•• Lifelong Learning
How to Get to Oklahoma!
Professor tells GAA class the twisting tale ofa musical landmark
When Oklahoma! first hit the stage, it was a strange musical with an odd opening
and a different name. The curtain opened
to reveal not a line of scantily clad chorus
girls, but an older woman churning butter
by a farmhouse. From back stage, "Oh,
what a beautifulmornin'. Oh, what a beau-
tiful day," was sung by a booming, unidenti-
fied male voice.
"It's a strange way ofbeginl1ing a musical
in any period," said Tim Carter, David G.
Frey Distinguished Professor ofmusic and
chair ofUNC's music department."It's
even a stranger way of beginning a musical
This landmark musical has ties to Chapel
Hill, where even today Carter can count on
finding students in his classes whose high
school productions cast them as Ado Annie,
Curly or any of the many memorable char-
acters that will long outlive their creators.
T he path from a play by a Chapel Hill resi-
dent to the unprecedented, now ubiquitous
musical by Rodgers and Harrunerstein was
the subject ofa GAA seminar Carter pre-
sented for the spring reunions. Carter's
book, 'Oklahoma!': The Making of an
American Musical, will be published by Yale
University Press in 2006.
At the time that Oklahoma! debuted on
Broadway, most musicals "were essentially
escapism, attempts to escape the rigors of
wartime," Carter explained. "So the conven-
tional way ofopening a musical in 1943 was
basically to have lots of chorus girls flashing
their ankles, legs, thighs and other parts of
their anatomy, doing a dance routine."
A couple ofcomedians might come on
after that to tell a few jokes, but certainly
there was no drama because wartime audi-
ences didn't want anything arduous, Carter
said. "And yet this musical that opened in
Broadway on the 31st of March 1943, that
was turned into a movie in 1955, started in
a very different way, a very surprising way."
A decade before its Broadway debut,
Oklahoma! existed in another form: Green
Grow the Lilacs, a semi-successful Broadway
play by Lynn Riggs who called Chapel
Hill, an10ng several other places, his home.
Riggs was from Oklahoma, half-Cherokee
52 JlIly l Aliglist 2005
When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammersteln started work
together In 1942, Hammerstein Insisted on something unusu·
al for that era: He wanted to write the lyrics and the play.
and a close friend of Paul Green ' 21, for
whom UNC's Paul Green Theatre is
Theresa Helburn, co-director of T he
Theater Guild of New York, had brought
Riggs' play to Broadway in 1931. When she
looked for a successor to the Guild's biggest
hit, Porgy and Bess, she considered reviving
Green Grow the Lilacs as a musical. In her
search for a composer, Helburn eventually
found someone keen on the idea: Richard
Rodgers. But he'd need a new parmer. His
lyricist since 1918,Lorenz Hart, was strug-
gling with depression and alcoholism. Hart
was in no shape to work with Rodgers in
1942, the year before Hart died.
Helburn suggested Rodgers try Oscar
Han1l11erstein II, and this fateful conversa-
tion led to the fan10us collaboration that
produced a musical every two years until
Hanunerstein died of cancer in 1960.
When Rodgers and Hammerstein start-
ed work together that sun1l11er of 1942,
Hat11l11erstein insisted on something unusu-
al, Carter said. He wanted to write the
lyrics and the play: Furthermore,
Han1!11erstein said he would write the
lyrics first and then Rodgers could write
the music. This was not the order in which
things were done with Rodgers and Hart,
or anyone else at that time, Carter said. It
was customary for the composer to write
nice tunes, then hand them over to the
Once the production teatn was set, it
was time to find the pelformers - prefer-
ably stars who would guarantee ticket sales.
They were running out ofmoney and des-
perately worried the show would be a
tremendous flop, Carter said."They
thought they were going to lose an arm
and a leg, but nevertheless they were com-
The big natnes did not come through.
Among those desired were John Way:ne for
Curly, Anthony Quinn for the role ofJud,
Deatma Durbin for Laurey, Groucho Marx
for the role of the peddler and a 13-year-
old Shirley Temple for the role of Ado
"Shirley Tel11~ple's mother read the script
of Oklahoma!, considered Shirley for the
role of Ado Annie and said, 'Not on your
Nellie. The part is roo mature and too sexy,'
quote unquote," Carter said."Shirley
Temple's mother was not going to have her
young daughter standing on a stage in
Broadway singing, 'I'm just a girl who can't
T he show went to rehearsal just five
weeks before it was due to open on
Broadway. It did not have the Hollywood
nan1es, but it had a stellar cast nonetheless.
The script then was "not the script we all
know and love," Carter said. It included
characters and songs that disappeared after
rehearsals and trial performances.
It is quite common with Broadway