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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?

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