Album Review: ‘Oklahoma!’ at 75

Commemorating a groundbreaking musical
June 18, 2018 Updated: June 18, 2018

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the groundbreaking musical “Oklahoma!” Verve Records/UMe has released a deluxe, remastered edition of the original cast album, available on CD, digital, and LP. It contains the complete song program: the original 1943 album plus three songs that were omitted from the original but released two years later. There are also four alternate versions of songs and liner notes by Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.

The first collaboration of Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics and script), “Oklahoma!” not only had the longest run of any musical up until that time, and earned a host of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, but also has come to be credited with advancing the form of the musical.

The original poster of “Oklahoma!” after the exclamation point was added. (Public Domain)

Hammerstein had pointed the musical genre in a new direction with the serious 1927 “Show Boat” (with Jerome Kern supplying the music), but “Oklahoma!” wedded plot, songs, and dance in a way that had not been done before. Even the recording of “Oklahoma!” is innovative because it was made with the original cast, which was not the practice at the time.

Based on Lynn Riggs’s 1931 play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the musical opened out of town as “Away We Go.” The title was later changed to “Oklahoma,” the title of the rousing number at the end. The exclamation point was tacked on after the first posters were printed.

The overture glides through Rodgers’s memorable melodies, something the composer was able to accomplish, apparently with ease, in all his collaborations with Lorenz Hart and later with Hammerstein.

Alfred Drake (the leading singer-actor of his generation) is in wonderful voice as the cowboy hero Curly. His baritone had a sweetness that makes “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” delightful. Drake provides the best singing on the album.

The original 78 rpm recording of “Oklahoma!”

Celeste Holm milks the humor as Ado Annie, the girl who can’t say no, and also sings the duet “All Er Nuthin,’” promising faithfulness to her beau, Will Parker. The elegant Holm, who auditioned with a song by Franz Schubert, sounds more like a hillbilly than Gloria Grahame in the movie version. Lee Dixon as Will sings about the up-to-date sights in “Kansas City” with slightly more risqué lyrics than the rendition in the film.

Howard Da Silva (who went on to memorable movie roles, such as in “The Lost Weekend,” and became a musical star 25 years later as Ben Franklin in “1776”) is funny as Jud musing about his death (a trick by his romantic rival Curly) in “Pore Jud Is Daid.” For the gloomier “Lonely Room,” Drake does the singing on the recording, even though it was performed by Da Silva on stage.

Joan Roberts has the requisite sweetness as Laurey in “Many a New Day,” “Out of My Dreams,” “People Will Say We’re in Love”  (the love duet with Drake), and a reprise of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” with Drake and the chorus.

The chorus number “The Farmer and the Cowman” is another example of Hammerstein’s wit.

The closing number of the show is the title song. As pointed out in the excellent new book “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution” by Todd S. Purdum, the song was originally a solo for Curly. It was falling flat, however, and the invaluable orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett created the choral arrangement and came up with the idea of having the cast spell out the letters of the state. This piece by two native New Yorkers became the state song and anthem for the state of Oklahoma.

With an outstanding score and a terrific cast, “Oklahoma!” at 75 maintains its freshness. The sound quality is surprisingly good for a recording made during the 78 rpm era, and the liner notes are informative.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications, including The Epoch Times.