The show was based on a 1931 play called Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs and was originally called Away We Go! when it premiered pre-Broadway in New Haven, Connecticut in early March 1943. Focusing on the rivalry between a cowboy and a ranch hand for the hand of a farm girl in the early 1900's, Oklahoma! is a somewhat simple story. However, it is also set across a sweeping landscape of settlers and the various social events that take place in their simple lives. Those events included a barn raising and a social dance that provided director Rouben Mammoulian and choreographerr Agnes de Mille plenty of big and elaborate stage moments to counter the more intimate and dramatic romantic ones surrounding the love triangle between Cowboy Curly, farm hand Jud and farm girl Laury.
What was somewhat ground breaking was how Rodgers and Hammerstein used the songs as extensions of the characters and the dialogue and thus a way to further the plot of the show. Before Oklahoma! the majority of musicals had songs that were stand alone and didn't organically grow out of the story around the music. This changed musicals forever. There were also no stars in the show, something that was almost unheard of at the time as well as an elaborate and lengthy act one ending "dream ballet" staged by deMille to portray Laury's idea of the nightmare that might happen if she ends up with Jud. In a less polished production that long ballet would have stopped the show cold. But as presented here elevated the show into a groundbreaking success that would run for 2,243 performances in its initial Broadway production.
The Tony Awards did not exist in 1943, but I'm sure if they did Oklahoma! would have swept them. Rodgers and Hammerstein did receive a special Pulitzer Prize for the show. Several famous songs came from the score including the opening number "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,' "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" the romantic duet "People Will Say We're In Love" and the showstopping title song. The cast recording was the first to receive a complete recording as up to that time most shows received truncated recordings due to the space limitations of the discs or the recordings featured studio recording artists and not the original cast members.
A successful film version premiered in 1955 starring Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones and Rod Steiger and winning three Academy Awards. The show has had three Broadway revivals with the most recent one in 2002 that starred Patrick Wilson as Curly and Andrea Martin as Aunt Eller. This revival was based on a 1998 production in London that starred Hugh Jackman as Curly.
Four songs from the 1955 Movie version:
"The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top" from the 1979 Broadway revival:
Hugh Jackman sings "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" from the filmed version of the 1998 West End Revival.