Why was the musical "Oklahoma" so revolutionary?

I recall that there was an argument in the Letters clumns of the New York Times about precisely this issue – what separates a musical from an operatta – or an opera, for that matter? As I recall, there were a lot of definition proposed, which were promptly overturned, and no clear consensus ever did emerge.

A “pure” opera has no spoken words at all (although some Offenbach works have a little bit). Or was that one of the overturned rules?

In movies it had been done before in both An American in Paris and Singin in the Rain, and probably before that.

An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) were both done after Oklahoma! (on Broadway in 1943).

Don’t get confused by the date of the movie – for a variety of reasons, Oklahoma!* wasn’t filmed until 1955. It’s hard to believe anyone involved in the films were unaware of O! when they started working on them.

Oklahoma! is often considered the first modern musical, with integrated songs and story and dance. However, like many things considered the “first,” it may not be. Many of the elements had been integrated in other musicals of the time. Once source indicated that the only real innovation was the use of a ballet (there was dancing in musicals, but it was of the chorus line variety; indeed, some thought O! would fail because there was no chorus line in it).

As a side note, seeing the musical again made me realize it the lead characters were a couple of the most unpleasant people put on stage. Curly is a gratuitiously cruel bastard (how can you sympathize with someone who urges someone to go out and committ suicide?) and Laurie is an emptyheaded egotistical tease. I feel much more for Jud – sure, he’s extremely violent, but he’s also constantly provoked. Laurie plays with his feelings by saying she’ll go to the social with him and Curly shows him nothing but undisguised contempt, ridiculing everything about him.

You can’t really establish an empirical definition that will separate a “musical” from an “opera” from an “operetta”. After all, Carmen hardly falls into the “operetta” category and yet includes spoken dialogue. Likewise, Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury has no spoken dialogue and is still not classified as an “opera.”

True, operettas usually have less spoken dialogue than musicals, but there’s no hard and fast rule. An operetta might be seen as “music with some dialogue”, whereas a “musical” is more “dialogue with some music”. But these are trends, not hard and fast rules.

As to the difference between an opera and operetta, the distinction these days seems to lie in what professional opera companies will perform, and what they consider “beneath them”. The Metopolitian Opera will perform “Die Fledermaus”, for example, but will not touch “Pirates of Penzance”.

Coz I am feeling nit picky today

Its Lorenz Hart not Lorenzo…

nit pick off

My statement was that “in movies it had been done before”, and the movie Oklahoma! was filmed and released after both An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain.

I’ve always felt that the movie version of Oklahoma was nothing special.

The movie wasn’t revolutionary; the show was (and that’s what they’re talking about when it’s called such – see the OP, which references the show).

Both An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain cribbed from Oklahoma, the musical (Kelley and Comdon and Green started on Broadway, after all, and could hardly be unaware of it). They did a fine job creating their own movies, but they owed a lot of what they did to Oklahoma.

You see, when people don’t know what word to use for something that’s really really good, and in some way significant (of what?), they use words like “revolutionary.” Especially people in the print media. Especially in the 40’s.

People who really like big old-fashioned romantic-sentimental professional Broadway musicals with overtures and full string sections…people like me…who are probably gay men (in my case it’s certain)…take considerable delight in the classic warhorses like OKLAHOMA! and THE KING AND I and GUYS AND DOLLS and MY FAIR LADY and even in a pinch HELLO, DOLLY. The oldest of those that we really like (except SHOW BOAT) is OKLAHOMA! (SHOW BOAT was sort of the first dose of a treatment that needed two doses, as it turned out.)

The film version hints at what a thoroughly professional package it is. In fact, one of OK!'s strengths is that it is so well put together that it’s very hard to not do it well. Too-old Gordon MacRae did it well on a great big screen; too-young highschool students do it well in the cafetorium next to the salad bar. Guys in drag do it well. Folks in Siam do it. Even educated fleas do it. It’s a simple, universal story about flirting young lovers confronting cynical sexuality. Ie, romance versus reality.

Some people (see above) prefer the romance, because reality sucks. Us such people would rather spend a couple hours watching the dramatization of sweet sentiments than 10 minutes of Sondheimian icks or Andrew Llloyd Webber “concept” or the belted bathos of something like LES MIZ.

(I should note that, with the above paragraph, I place myself in a tiny perverted minority.)

We also prefer an Agnes De Mille dream-ballet to the equally-cliched-but-less-pleasant angular hip-thrusts of an evening with Bob Fosse.

Now it’s true, as stated by others, that just about everything OK! did well had been done before by others, here and there. Even the psychological-dream stuff had been tackled before in LADY IN THE DARK (on Broadway). There were a number of “western” musicals with “singing cowboys”: on Broadway (RIO RITA, GIRL CRAZY, Hammerstein’s RAINBOW) and in many films starring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, etc. Even Laurel and Hardy.

Most MOVIE musicals of the ten years preceding had song scores that occasionally shook hands with plot. Even the Fred and Ginger series mixed pure specialty numbers with song-and-dance numbers that actually SHOW the main characters falling in love (or irritating one another) in a character-appropriate manner.

Just take a look at two popular, original film musicals that have almost totally integrated scores: SNOW WHITE and THE WIZARD OF OZ. Both preceded OK! by several years.

So perhaps OK! was not so much a revolution as a masterful culmination and summary.

Yet–it did do a few things for the first time.

–It gave Oscar Hammerstein II, a great and unique talent, his first real hit in years.

–It freed Rodgers from the deteriorating Hart, allowing him to prove that he could compose folkish stuff a la Kern, not just modern-sounding New York nightclub tunes.

–And thus it alerted theatergoers to the existence of a new team dedicated to thoroughly professional, somewhat “elevated” family-type shows (albeit with serious dramatic elements). There is some truth to the notion that, without OK! being a major success, nobody would have bothered with CAROUSEL, and we would have skipped over SOUTH PACIFIC and THE KING AND I and proceeded straight on to ME AND JULIET and PIPE DREAM (the failures of which would have precluded CINDERELLA).

–Something similar could be said about Agnes De Mille’s broadway career…and hence about Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, etc.

–I believe the original cast album–a new idea–also was a big seller, opening the door to an additional revenue stream for shows. (Big picture: live Broadway trying to survive in the era of the movies.)

So, OKLAHOMA! may or may not have been “revolutionary.” But it was damn significant, and was, and is, damn good work.

None of which contradicts my statement that IN MOVIES there had been ballets before. Other posters had made reference to movie musicals and I was doing the same. I thought that by including the words IN MOVIES as the first two words of my post, it would be clear that I was referring to movies and not broadway shows. I see that I was mistaken in your case.

Let me rephrase:

IN MOVIES there had been ballets before. Both the MOVIE An American in Paris and the MOVIE Singin in the Rain had ballets before the MOVIE Oklahoma.

Yes, Number Six. And those ballets you mention were in the movies because of Oklahoma. That’s the point you keep missing.

Pointing out the dates of the three films is irrelevant to the question of why OK! was influential. The earlier films were influenced by OK! Few people say the movie was influential – it was the Broadway show that was.

"They ain’t nobody gonna slug out anythin’. This here’s a party.
Sing it, Andrew. Tum-ti-ti-tum-tum-tum…

"Oh, the farmer and the cowboy should be friends,
(I keent hear ya)
Oh, the farmer and the cowboy should be friends,
( Oh, you can do better than that)
( Everybody!!)
( Well, that’s more like it!)


Cite? I’m not challenging your point here, just wondering if you have any evidence to support your claim other than post hoc ergo proctor hoc.

Pointing out the dates the films were released certainly is relevant if one is attempting to establish which movie first had a dream ballet. Which is what I was doing. That’s a point you keep missing.

However, since you seem to want to compare movies to the broadway play, I’ll point out that The Wizard of Oz had a dream ballet in 1939, four years before the debut of Oklahoma! on Broadway.

THE WIZARD OF OZ did not have a dream ballet.

THE WIZARD OF OZ was a movie musical, much of which ostensibly took place in a dream.

But it did not have a ballet.

You need to pay a little more attention next time you watch it. Here’s a hint: look for the ladies in pink leotards toe dancing.

Do you mean the Lullaby League?
That’s quite a stretch if that’s what you’re calling a “dream ballet”

Jeez, Number Six, give it up!

Oy—now I can’t help thinking of Oz-klahoma!, with cowboys dancing with Munchkins . . .

Number Six, if it weren’t for the suggestion that I need to pay a little more attention to (of all things!) THE WIZARD OF OZ (I’m a gay man, fer God sake!) I wouldn’t make the following uncharitable comment:

Maybe “ladies in pink leotards toe dancing” is what they mean by “ballet” in Green Lake, Texas. But for the rest of us, no.