THE setting is the Indian territory now known as the state of Oklahoma; the time, soon after the beginning of the 20th century. Aunt Eller is churning butter outside her farmhouse as from offstage come the strains of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'". The singer is Curly, come to invite Aunt Eller's niece, Laurey, to a box-social that evening. When Laurey appears she feigns indifference to Curly so he presses his invitation by describing to her the surrey in which he will take her to the party ("Surrey with the Fringe on Top"). But he is finally compelled to confess that the surrey is only a figment of his imagination, a fact that sends Laurey off in anger. Will Parker now appears with a description of his recent experiences at a fair in Kansas City ("Kansas City"), where he won fifty dollars in a steer-roping contest. That fifty dollars is highly important to him: he wants to marry Ado Annie and her father, Judge Andrew Carnes, had specified that he will not give his consent until Will can manage to accumulate such a sum.
In spite of her assumed diffidence towards and anger at Curly, Laurey is really in love with him. To arouse his jealousy she decides to go to the box-social with the hired hand, a despicable character. When Laurey discovers that Curly intends going to the affair with another girl she tosses her head indifferently ("Many a New Day"). Meanwhile, Ado Annie has let it be known that her partner would be the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim; at the same time she reveals that she is the kind of a girl who cannot refuse a man anything ("I Can't Say No").
The flirtatious overtures that Hakim has been making to Ado Annie make her father insist that the peddler marry the girl. Will is out of the running: he has extravagantly spent his fifty dollars on presents.
When Curly and Laurey again meet they decide to go to the social together, after all; but for the sake of the neighbors they will be discreet about their behavior or be misunderstood in their intentions towards each other ("People Will Say We're in Love"). There is now the business of informing Jud he has lost his partner for the evening. Curly visits him at his dismal and shabby room in the smokehouse, and at first gets Jud into a good humour by telling him that though the people appear unfriendly they really think well of him and would mourn his death to no end ("Pore Jud!"). Then having delivered his message, he leaves Jud wallowing in self-pity ("Lonely Room").
In a dream which becomes an elaborate dance sequence, Laurey imagines how it would be to marry Curly. She further sees Jud breaking up the marriage, beating up her lover and forcing her to go off with him. She is rudely awakened from this dream by Jud's appearance. He has come to insist she go with him to the party. When, a moment later, Curly appears for the same purpose, Laurey--fearful that her dream had been an ominous warning of things to come--suddenly decides to go with Jud instead of Curly, much to the latter's confusion and bewilderment.
The box-social, with which the second act opens, proves to be a gay affair. Farmers and cowmen speak of their mutual rivalry with good humour ("The Farmer and the Cowman"). Then the auction of food boxes takes place, the men bidding for the boxes of the girls of their choice. A spirited contest ensues for Laurey's box between Jud and Curly. Determined to be the winner, Curly sells everything he owns and gets the box for the exorbitant price of $42.31. Meanwhile, Hakim pays Will fifty dollars for all his presents. Having no intention of marrying Ado, Hakim would very much like to see Will get the girl. Now Will and Ado are in a position to talk about their future together ("All or Nothin'").
Three weeks later, the marriage of Curly and Laurey takes place. Jud, drunk, breaks into the festivities and threatens Curly with a knife. In the ensuing brawl Jud falls on the blade and dies. A makeshift trial is hurriedly improvised by Judge Carnes so as not to delay the young couple. Curly is acquitted of murder, and is free to go off with his bride on their honeymoon ("Oklahoma!").
The saga of the trials and tribulations of Oklahoma! before it reached its première performance in New York to become one of the surpassing triumphs of the American theatre is now a twice-told tale. Virtually everybody connected with the production was convinced he was involved with a box-office disaster. Here was a musical without stars; without "gags" and humour; without the sex appeal of chorus girls in flimsy attire. Here was a musical that strayed into realism and grim tragedy, with Jud as one of the main characters, and his death as a climax of the story. Here, finally, was a musical which for the first time in Broadway history leaned heavily upon American folk-ballet--the choreography by Agnes De Mille, one of America's foremost choreographers and ballet dancers. Oklahoma! might be fine art, was the general consensus of opinion before première time, but it was poison at the box-office. The effort to get the necessary financial backing proved to be a back-breaking operation, successfully consummated only because the Theatre Guild, which had undertaken the production, had many friends and allies. But there was hardly an investor anywhere who did not think he was throwing his money down a sewer.
When Oklahoma! opened out of town scouts sent back to New York the succinct message: "No Girls, No Gags, No Chance." After the New York opening, the line was revised to read: "No Girls, No Gags, No Tickets." For at that première performance the surpassing beauty, the freshness, the imagination and the magic of this musical play held the audience spellbound from the opening curtain on. There was a vociferous ovation at the end. The next day the critics vied with each other in the expression of superlatives. One of them, Lewis Nichols, did not hesitate to describe it as "folk opera".
But Oklahoma! not only opened new vistas for the American musical theatre with its new and unorthodox approaches, and with the vitality and inspiration of Hammerstein's text and lyrics and Rodgers' music. It created box-office history. It ran on Broadway for five years and nine months (2,248 performances), breaking all of the then existing records both for length of run and for box-office receipts. A national company toured the United States for ten years, performing in about 250 cities before an audience exceeding ten million. In addition, when the New York engagement ended, the original company went on a tour of seventy-one cities. Companies were formed to produce the play in Europe, South Africa, Scandinavia, Australia and for the armed forces in all the theatres of war during the last years of the Second World War. In London its run proved the longest in the three-hundred year history of the Drury Lane Theatre.
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