The financial risk of mounting a Broadway musical is so great that few productions ever make it to the Great White Way without a period of tryouts and revisions outside of New York City. This was as true in the 1940s as it is today, and especially so during the war years, when the producers of an innovative little musical called Away We Go had real concerns about their show’s commercial viability. Even with lyrics and music by two of theater’s leading lights, Away We Go was believed by many to be a flop in the making. Indeed, an assistant to the famous gossip columnist Walter Winchell captured the prevailing wisdom in a telegram sent from New Haven, Connecticut, during the show’s out-of-town tryout. His message read: “No girls. No legs. No chance.” This would prove to be one of the most off-base predictions in theater history when the slightly retooled show opened on Broadway on March 31, 1943 under a new title—Oklahoma!—and went on to set a Broadway record of 2,212 performances before finally closing 5 years later.
What was it that made Oklahoma! seem so risky? For one, it was the first show undertaken by the already legendary composer Richard Rodgers without his longtime partner, Lorenz Hart. Hart’s drinking and other personal problems had rendered him unable to work by 1942, so Rodgers would undertake his next project with a new partner, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. While Rodgers and Hammerstein almost instantly clicked as a songwriting duo, the creative chances they were taking with Oklahoma! were significant. The show had no big-name stars involved in it, it was based on relatively obscure source material and it was an ambitious experiment in integrating music and dance in service of storytelling rather than spectacle. At a time when Broadway musicals always opened with a “bang,” Oklahoma! would open with a lone cowboy singing a gentle idyll about corn and meadows.
From the very first moment on opening night, however, Oklahoma! hit a nerve. The show’s choreographer, the legendary Agnes DeMille, later recalled the audience reaction to that opening number, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin': “[It] produced a sigh from the entire house, that I don’t think I’ve ever heard in the theater. It was just, ‘aaaahh…’ It was perfectly lovely, and deeply felt.” Of the reaction to the title song, “Oklahoma!,” actress Joan Roberts, the original Laurey, said, “The applause was so deafening, and it continued and continued. We repeated two encores, and we stood there, until they stopped applauding! And I didn’t think they ever would!” That famous number had been changed from a solo to a full-cast showstopper only weeks earlier, during the show’s final tune-ups in Boston before the beginning of its history-making Broadway run on this day in 1943.