Joan Roberts, the Soprano Who Gave Voice to Laurey in Oklahoma!, Dead at 95
By Kenneth Jones
Joan Roberts, the soprano who originated one of the major leading-lady roles in American musical theatre — Laurey in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! — died in Stamford, CT, on Aug. 13 at the age of 95, her son Jack Donlon announced. The cause of death was congestive heart failure.
In age when taste seem to dictate that sopranos sound ethereal and unreachable, stressing the melody and shimmering vocal technique over the lyric, Ms. Roberts (if the groundbreaking cast recording is accurate evidence) clearly articulated both the earthbound lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II and the beauty of Richard Rodgers' music. The 1943 show was, after all, set in the plains of Indian territory, not in some gossamer fairyland.
Ms. Roberts, whose final Broadway appearance was as faded operetta soprano Heidi Schiller in Roundabout Theatre Company's 2001 revival of Follies, was born on July 15, 1917, in New York City. She appeared on Broadway in the musicals Sunny River (by Hammerstein and Sigmund Romberg, 1942), and the post-Oklahoma! shows Marinka, Are You With It? and Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn hit High Button Shoes (she was a replacement).
Ted Chapin, president of Rodgers & Hammerstein, said on Aug. 14, "Joan Roberts was a wonderful character. When I first met her and that feisty spirit came with a decidedly Long Island accent, her uniqueness became apparent. But she was sharp as a tack with a wonderful memory of Oklahoma! It is sad to see one more member of the original cast leave us."
Earlier this summer, actress Celeste Holm — who created the role of Laurey's pal, Ado Annie — died.
In addition to working in TV and films (making her professional debut at the age of five in an episode of the "Our Gang" films, according to her son), in recent years, Ms. Roberts conducted workshops on singing and voice projection. In 2011 she was honored by the University of North Carolina's School of the Arts while attending their replica production of the original Oklahoma!, where she was joined by fellow original star Holm. Ms. Roberts' autobiography, "Stage Right," was released by Kaufmann Publishing earlier this summer.
In her bio in the 2001 Playbill for Follies, Ms. Roberts indicated that she was handpicked by her mentor Hammerstein for the part of "yeller"-haired Laurey Williams, a country girl caught between two men — confident cowboy Curly and hulking ranch hand Jud. The conflict in the show largely has to do with Laurey and Curly's stubbornness and pride. Nevertheless, in articulating the tension of young courtship, they sang the choice duets "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and "People Will Say We're in Love." Laurey also sings "Many a New Day" and "Out of My Dreams." The latter sparked the show's famous "dream ballet," in which separate dancers played a "Dream Laurey" and a "Dream Curly," dancing the inner feelings of the characters.
In 2003, Freeport High School on Long Island got a brush with American musical theatre history when Ms. Roberts appeared as the jewel in a diadem of Richard Rodgers songs in concert. Ms. Roberts, of Rockville Centre, NY, was the above-the-title star of the concept concert, Oh, What a Beautiful Evening, which was constructed by Freeport High School choral director Stephen C. Pagano as a show of Rodgers songs refracted through Roberts' experience.
Pagano told Playbill.com at the time that he met Ms. Roberts after she attended a previous Freeport High School concert and she volunteered her talents to the current show. Pagano constructed the show around Roberts. Pagano said his students gained invaluable experience working with Roberts, and that working with professionals often teaches students more than they could learn in a teacher-only environment.
"I'm training them, but when you are working with a professional, it's wholly different," Pagano said. "I've also gained a lot from this, going to her house and rehearsing with her."
That concert was framed with an "Inside the Actors Studio"-like interview with Roberts, with songs flowing from the interview. Act One featured songs by Rogers and Lorenz Hart, and Act Two featured the lyrics of Hammerstein.
The show was presented almost 60 years to the day (March 31, 1943) of the opening night of Oklahoma!
Roberts' most recent Broadway appearance was in the Roundabout Theatre revival of Follies, in which she sang "One More Kiss." In Oh, What a Beautiful Evening, an original show constructed with the permission of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, Roberts sang "Where or When," "With a Song in My Heart," "Getting to Know You," "Climb Every Mountain," and (from Oklahoma!) "Out of My Dreams" and the title song (she played Aunt Eller in the latter).
Late in her career, in 1998, she played Daisy in the play Driving Miss Daisy on the Hempstead campus of Long Island's Hofstra University. She also appeared in Legacy, a show at San Jose Rep in California.
Over the years, in stock or on tour, she played leading roles in such shows as Guys and Dolls, Too Many Girls, Naughty Marietta, Up in Central Park, Show Boat, Music in the Air, Carousel and more.
Joan Roberts was married to John Donlon, MD, until his death in 1965. She was married to Alexander Peter, DDS, until his passing in 1993. She is survived by her son John Donlon and his wife, Margaret, of New Canaan, CT; two stepsons, Robert Peter, MD and his wife Mary Ann, of Hillsborough, NC, and James Peter of Des Moines, IA.
Funeral arrangements are as follows: visitation on Thursday, Aug. 16 from 2-4 PM and 7-9 PM at Macken Mortuary, 52 Clinton Avenue, Rockville Centre, NY. The funeral mass will be held on Friday, Aug. 17 at 10 AM at St. Agnes Cathedral, 29 Quealy Place, Rockville Centre.
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