The original version of Oklahoma opened on Broadway in 1943. It was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and it is still performed today.
This musical is set in Oklahoma territory in 1906. It starts on a beautiful day as the leading man, Curly McLain, approaches a farm which is owned by Laurey Williams and her Aunt Eller. Curley invites Laurey to go to the box social dance with him. The box social is a dance where lunch baskets, made by local girls, are auctioned. The man who bids the highest price for each basket is allowed to eat lunch with the girl who created it. This box social dance later becomes a vital event in the plot of Oklahoma.
As Curley walks onto the stage, at the start of Oklahoma, he sings ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ which starts the musical on an optimistic note. Later, he introduces more romantic interest to the plot, when he attempts to win Laurey over by singing about a beautiful carriage, in the song ‘The Surrey with a Fringe on the Top’. However, Oklahoma is a musical with a dark side. The audience learn that Jud Fry, a sinister farm hand, is also in love with Laurey. Jud approaches Laurey and invites her to go to the dance with him. Laurey accepts, partly to tease Curly and partly because she feels afraid of refusing Jud.
Romance in Oklahoma
Whilst Curley and Laurey provide one romantic thread, in Oklahoma, another important young couple are Will Parker and Ado Annie. These characters add comedy to the plot. The audience discover that Will has visited Kansas city and he sings a song about the wonders of this town.
Will explains that he saved up enough money to marry Annie but then he spent it all on gifts for her. Meanwhile, Annie, who is naturally flirtatious, has become involved with another man, called Ali Hakim. She tells Laurey that she finds it difficult to refuse either of these men. Her comic song ‘I Cain’t Say No’ explains her dilemma. Ado Annie’s father gets angry about Ali’s interest in his daughter and tries to persuade him to marry her.
Laurey is confused about her feelings towards Curly and worried about her promise to go to the dance with Jud. She sings ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’, to Curly, in an attempt to explore her feelings about him. Meanwhile Curly tries to persuade Jud that he would be more appreciated if he was dead. This scene, and the song ‘Poor Jud is dead’ foreshadow Jud’s death, later in the musical.
Laurey asks if she can buy a magic potion from Ali. This potion is used as a dramatic device since it enables her to dream, through a ballet sequence, about marriage to both Curly and Jud. In this dream, the marriage to Curly is idealistic but the marriage to Jud is terrifying. Within the ballet Jud becomes violent and kills Curly. In the ballet the characters of Laurey, Curly and Jud are often represented by experienced dancers.
The box social dance forms the dramatic climax of this musical. It starts with a song about ‘The Farmer and the Cowman’ which suggests that they should be friends. This optimism is lost when Jud and Curly struggle to outbid each other for Laurey’s food hamper. Tension increases as their bids rise and, eventually, Curly sells all his most precious possessions in order to win. When Jud realises that he has lost he attacks Curly. Laurey, who is very upset by these events, sacks Jud from her farm and he leaves in anger.
Also at the dance, Ali, who does not want to marry Annie, buys all of Will’s Kansas gifts so that Will has enough money to marry Annie. Foolishly, Will then bids the same money on Annie’s basket without thinking about the consequences. Ali is therefore forced to outbid Will, and win the basket, so that Annie and Will can finance their marriage.
Oklahoma’s Final Scene
Oklahoma seems to be moving towards a happy conclusion as Laurey and Curly are married. This is a time of celebration and everybody rejoices as they sing the title song, ‘Oklahoma’.
However, in a sudden twist of fate, an angry and drunken Jud arrives, brandishing a knife, and he tries to kill Curly. As Curly steps aside, Jud falls on his own knife and dies. Ado Annie’s father conducts a trial to see whether Curly is guilty of murder, but he is not blamed for the death. At last the happy couple can leave in their ‘Surry with a Fringe on the Top’.
A Popular Musical
Oklahoma is a very well crafted musical where the songs and dances are fully integrated into the plot. It was based on a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs called Green Grow the Lilacs but Rodgers and Hammerstein managed to make it into an excellent and entertaining composition, which provides plenty of opportunities for singers, dancers and choral numbers. For this reason Oklahoma, like Oliver! and My Fair Lady, is a popular choice for amateur groups and school productions. It was also adapted for film in 1955.