000 likely; the latter was doing even better.

By the next week, “Follies” had taken the Broadway lead with $41,000 for the week, and “Oklahoma” clocked in second with $27,500. Ticket brokers were already predicting a prosperous summer — despite or perhaps because we were in the middle of a world war.

“Broadway is dotted,” the paper explained, “with hits new and seasoned.” (Established hits included “Blithe Spirit” and “Life With Father.”)

“There is a developing trend among patrons to obtain tickets well in advance of performance, which explains the steady lines at boxoffices for shows that click best.”

A few weeks later the paper opined that the operetta is “primed to prove one of the best moneymakers in the musical field in a generation.”

Here were the stats: “Oklahoma” was estimated to have cost $80,000 and was making an operating profit of between $6,000 and $7,000 weekly. Top ticket was $4.40, though many patrons complained that “specs” (the term of the day for scalpers) were charging triple that.

One who did understand the long-term ramifications of the show’s appeal was producer Max Gordon of Columbia Pictures, who as a minor investor in the show immediately tried to wrest the film rights from the producing entity, the Theater Guild.

He was, per Variety, willing to pay in excess of $200,000, a hefty sum in those days. In the end he was pipped at the post by Metro, which already had secured the rights to Lynn Riggs play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” on which the musical is based.

The pic finally appeared in 1955, with Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, who had been a Broadway chorus girl. It, too, was a hit.

The stage musical ended up enjoying one of the longest runs in Broadway history, 2,212 performances.

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