OK! by Max Wilk


The Story of Oklahoma!
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 The trail-blazing musical that launched the prolific partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein celebrates its 50th anniversary with members of the original production helping Wilk (And Did You Once See Sidney Plain?, 1986, etc.) piece together a colorful history of its evolution as the first Broadway musical drama to weld music, book, song, and dance into an integrated whole. Told in a fervid style that leans heavily on exclamation points and question marks, the story is nevertheless alluring, featuring an all-star cast: unconventional Hollywood director Rouben Mamoulian; gifted composer Richard Rodgers; a temporarily becalmed Oscar Hammerstein II; and messianic Theatre Guild producer Theresa Helburn, obsessed about making a musical out of Lynn Riggs's 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs. In setting the background, Wilk treads familiar ground that includes Theatre Guild history and the creative turmoil of the musical's collaborators. He's fortunate in his witnesses to the midwifing of Oklahoma!, who include Helene Hanff, who helped on publicity, and Elaine Steinbeck, not yet married to writer John, who worked backstage on both the Riggs play and its musical adaptation. Oklahoma! was a first not only for Hammerstein but also for young, innovative choreographer Agnes de Mille, who replaced traditional chorus girls with offbeat ballet dancers. Performed mainly by unknowns, the musical catapulted Celeste Holm and Alfred Drake to instant fame. Holm remembers opening night on March 31, 1943: ``With each song, the show rose higher and higher!'' Having surmounted the usual out-of-town rewrites, cuts, and frayed tempers, as well as an epidemic of measles that felled the cast (and de Mille), Oklahoma! enjoyed a brilliant first night and a record-breaking run, ushering in a new era in American musical theater. Despite a melodramatic presentation, Wilk's enthusiasm makes this an entertaining read--a nostalgia trip for some and an important piece of stage history for others. (Color and b&w photographs throughout--most seen.)

Pub Date: March 31st, 1993
ISBN: 0-8021-1432-6
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1993