Florence Henderson Looks Back on Early Days in ‘Oklahoma’

To a certain generation, Florence Henderson will forever be known as Carol Brady. But that’s only a small slice of her long career, which dates back to her 1950s debut in the theater company of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first classic, “Oklahoma.”

What did the write-up mean to you?

From the beginning of my career, if you were in Variety, you had made it. Variety was the show business bible.

How did you get that part in “Oklahoma”?

It was my first break. I had come to New York the year before to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was barely 17 years old. I went to an open call. It turned out it was for Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were sending out the very last national company of “Oklahoma.” After meeting them and reading some lines, they offered me the role of Laurey. I had never seen “Oklahoma,” so I said, “Well, gosh, what’s she like?” And they said, “She’s an awful lot like you.” They went on to be great mentors of mine. I did most of the leading ladies they wrote in their great shows.

Did you enjoy the tour?

That was the best of times and the worst of times. My father had just died, but they had no understudy for me. Plus, I had a bad cold, and they gave me penicillin. My whole body swelled. My feet wouldn’t fit in the little Mary Jane shoes Laurey wore, so the wardrobe mistress cut out a pair of house slippers. If the critic at Variety knew all the drama that was going on, it might have been a different review.

Who were your contemporaries at the time?

Julie Andrews, who became a very dear friend. Our stage doors were back-to-back. She was in a musical called “The Boyfriend” while I was in “Fanny.” Our careers paralleled each other. I was doing “The Sound of Music” onstage, so I didn’t get the opportunity to screen-test for it. So I’ll be darned, Julie got it! But that’s OK, we’re still friends.

What did you learn from working with Rodgers and Hammerstein?

Everything! I remember asking Richard Rodgers, there’s this one note I’m having trouble with. He said, forget about the note, think about the lyric, think about what you’re saying. That’s stood me in very good stead over the years.

It must have been an extraordinary time to be working in the theater.

It was a fantastic time. I know there are great composers and lyricists working now. But you don’t leave many Broadway shows now singing a tune, or being able to remember the music or lyrics.

What’s the secret of your longevity in this business?

I say yes a lot. I realized at a very early age how important it was to diversify. I realized I loved the stage, but I also loved television. I loved the challenge of it, the speed of it. I do a lot of motivational speaking. I do my one-woman show. I still sing, and I love to make people laugh.

What lesson have you learned about show business?

A wonderful teacher told me, “Keep a cool head and a warm heart.” I think of all the things I’ve achieved in my career, at the end of the day, I’ve retained a sense of humanity. I love this business more than ever. I’m accessible to fans. I have an incredible family. What more could you ask for, except to get a great review in Variety?

Popular on Variety

More Legit

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

  • Bat Out of Hell review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Bat Out of Hell'

    No one has ever accused Jim Steinman of subtlety. The composer behind Meat Loaf’s 1977 “Bat Out of Hell” (more than 43 million albums sold worldwide) and 1993’s “Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell” (five and six times platinum in the UK and US) has forever trafficked in a boldly theatrical brand of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content