"Oklahoma!" The Musical's Impact on the State

On the 75th anniversary of the landmark musical, we celebrate it's legacy and influence on Oklahoma's image.

By Oklahoma Historical Society

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (1949) by Wide World PhotoOklahoma Historical Society

Though Rodgers and Hammerstein had known each other since Hammerstein’s days at Columbia University, the adaptation of "Green Grow the Lilacs" into a musical was their first professional experience writing together. After writing "Oklahoma!," Rodgers and Hammerstein went on to write eight other musicals for Broadway.

Over the course of their career, Rodgers and Hammerstein earned thirty-five Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards, two Emmys, two Grammy Awards, and the 1944 Pulitzer in Special Awards and Citations for "Oklahoma!"

Governor Kerr and "Oklahoma!" cast members, Associated Press, 1943, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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In 1943 Governor Robert S. Kerr attended a showing of the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" in New York. While there, he presented the cast with an Oklahoma flag.

Governor Robert S. Kerr, Associated Press, 1943-11-18, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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In 1943 Governor Kerr attended a performance of the musical in Washington, DC, where he and his wife were photographed sitting in the show's prop surrey.

Fred Jones, Associated Press, 1943, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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Fred Jones, president of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, sent certificates to members of the "Oklahoma!" Broadway cast in 1943, designating them as honorary citizens of Oklahoma.

"Oklahoma!" cast album (1943) by Decca Records Inc.Oklahoma Historical Society

As its popularity soared, "Oklahoma!" became the first Broadway musical to record an original cast album and not just the show's score. The record eventually made over one million dollars and several songs appeared on the Billboard hit charts. It proved so popular that in 1945 a second installment was released featuring the songs cut from the original.

The 1943 cast album has never been out of print, and in 2003 it was named to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.

Christening of a B-29 bomber (1945) by Associated PressOklahoma Historical Society

WAC Sgt. Velma Trottingwolf christens a B-29 bomber at the Oklahoma City technical service command in 1945. The bomber was dedicated to "Oklahoma!," which had just recorded its one-thousandth performance on Broadway.

Governor Robert S. Kerr, 1946-09-26, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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Governor Robert S. Kerr before the premiere of "Oklahoma!" in Des Moines, Iowa.

Anniversary celebration of "Oklahoma!", Associated Press, 1946, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers celebrate the third birthday of their musical "Oklahoma!"

Originally titled "Away We Go!," the musical was considered a Broadway gamble. The show initially struggled to find investors and an audience. After opening night, however, Oklahoma! became the most celebrated musical in New York. A national tour was launched almost immediately and"Oklahoma!" became the first Broadway musical to record a cast album. Currently, an average of 600 productions of the musical are licensed every year worldwide.

Touring stars visit the Oklahoma State Senate, Daily Oklahoman, 1954-01-29, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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Walter Emery, president of Oklahoma State Society, Senator Mike Monroney, Senator Robert S. Kerr with "Oklahoma!" cast members Florence Henderson, Ridge Bond, and Victor Wickersham in 1954.

Movie reel box, Jim Meeks, 20-Dec-17, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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In April 1947 when the touring company was to perform in Tulsa, Claremore dentist Noel Kaho arranged a “Claremore Night” for the cast and crew. It is said that when the cast arrived at their Tulsa hotel one member remarked, "Home at last!" Claremore Night involved an escort to the city, tours and interviews, and an introduction to citizens at the local Oklahoma Military Academy.

This movie reel container, owned by Noel Kaho, is for showing the film version of "Oklahoma!" in Claremore.

"Oklahoma!" cast (1947) by Vandamm StudioOklahoma Historical Society

The 1947 Broadway cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" just before the curtain call. "Oklahoma!" ran on Broadway in New York from 1943 until 1948 and held the record for longest-running show until "My Fair Lady" opened in 1956.

Ridge Bond and Patricia Northrop, 1947, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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Patricia Northrop as Laurey and Ridge Bond as Curly in the 1947 national touring company of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!"

Ridge Bond, a McAlester, Oklahoma, native, starred as Curly on Broadway during the end of its original run before joining the national tour. He continued to play the role of Curly in the 1951 Broadway revival and the 1953 tenth anniversary production at New York City Center Theatre.

"Oklahoma!" advertising (1948-02)Oklahoma Historical Society

When the musical finally came to the state, Oklahomans excitedly embraced the touring production. Behind the car is an advertisement for the new musical "Oklahoma!"

George Nigh (1958-07-23) by George TapscottOklahoma Historical Society

A New State Song

Though George Nigh is well known in Oklahoma politics today, when he proposed changing the state song in 1953, he was just two years into his first term as a state legislator and the youngest member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. This made the introduction of House Bill 1094, advocating for Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma" as the new state song, that much more brazen. 

George Nigh, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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Oklahoma's first state song was adopted in March 1935. The song, "Oklahoma, A Toast," was written by Harriet Parker Camden of Kingfisher in 1905. When George Nigh proposed changing the official song, many believed the newer song’s lyrics to be too "risky" and the music too fast for young students to learn. Some thought the state song should be written by an Oklahoman, not two New Yorkers.

Ridge Bond by Johnny MeltonOklahoma Historical Society

Nigh recruited Ridge Bond, alongside the choir of the Oklahoma College for Women, to sing "Oklahoma" on the House floor. Their performance was a hit, eliciting cheering and clapping. The measure passed the House on April 28 and the Senate on May 6. After Governor Johnston Murray signed the bill, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma" became the official state song on September 5, 1953.

Letter from Oscar Hammerstein II to George Nigh, Oscar Hammerstein II, 1953-02-05, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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This reply letter was written by Oscar Hammerstein II to Oklahoma state legislator George Nigh, allowing for Nigh to introduce a bill to change Oklahoma's state song to Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma"

Oklahoma College for Women Glee Club, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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The Oklahoma College for Women (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) Glee Club performed with Ridge Bond in 1953 before the Oklahoma legislature. The university is located in Chickasha, Oklahoma.

Invitation issued by Governor Raymond Gary, 1955-10-05, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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Governor Raymond Gary invited Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to visit Oklahoma, offering the duo thanks for all that their production "Oklahoma!" had done for the state.

Suggested procedures for promoting the movie "Oklahoma!", 1955, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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This is page one of an outline for suggested procedures that Oklahoma and Governor Raymond Gary would follow to help with the publicity surrounding the launch of the movie "Oklahoma!" Governor Gary attended the film’s premiere in New York in 1955.

"Oklahoma!" film premiere (1956-08-14) by Cliff KingOklahoma Historical Society

A chorale performs musical numbers from "Oklahoma!" before the premiere of the film adaptation in Oklahoma City. When the movie premiered in New York in 1955, Oklahoma Governor Raymond Gary led a parade, an Oklahoma flag was raised over the theater, and there was Oklahoma dirt placed inside to symbolically make the premiere part of the Oklahoma "territory."

"Oklahoma!" lobby card (1956) by 20th Century Fox Film CorporationOklahoma Historical Society

This poster advertised the movie version Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" starring Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae. The movie was produced in 1956 by 20th Century-Fox and Magna Theatre Corporation.

"Oklahoma!" lobby card (1956) by 20th Century Fox Film CorporationOklahoma Historical Society

These posters depict scenes from the film and were distributed by the movie studio to be displayed in the lobby of the movie theaters throughout Oklahoma.

"Oklahoma!" lobby card (1956) by 20th Century Fox Film CorporationOklahoma Historical Society

Surrey Singers (1966)Oklahoma Historical Society

The Surrey Singers, otherwise known as "Oklahoma's Ambassadors of Song," were assembled in 1955 by James Neilson of Oklahoma City University. The group paid homage to the "Oklahoma!," performing songs from the musical around the world, almost always dressed in farmer and cowboy garb.

A performance of "Oklahoma!" at the Discoveryland theater, Jim Argo, 1991-07-05, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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From 1978 to 2011, Discoveryland presented near nightly showings of the musical every summer.

In 1993 Mary Rodgers, the daughter of Richard Rodgers, and William Hammerstein, Oscar Hammerstein II's son, designated the amphitheater the National Outdoor Home of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!"

Ridge Bond and the University of Central Oklahoma choir, David McDaniel, 1993-03-30, From the collection of: Oklahoma Historical Society
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Ridge Bond singing "Oklahoma" with the cast and choir from the University of Central Oklahoma.

"Oklahoma!" postage stamp (1993)Oklahoma Historical Society

When "Oklahoma!" turned fifty in 1993, it was also commemorated on a postage stamp, becoming one of only four American musicals with its own stamp.

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