Two great writers of American musical theatre, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, had one idea in common. They wanted to present to the American public a new and revolutionary musical that would stand out above the rest. They wanted to make an impact on the societies of the era. They wanted to be creative and do something that was considered rebellious. When they finally combined their ideas together they created an American masterpiece in musical theatre: Oklahoma!. It was the first Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration, starting the most successful creative partnership in the history of American musical theatre.
According to Joseph Swain in his book The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey, there are a number of reasons why a particular work of art might be considered a milestone in the history in its genre. It might introduce innovations of technique and style so convincing that they may become extremely influential. It might attract such wide acclaim that it cannot be ignored by the artists who come after, even if the acclaimed fame eventually fades with time. It could stand as the first work of an important series. Or perhaps, it sets a new standard of artistry. (73) For whatever factors that influenced the writers to create the works they did, they produced some of the most successful and incredibly influential works of musical theatre in their time.
In the years before Oklahoma! was created, Broadway was dying. New and refreshing musicals were a rare occasion and when an artist tried to create something that he hoped his audience would like, he was sadly disappointed. Broadway was suffering from a lack of what it was revered for: astounding plays and musicals. Its time of glamour and glitz was almost forgotten, and was in need of being saved. That is why Oklahoma! is considered a rebirth of the American musical theatre at the time. It brought Broadway back to life, filling theatre seats with enthusiastic audiences who embraced the changes of this new theatre musical with open arms and made it a legend. Oklahoma! set new standards for classic American theatre by introducing new techniques of presenting the musical to the audience, introducing a new genre of music into the theatre, and strayed away from the usual classic form and structure of a musical that audiences had grown used to. It was a time of change, a time of excitement, and a time of setting standards for the future.
Almost from the first performance at the St. James Theatre on March 31, 1943, Oklahoma! has been recognized as a new kind of musical play that denied its Broadway audiences many of their most treasured traditions, says David Ewen in American Musical Theatre. There was no opening chorus line, no chorus until midway through the first act, in fact. There was rather a serious ballet and other serious overtones, including a killing in act two. The story, which was so simple, seemed to engage the audience in more than mere evening diversion. (248) These changes, far from disappointing to viewers, were upheld by a success that had never been seen in the history of musical theatre.
He continued to say that with their first collaboration, Rodgers and Hammerstein ushered in a new era for the musical theatre. This beautiful folk play realized fully that which the earlier Rodgers and Hart musicals had been striving to obtain: a synchronization of all the elements of the musical theatre into a single entity. At best Oklahoma! could lay legitimate claim to have carefully woven a new element, dance, into the artful fabric of the modern musical. No longer would singers sing and then go into their dance, a purely decorative dance at that. (248)
Dance was not a new element in the theatre realm. It had been used for years as a way of interpretation of feelings of a character that the writer or director wanted the audience to feel visually. Through movement, expression of those feelings was...
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Ewen, David. American Musical Theater. New York: Henry Holt, 1959.
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Green, Stanley. The World of Musical Comedy. Washington, DC: Da Capo, 1980.
Swain, Joseph P. The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
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