The 1943 musical “Oklahoma!” was a touchstone in the history of Broadway theater. It marked the first of a series of groundbreaking collaborations between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, broke all kinds of conventions as to the structure of book musicals, and revolutionized the record industry with the first “original cast album,” which starred Alfred Drake, Joan Roberts, Celeste Holm, and Howard Da Silva.
What many people don’t know is that the iconic Rodgers & Hammerstein score, which featured such memorable songs as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” and “I Cain’t Say No” replaced a selection of traditional folk and cowboy songs, which were sung in the original play upon which “Oklahoma!” was based.
“Oklahoma!” was a musical adaptation of “Green Grow the Lilacs,” a play written by Oklahoma-born playwright Lynn Riggs, who said that he wrote the story “to recapture in a kind of nostalgic glow the great range of mood which characterized the old folk songs and ballads I used to hear in my Oklahoma childhood – their quaintness, their sadness, their robustness, they simplicity, their melodrama, their touching sweetness.” “Green Grow the Lilacs” played for only 64 performances in 1931 and was quickly forgotten.
In 1940, the play was revived by the Theater Guild at the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Connecticut. The revival was scheduled to be directed by John Ford with John Wayne cast as Curly, but neither Wayne nor Ford showed up for the production. Replacing Wayne was another Ford protégé, Ward Bond, while the choreography was handled by a talented young actor/dancer named Gene Kelly.
The story was a simple tale of a naïve young girl named Laurey who was being brought up by her Aunt Eller after her parents’ death. Laurey is torn between playing hard-to-get with hunky cowboy Curly while fending off the advances of the brutish ranch hand Jeeter Fry (changed to Jud Fry in the musical).
“Green Grow the Lilacs” was named for a traditional Scottish ballad titled “Green Grows the Laurel.” The play featured a number of other folk songs, four of which were sung by a 25-year-old Texan named Maurice Woodward “Tex” Ritter, who had gotten a his college degree at the University of Texas in Austin and had been performing on Broadway since 1928. Ritter would later become a major country-western singer and actor in “B” westerns. His claim to fame was singing the title song to the 1953 motion picture “High Noon.”
Ritter, who played the role of Cord Elam, was the first to make a record of “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which he recorded for Capitol Records in 1943.
The play opens just as “Oklahoma!” does – with Aunt Eller sitting on her porch, working away at her butter churn. The voice of cowhand Curly can be heard off stage, singing the traditional cowboy song “Whoopee Ti-Yi-Ay, Git Along, You Little Dogies.”
Other familiar folk songs sung during the play by various characters included “Strawberry Roan,” “Home on the Range,” “Skip to My Lou,” and “The Little Brass Wagon.”
Theatre Guild founder Lawrence Langner invited his Connecticut neighbor Richard Rodgers to come see the show; after seeing it, Rodgers thought that it might make a great musical and asked his then-partner Lorenz Hart to work on lyrics for a set of new songs. Hart, however, was by this time a hopeless alcoholic, mired in depression, and demurred. Rodgers then turned to his friend Oscar Hammerstein, who agreed to write the libretto and lyrics. The two decided to jettison all of the folk songs but write a score that would retain the charm of the original songs. For the song replacing Curly’s opening cowboy number, Hammerstein was inspired by Lynn Riggs’ own stage direction at the outset of his play:
It is a radiant summer morning several years ago, the kind of morning which, enveloping the shapes of earth – men, cattle in a meadow, blades of the young corn, streams – makes them seem to exist now for the first time, their images giving off a visible golden emanation that is partly true and partly a trick of imagination focusing to keep alive a loveliness that may pass away.
Hammerstein retained the images of the corn and the golden haze over the meadow, but was careful not to elevate Curly’s language beyond what his character was capable of. “He is, after all,” Hammerstein said later, “just a cowboy, not a playwright.” The line “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye” was originally “a cow pony’s eye,” but Hammerstein realized that when looking at a neighbor’s corn field that it would be higher than that. After three weeks, the song was finished. Rodgers saw the line about the corn and immediately came up with a lilting waltz that took him only ten minutes to write.
All the songs in “Oklahoma!” were written in this fashion – songs created for each character that helped drive the story, using language the characters would be familiar with. The big irony of the musical adaptation was that it was the traditional folk songs of the prairie that first inspired Lynn Riggs to write the play in the first place, yet none of them made it into the musical version.