Why was the musical "Oklahoma" so revolutionary?

I just saw “Oklahoma”–(well, okay–it was a local amatuer production by volunteers–but it was a lot of fun!). Then I happened to catch on TV a movie version of the Broadway show (1960-ish?).

I know that when it first appeared on Broadway, Oklahoma was considered revolutionary for its choreography, and maybe for other reasons to. But to me, it looks a lot like other musicals. What was so revolutionary about it? Why was it considered to be such a classic?

Take a look at the “musicals” that came before it.

The musicals that Oklahoma! looks a lot like, are all musicals that came afterward.

What a coincidence–I am just now reading a biography of Joan McCracken, the lead dancer in Oklahoma!

It was indeed Agnes De Mille’s choreography, and the fact that the dance (new “American ballet and folk,” not traditional show dancing) was used to show the characters’ dreams, feelings and decisions. She also used professional dancers–mostly ballet–rather than “actors who dance” or chorines. It was the seamless blending of character-driven plot-furthering song and dance into the show that was fairly revolutionary.

As opposed to what? Songs that had nothing to do with the plot?

Well, yeah. A good many B’way shows had songs interpolated; they were appropriate, but didn’t really further the plot. It was also the dancing as much as the score, and the fact that there was no “reason” for the characters to burst into song & dance (they were cowboys and farmers, not show folk or Park Avenue playboys).

I’d be willing to bet that Oklahoma! was not the first show to do this, by the way–it was probably just the first successful show to do so.

Oklahoma! was not the first show nor the first successful show to use songs that advanced the plot. Before they got together, Oscar Hammerstein wrote (along with Jerome Kern) Showboat, and Richard Rodgers wrote (along with Lorenzo Hart) Pal Joey.

They best I’ve been able to figure out is that Oklahama! was the first to use a dream ballet.

And to end the title with an exclamation mark.

Fine. You people hash it out, then. I don’t even like Agnes De Mille.

But Eve, she always speaks so highly of you…

FWIW, the blurb for Beautiful Mornin’: The Broadway Musical in the 1940s by Ethan Mordden (in which Mr Mordden waxes rhapsodic at length about Oklahoma! and some other 40s musicals) says in relevant part:

Um, the book’s actually more of a fun read than the jacket makes it out to be, I promise. It is a bit dense for the casual reader-about-Broadway (like me for instance; I bought it and its companion books about the 20s and 50s because I’m a huge fan of Mordden’s fiction) but I did enjoy it and learned a few things.

One of the books I read on the development of popular music had it that until the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, the focus had been on New York and Broadway. The New England of Carousel and the Oklahoma setting were the first to indicate that there is more to the USA than the island of Manhattan.

Many elements of Oklahoma! had been familiar to audiences before the show came along:
—The story and characters were credible and real, with dark psychological overtones. But Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, which came earlier, did, too.
—The dream ballet was exceedingly Freudian in content but audiences had been exposed to darker elements in dance in pieces like Slaughter on Tenth Avenue from Rodgers and Hart’s (again!) On Your Toes, staged by Balanchine.
—The music had an elevated, almost operetta-like quality which audiences had been accustomed to for decades.
—The songs naturally arose from the situation and were played as an extension of the drama, not just as “turns” for the performers, but some of the earlier musicals mentioned above did that to some extent, too.
—Yet the show also didn’t shortchange audiences on the comedy bits (Ado Annie as a farmer’s daughter, for example) that had been the subject of countless vaudeville and musical comedy routines for years.
—The setting was recognizably American from many plays set in the American heartland.
It was the combination of all these elements that made the difference—the high-flown romantic sweep of the music in a native setting, sung by characters with dark psyches and ulterior motives, contrasted by the sex jokes of the comic carnal couple, dancing choreography of a singular, eccentric sensibility. In other words, it was the same, only different—not so radical as to alienate audiences yet not so cliched as to bore them. This doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the high quality of the writing and direction or the nationalistic, identity-affirming theme of the show, produced at the height of World War II.
In short, it was considered the summation and apex of the musical comedy genre up to that time.

Pretty much.

If you watch older musicals, the songs were sort of vaguely related to the plot. But not really. Anyone could have sung them at any time, and they were often used in different musicals because they fit just as well to any number of characters. They were “love song sung by an ingenue” rather than a song about a specific character in a specific play used to advance the character or the plot.

It was a change in trends for musical comedy.

On stage in New York, maybe, but in MOVIE musicals, songs and story had been seamlessly integrated for some time before “Oklahoma!” premiered.

And people like Gilbert and Sullivan had accomplished that before film was invented!

Those were operettas.

While true for some movies, not true for others. E.g., in Singing in the Rain the title song had nothing to do with plot. In fact, it was used in a previous movie musical, and again, had nothing to do with plot.

Cole Porter songs are well known (notorious?) for being used in various musicals (stage and screen) in various settings with no significant relation to plot.

Now, that being said, it’s not a hard and fast rule that the songs of Oklahoma! are all plot songs. After all, Oh, What a Beautiful Morning is not a plot song, but a mood song, it can stand very well on its own.


“I’m just a poster who can’t say ‘no.’”

Posted by pizzabrat:

Operetta? Dat ain’t a song, dat’s a dame who woiks for da phone company!

The thing I liked best about Carousel was how everybody exploded when they got near the top.

Of course, that Runner just had to try and make his break-for-it during Carousel and spoiled everything. We never did get to see the end.

Did someone forget to take their medication today?

Methinks someone’s flashing on Logan’s Run!

IIRC, it was Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first collaboration and is certainly notable for that.

What’s the technical difference between an operetta and a musical? I used to have a very old encyclopedia that held up Oklahoma! as an example of the former, but now it’s considered the latter. Where’s the stylistic line? Is there a spoken word/sung word ratio or something?