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On March 31, 1943, the great American musical “Oklahoma!” premiered on Broadway at the St. James Theatre, marking a significant turning point in the history of musical theater. The production, based on Lynn Riggs’ play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” was the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who went on to write a total of 11 musicals together. “Oklahoma!” set a new standard for musical theater by integrating song, dance, and story in a more cohesive way than previous productions. The show’s record-breaking run of almost five years and 2,212 performances solidified its place in Broadway history.

Prior to “Oklahoma!,” musicals on Broadway tended to focus more on song-and-dance revues with little emphasis on narrative cohesion. Florenz Ziegfeld’s productions in the 1920s and ’30s followed this formula, but with “Show Boat,” there was a shift towards incorporating a deeper storyline. “Oklahoma!” continued this evolution by telling the story of a confident cowboy named Curly McLain, a strong-willed farm girl named Laurey Williams, and a brooding farmhand named Jud Fry. The show also featured a secondary love triangle between the adventurous Will Parker and the flirtatious Ado Annie. The integration of dialogue into song helped propel the story forward and create a more immersive experience for the audience.

One of the most groundbreaking aspects of “Oklahoma!” was its use of a dream ballet sequence choreographed by Agnes de Mille. This 18-minute segment provided insight into the characters’ inner thoughts and emotions, elevating the show to a new level of visual storytelling. The simplicity and charm of the production resonated with audiences during a time of uncertainty and upheaval, offering a sense of hope and optimism in the midst of World War II. Hammerstein’s favorite song from the show, “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top,” encapsulated this spirit of finding joy in life’s simple pleasures.

Despite initial skepticism from critics who doubted its success, “Oklahoma!” defied expectations and became a cultural phenomenon. The show’s original cast recording was a first for Broadway, allowing audiences to experience the magic of the production beyond the theater walls. Its enduring popularity and timeless themes have captivated audiences for over 80 years, reminding us of the power of storytelling and the enduring appeal of classic American musicals. “Oklahoma!” continues to invite audiences on a journey of love, laughter, and the spirit of pioneer America from the turn of the 20th century.

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