Oklahoma! (1943) was the first musical play written by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II (see Rodgers and Hammerstein). Some argue that it marked a revolution in musical drama: while it was hardly the first time a play with music told a story of emotional depth and psychological complexity, Oklahoma! implemented a number of new storytelling techniques, including focusing on emotional empathy; dealing with characters and situations far removed from the audience by time and geography; dealing with American historical and social materials; and its use of dance to convey plot and character rather than mere diversion for the audience.
Oklahoma!, which is based on Lynn Riggs's 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, is set in Oklahoma Territory outside the town of Claremore in 1906, and tells the story of cowboy Curly McLain and his romance with farmer girl Laurey Williams. Their love is challenged by Laurey's threatening farmhand, Jud Fry, and much of the play follows the contest between Curly and Jud for Laurey's affections. A comic subplot follows Laurey's friend, Ado Annie Carnes and her on-again/off-again relationship with cowboy Will Parker.
The original production of Oklahoma! opened on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre in New York, was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and starred Betty Garde, Alfred Drake, Joan Roberts, Celeste Holm, Joan McCracken, and Howard Da Silva. The production was choreographed by Agnes de Mille, who provided one of the show's most notable and enduring features: a 15-minute first-act ballet finale (often referred to as a dream ballet) arising from Laurey's inability to make up her mind between Jud and Curly. The original production ran for a then unprecedented 2,212 performances and was closed on May 29, 1948. There have been many revivals of Oklahoma! since, including national tours.
The play was adapted into an Academy Award–winning musical film in 1955, starring Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones (in her film debut), Rod Steiger, Gloria Grahame and Eddie Albert. This film was shot with two sets of cameras, in the new 70 mm widescreen process of Todd-AO and again in the more established Cinemascope 35 mm widescreen process for the majority of theatres lacking 70 mm equipment. Rodgers and Hammerstein personally oversaw the film themselves to prevent the studio from making the changes that were then typical of stage-to-film musical adaptations—such as putting in new songs by different composers. (They also maintained artistic control over the film versions of several of their other stage musicals).
The film Oklahoma! followed the original stage version extremely closely, more so than any other Rodgers and Hammerstein stage-to-film adaptation. Robert Russell Bennett expanded his Broadway orchestrations, Jay Blackton conducted, and Agnes de Mille again choreographed. The film omitted very little from the stage production, and thus ran two-and-a-half hours, much longer than most other screen musicals of the time. The movie of Oklahoma! revived an early talkie trend which had not lasted long—filming stage musicals virtually complete, and showing them as road show attractions (two performances a day, usually with an intermission, like stage productions). Although the film versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel and The King and I did not have intermissions and cut more from the stage originals than did the film version of Oklahoma!, they also ran over two hours, followed the stage originals quite closely and retained most of their songs. South Pacific (filmed in 1958), as well as most other stage-to-film musical adaptations that came after it, did have an intermission and was also quite long, as was The Sound of Music. The trend of "road show" stage-to-film musicals lasted into the early 1970's, the last of them being the film versions of Fiddler on the Roof and Man of La Mancha.
For unexplained reasons the original UK DVD release is a pan and scan version from a noticeably grainy Cinemascope print, even though the companion DVD of South Pacific was taken from a pristine Todd-AO master and presented in widescreen. The current US DVD release of Oklahoma! by partial rights holder 20th Century Fox is a double-disc release that includes both the Cinemascope and original 70 mm Todd-AO versions in widescreen. In March 2006 this version was also released in the UK as part of a set of remastered Rodgers & Hammerstein DVDs.