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Oklahoma! – Studio Cast Recording 1952

Oklahoma! – Studio Cast Recording 1952

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Synopsis

When it premiered at the St. James Theatre in New York on March 31, 1943, Oklahoma! was hailed as “fresh and imaginative” (Journal-American), “jubilant and enchanting” (Herald Tribune), and “beautifully Different” (Daily News). Different it was! In sharp contrast with the sophisticated but loosely structured musicals of the 1930s, Oklahoma! smoothly integrated all its elements (songs, story and dance numbers) into one seamless, down-to-earth spectacular. Oscar Hammerstein II had tried, to no avail, to convince his frequent partner Jerome Kern to undertake the project. Now an enthusiastic Hammerstein joined the Rodgers and Hart team as librettist (the three had known each other from their college years at Columbia University). Hart, however, was in poor health and had to bow out, so Hammerstein assumed the role of lyricist as well. Soon, the rumor mill began churning, adding to the production’s precariousness: Rodgers had been successful with Hart for many years, and local pundits wondered whether his teaming up with another partner would prove detrimental to his musical expression – especially since Hammerstein’s track record had not been very good lately. Intensifying the pervasive gloom surrounding the show during its early months of preparation was the announcement that there would be no stars in the cast, just some unknowns, and that the ballets would be staged by Agnes de Mille, whose reputation as a dancer/choreographer had not yet extended to Broadway. Under these less than felicitous auspices, Away We Go!, as the new musical was initially titled, had its first public performances in New Haven, Connecticut, in early March. Despite encouraging reactions from the New Haven and Boston press, word reached New York that the new musical was a long shot and would probably be a fast flop. Nevertheless, Oklahoma! (retitled after a new musical number that had been added in Boston) finally arrived at the St. James Theatre and immediately seduced New York. Its homespun appeal notwithstanding, the show broke with tradition in grand style. Oklahoma! offered a strong, angular story line which, from the start, held its audience captive. The love story between Laurey and Curly, and the very real threat Jud Fry represented to their happiness was heady stuff. The solid theatrical content of the plot, colorfully set in Indian territory on the verge of becoming a state, placed the production miles ahead of its precursors. The centerpiece of the new work, the ballet conceived by Agnes de Mille, reinforced its seriousness. This darkly shaded, allegorical dream, in which dancers impersonate the three protagonists, brought the dangerous triangle they formed to a tragic end. Furthermore, Oklahoma! did not begin with the customary lineup of chorus girls to warm up the audience. Instead, it started with a cowboy singing offstage about “a bright, golden haze on the meadow” and “cattle . . . standin’ like statues.” The girls eventually arrived, but all costumed in attractive finery or dressed down in cowboy outfits. Nor did the score by Rodgers and Hammerstein – lyrical, fresh, exciting – conform to the norms. The songs, cleverly tailored, contributed to the forward movement of the entire show instead of interrupting its natural course. In answer to those who had predicted that without Hart he would flounder, Rodgers created a score rich in catchy melodies, wonderfully exhilarating and instantly memorable. Prompted by the rural background of the show, Hammerstein wrote some of his most lyrical verse extolling nature, while also indulging in fancy word games. Oklahoma! proved to be the boost both needed at that point in their respective careers. Rodgers discovered in Hammerstein a collaborator whose sensitivity contrasted strangely with the causticity of his previous associate; Hammerstein found in Rodgers’s music new accents that echoed his own lyricism. Both emerged stronger, individually and together. During this period, Rodgers and Hammerstein also wrote several outstanding shows that rightfully took their place among the most memorable productions seen on Broadway: Carousel, in 1945; South Pacific, in 1949; The King and I, in 1951; and The Sound Of Music, in 1959. The death of Hammerstein, shortly after the premiere of that last show, brought the creative partnership to an end. Oklahoma! continues to appeal to audiences all over the world, attracted to its simplicity and utter freshness. In the fifty years since it was created, it has known many productions, including a magnificent film version in 1955, starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. As recently as 1979, it was again revived on Broadway to great critical acclaim. Perhaps the foremost of many reasons for its perennial allure is its boundless energy and unabashedly lyrical moods that never fail to find a target in the audience, any audience. Many are bound to say with Oscar Hammerstein: “And when we say: Ee-ee-ow! A-yip-i-o-ee-ay! We’re only sayin’, You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, O.K.!”

– Didier C. Deutsch

A Note About the Bonus Tracks The four bonus tracks included here represent the first authorized digital release of an early studio recording of highlights from Oklahoma!, released by RCA Victor as a 10-inch LP that also included excerpts from Carousel. Jay Blackton conducts a studio orchestra and chorus in this 1953 recording that features John Raitt as Curly and Patricia Northrup as Laurey. Three year later, Blackton would share with Robert Russell Bennett and Adolph Deutsch an Academy Award® for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture for the film version of Oklahoma! Raitt was a relative unknown in 1944 when he stunned Rodgers and Hammerstein with his audition to replace Alfred Drake, the original Curly, in the Broadway production of Oklahoma! Raitt was cast instead in the show’s Chicago company and toured in it before Rodgers and Hammerstein brought him to New York to create the role of Billy Bigelow in Carousel. In 1964, Raitt starred in a complete studio recording of Oklahoma!, also available from Masterworks Broadway.

Credits

Curly McLain – Nelson Eddy Laurey Williams – Virginia Haskins Ado Annie Carnes – Kaye Ballard Aunt Eller Murphy – Portia Nelson Jud Fry – Lee Cass Will Parker – Wilton Clary Ali Hakim – David Morris Fred – David Atkinson Chorus & Orchestra Conducted by Lehman Engel Bonus Tracks Conducted by Jay Blackton Producer: Goddard Lieberson CD Reissue Produced by Didier C. Deutsch Digitally Mastered by Darcy Proper Published by Williamson Music Inc. (ASCAP) Cover Photo: Allen C. Reed/Arizona Highways Magazine