9 Rarely Seen Artifacts From 80-Plus Years of Oklahoma!

Special Features   9 Rarely Seen Artifacts From 80-Plus Years of Oklahoma!
 
A history of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! through the New York Public Library archives.

When the Bard College/St. Ann’s Warehouse production of Oklahoma! transferred to Broadway this month, it became the ninth major New York revival since the musical opened in 1943. Oklahoma! has been in a Broadway house or a venue like Lincoln Center or City Center every decade except the 1990s (though the Hugh Jackman production that was filmed for television and later transferred to Broadway opened in London in 1998). The collections of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts document every single one of these productions, and we have digitized many of the items so they can be seen anywhere in the world. Here’s a quick sampling:

1930: Draft typescript of Green Grow the Lilacs

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Green Grow The Lilacs script page Courtesy of NYPL

Theresa Helburn, one of the founders of the Theatre Guild, was the groundbreaking producer who managed to stage an expensive and experimental musical in the middle of a world war. Her subject matter was a commercially unsuccessful play that had been produced by the Guild over a decade before: Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. The play ends, not with the celebration of the new statehood of Oklahoma, but with a community sorting out what to do after the farmhand Jeeter (called Jud in the musical version) is killed in a fight with Curly. It was, in many ways, an unlikely subject for a musical in 1943. On the other hand, Green Grow the Lilacs was already a play with music. This draft typescript, preserved in the library’s collections (and available in its entirety on the library’s website), includes the lyrics to all of the folk songs (which, in many cases, are sung at a moment in the plot when Rodgers and Hammerstein would later insert a song). Curly begins the play “comin’ a singin’” to Aunt Eller, not with “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” but “Git Along, Little Dogies.”

1943: Store windows displays selling the cast album

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Shop Window Courtesy of NYPL

Although musical theatre songs were popular items since the birth of the music recording industry, most recordings preserved only a few songs from the score, and often with a different cast and orchestra than was heard in the theatre. In 1943, the most popular medium for distributing commercial recordings was the 78 rpm disc, a format which was limited to about five minutes of audio per side. Recording a full show would require a full “album” of discs. It was an expensive product, but the success stage production of Oklahoma! made it worthwhile. The six-disc recording was the first to fully document the original cast, orchestra, and most of the original songs. Despite the expense, it was a hot item, and stores around the country created window displays to sell it. The New York Public Library preserves a set of photographs from around the country of these window displays, many of which can be seen in our Digital Collections (a few of my favorite examples can be found here and here).

1952: Ticket order form for the first Broadway “revival”

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Oklahoma! at the Broadway Theatre (1951) Courtesy of NYPL

The first Broadway revival of Oklahoma! was actually a return of the original production’s national touring company for a brief stop in New York. It stayed at the Broadway Theatre for about two months before continuing on for another year. The visit produced relatively few materials preserved by the Library, but this mail order form from our newspaper clippings files (which often include much more than just clippings) documents how the show was marketed.

1953: Advertisement for the City Center production of Oklahoma!

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Oklahoma! at New York City Center (1953) Courtesy of NYPL

In the middle of the 20th century, New York City Center (now home of Encores!) became something like the dollar cinemas of the late 20th century. The venue would present cheaper productions of recent (but not entirely new) Broadway hits. One of these was a revival of Oklahoma! for the show’s tenth anniversary. This advertisement offers top tickets for an evening show for $3; by comparison, ads in the New York Times from the same time were offering “new popular prices” for tickets to Saturday evening performances of South Pacific (then in the fourth year of its original production) for $6. Top tickets for Wonderful Town, the 1953 winner of the Best Musical Tony Award sold for $7.20.

1963: Letter from producer Jean Dalrymple to critics

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Opening night invitation for Oklahoma! at the City Center of Music and Drama (1963) Courtesy of NYPL

Producer Jean Dalrymple was appointed director of the New York City Center Theatre Company at the end of 1953 and directed the venue’s Light Opera company from 1957-1965. In 1963, on the 20th anniversary of Oklahoma!, she produced the second of City Center’s three revivals of the show. The 1963 production opened in February during a newspaper strike and so reviews did not reach the public. In this letter, Dalrymple asks critics to return to the show during a short re-staging of the production during a two-week run in May when the strike was over.

1965: Ticket order form for the holiday season revival at City Center

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Oklahoma! (1965) Courtesy of NYPL

When I was growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, tours of Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera would visit the Fox about every 18 months. Sometimes they visited as part of the regular season, but just as often they were a special, off-season offering during the holidays. Today, tours of Wicked and The Lion King fill the same slots. In the 1960s, it was Oklahoma!. This mail order form for a special December holiday staging of the show at City Center offers top tickets for just under $5.

1969: Photograph of the cast of the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center production

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Margaret Hamilton, Bruce Yarnell, and Lee Beery in Oklahoma! at Lincoln Center (1969) Courtesy of NYPL

When plans for Lincoln Center were first drawn up, there was not a clear choice for a theatre that could sit down on campus. Eventually, a new (but ultimately short-lived) company was founded by Robert Whitehead and Elia Kazan with the intention of staging new American drama. To provide a home for musical theatre on campus, Richard Rodgers created the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center that, from 1964-1969, produced revivals of recent musicals that would then go on tour. The final season included a revival of Rodgers’ own Oklahoma! featuring Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West) as Aunt Eller.

1979: Hilary Knight Poster for the 1979 revival

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Oklahoma! (1979) Courtesy of NYPL

The 1979 Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, directed by Oscar Hammerstein’s son, William, featuring Agnes de Milles original choreography (with a few updates by the choreographer herself) was not a major departure from the 1943 Theatre Guild version, but it was the first Broadway revival that was not a facsimile production of the 1943 original. It had a short, nine-month run from December of 1979 to August of 1980 and is possibly best known today for this iconic poster designed by Hilary Knight (illustrator of the Eloise children’s books).

READ: More Than Eloise: Hilary Knight’s Iconic Broadway Posters

2002: Souvenir program for 2002 revival

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Courtesy of NYPL

The last time Oklahoma! was on Broadway, it took over the Gershwin Theatre. The production closed in February of 2003 and was replaced in the space by Wicked, which has stayed there ever since. The new Broadway revival is in the same building, one door over, in the smaller Circle in the Square Theatre. Although the new Bard/St. Ann’s production is a radically different approach to Oklahoma! than any that have come before, both the 2002 and 2019 revivals share some similarities. This souvenir program from 2002 shows the cast eating at a picnic table (as they do in the 2019 production) next to an article about director Trevor Nunn’s belief in the importance of “a sense of community” and his belief that Oklahoma! is a show about a “strong sense of the necessity of pulling together in a potentially hostile world.” This sentiment is redolent of the post-9/11 feelings of a country recovering from national tragedy. The 2019 production, conceived in a highly polarized America, returns to Green Grow the Lilacs' uneasy acknowledgment of the potential dangers of “a sense of community.” In the 2019 production, when the citizens of the “brand new state” declare “we know we belong to the land,” there is the suggestion that they have formed an exclusive tribe, and that those who are not part of this community will be violently removed from the land.

Doug Reside is the Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Curator for the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

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