Oklahoma! launched a new era in the American musical. It also began the most successful songwriting partnership in Broadway history.
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian and choreographed by a then-unknown ballet choreographer named Agnes de Mille, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical version of Green Grow the Lilacs, originally titled Away We Go, made its world premiere at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in March of 1943. Only a few changes were made on the road, but they were significant. On number, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” was cut, and a number about the land originally planned as a duet for Laurey and Curly became instead a showstopping chorale called “Oklahoma.” So successful was this number during the musical’s pre-Broadway engagement in Boston that the decision was made to add an exclamation point and make it the name of the show.
Oklahoma! opened at the St. James Theatre on Broadway on March 31, 1943. At that time, the longest-running show in Broadway history had run for three years. Oklahoma! surpassed that record by two more years, running for a marathon 2,212 performances. The US national tour played for an unprecedented ten and a half years, visiting every single state and playing before a combined audience of more than 10 million people. In 1947, Oklahoma! opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, where it ran for 1,548 performances, the longest run of any show up to that time in the 267-year history of the theatre. In 1953, the Oklahoma State Legislature named “Oklahoma” the official state song. In 1955, the motion picture version of Oklahoma!, starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones and produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, was released to great success.
Oklahoma! returned to Broadway several times, most recently in a reconceived and critically acclaimed 2019 revival directed by Daniel Fish.