Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'Oklahoma!'. © 2023 Chandos Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

Serious Dramatic Goals

GERALD FENECH listens to a unique recording of Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'Oklahoma!'

'A humdinger of an album, excitingly performed and superbly recorded.'


The history of stage entertainment and the musical is saturated with many famous composers and lyricists, but maybe the best known are the American duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Indeed, their magical output is still as popular as when it appeared for the first time. In all truth, I am still fascinated by such works as The King and I, South Pacific, State Fair and that absolute masterpiece The Sound of Music. What nostalgia they bring back, reminding me how happy I used to be when seeing them for the first time. Indeed, I memorized many songs overnight and I used to sing them to myself nearly every day.

But which musical really started it all? The day was 31 March 1943; the occasion: the Broadway premiere of Oklahoma!, the very first stage-work of 'Rodgers and Hammerstein'. It was a box-office hit and ran for an unprecedented 2,212 performances, later enjoying award-winning revivals, national tours, foreign productions and an Oscar-winning 1955 film adaptation. Oklahoma! has long been a popular choice for school and community productions, and both composer and lyricist won a special Pulitzer prize in 1944 for this gorgeous creation.

Listen — Richard Rodgers: Oh, What a Beautiful Morning (Oklahoma! Act I)
(CHSA5322(2) CD1 track 2, 1:23-2:11) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

This musical, building on the innovation of the earlier Show Boat, epitomized the development of the 'book musical', a musical play in which the songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-made story, with serious dramatic goals, that is able to evoke genuine emotions other than amusement. In addition, Oklahoma! features musical themes or motifs that recur throughout the work to connect the music and story. A fifteen-minute 'dream ballet' reflects Laurey's struggle with her feelings about two men, Curly and Jud.

Listen — Richard Rodgers: Dream Ballet (Oklahoma! Act I)
(CHSA5322(2) CD2 track 5, 9:04-9:47) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

The narrative originated in a stage play, Green Grow the Lilacs, by Lynn Riggs. Set in 1900 rural Indian territory, seven years before Oklahoma statehood, the plot revolves around the conflict between ranchers and farmers and plays itself out in a romantic triangle comprised of cowboy, farmgirl and a hired hand. A charming conceited cowboy, Curly McClain, is trying to court an innocent, unfulfilled farmgirl, Laurey Williams, but a lascivious, menacing farmhand, Jud Fry, also wants her. At a festive play-party and dance, Laurey rejects Jud's violent advances, and Curly asks to marry her. After the wedding, at a traditional 'shivaree', the two men argue and fight, and Jud dies by falling on his own knife. The play ends as Curly escapes jail and spends his wedding night with his beloved wife.

In the musical proper there is also a romantic subplot between Ado Annie Carnes and Will Parker, the former a flirtatious gullible young woman, the latter a simple young man in love with Ado, who is also being courted by Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler. By the end, this love triangle also sorts itself out in an ideal and congenial way.

Listen — Richard Rodgers: Exit Music (Oklahoma! Act II)
(CHSA5322(2) CD2 track 17, 0:52-1:19) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

This Chandos recording conducted by John Wilson is to my mind unique. Why? Because this is the first time that Oklahoma! has been recorded in the original version which includes every note written by Richard Rodgers. A humdinger of an album, excitingly performed and superbly recorded. Unmissable in every way.

Copyright © 19 September 2023 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta



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