What’s so special about Oklahoma!?
Seventy years ago when Oklahoma! premiered on the New York stage, it singlehandedly changed musical theater forever. Well, I say “singlehandedly,” but in fact composer Richard Rodgers and librettist/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II didn’t so much innovate as bring the innovations together.
These two gentlemen had worked for decades prior to Oklahoma! to bring dramatic integrity to musical theater, and when they joined up as a team, their work became a culmination of years of experimentation, both in their own work and from the work of others.
Today, however, when some people see Oklahoma!, they often find it quaint, almost hokey, in its seemingly simple tale of a young woman and her momentous decision about who’s going to take her to the box social. People dismiss the show as old-fashioned, the songs as corny, and the creators themselves as hopelessly mired in the picturesque, and consequently of little relevance to our modern sensibilities.
What these people fail to realize is what a genuine revolution Oklahoma! represented to the development of musical theater. All you have to do is look at the typical show of the time – the early 1940s – to see how transformative Oklahoma! truly was.
And that’s why I decided that, as part of the staged-reading series for the musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory, I wanted to do Something for the Boys (1943), which was put together by legendary producer Mike Todd, who was famous for a certain kind of Broadway show. That type of show is perhaps best summarized by the famous quote that is often attributed to Todd (but is very likely apocryphal) when he supposedly walked out on Oklahoma! during the show’s intermission when the show was playing its out-of-town tryout engagement in New Haven:
“No legs, no jokes, no chance.”
This quip, whatever its actual source, pretty much sums up the appeal of most Broadway musicals prior to and concurrent with the run of Oklahoma!. The shows were typically empty-headed star vehicles with plenty of pretty girls and lots of corny topical jokes. The score often comprised a random list of songs usually only partially connected to the proceedings at hand. At the time, Broadway music and American popular music were pretty much synonymous, and show songs were often written not so much for character or context but rather to create hit records. Quite frequently, producers would throw in random novelty acts or include a song just to shine a spotlight on an up-and-coming performer (perhaps someone with whom the producer was romantically involved). Whatever dance occurred in the shows was usually mere decoration.
All of this was true of Something for the Boys, which premiered on Broadway in 1943, a mere two months before Oklahoma! hit the stage. The show had everything that was supposed to make a show a hit, at least at the time: a big-name star (Ethel Merman at the height of her box-office power), a score by one of the biggest names in the business (Cole Porter, almost twenty years into a long and successful career), and a book by two of the most reliable quipsters available at the time, brother and sister Herbert Fields and Dorothy Fields. The show also had plenty of opportunities for showing off female pulchritude, and a list of random interpolated “specialty” numbers.
Plus, the show took place on and outside an Army base near San Antonio, and thus tapped into the patriotic impulses of the ticket-buying public. The show even ends with a tribute to our fighting boys:
For we’ll all be doing something for the boys
While they’re doing so much for us
So, the show had everything, at least by the standards of musical theater in the early 1940s. And it certainly became a modest hit, running for just about a year, which was more than enough in the day for a show to turn a profit. But then, Something for the Boys just disappeared, as did most of the shows prior to and concurrent with Oklahoma! and its Broadway run. Why?
In a word: integration. At the start of my history course, I write that word on the board and tell students that it will essentially become the theme of the entire course. In the context of musical theater, integration essentially means the extent to which the various elements of a show – musical, lyrics, dance, etc. – serve a dramatic purpose in the larger context of the show. Integrated songs progress the plot, reveal character, or establish time and place, with many elements serving a number of or even all of these functions.
Once the critics and the theater-going public got a taste of Oklahoma! and the integrative possibilities that the show reflected, they became less and less patient with the typical Broadway show that Something for the Boys so aptly represented. So the shows that lasted, the shows that we continue to perform and attend today, are mostly the shows that caught on to the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution.
The plot for Something for the Boys is particularly emblematic of the typical show of its time: three distant cousins jointly inherit a ramshackle Texas ranch. They renovate the house and open it up to servicemen’s wives from the local Army base. A jealous rival insinuates that the place is actually a bordello, so the commanding officer declares the house off limits. All is well at the end when the Blossom Hart, the Ethel Merman character, discovers that she can pick up radio signals through the carborundum in the fillings of her teeth. Yup, her teeth. This creates a classic deus ex machina plot resolution, and all is well with the world.
To hear the score to Something for the Boys by itself, you would have no idea what the story was, which is one of the surest signs of a non-integrated show. My personal favorite in this regard is “By the Mississinewah,” a racially insensitive (by today’s standards) duet in which Blossom and her cousin Chiquita perform a non-contextual number to entertain the troops at a graduation ceremony. Now, admittedly, Rodgers and Hammerstein were certainly capable of including songs in their shows that were there for pure entertainment’s sake. (“Honey Bun” from South Pacific being a notable example.)
Don’t get me wrong: the songs for Something for the Boys are terrific, although none of them really became pop standards, as so many of Cole Porter’s other show songs were able to do. But one of the striking things about Something for the Boys is that you could conceivably take all of the songs out of the show, and the story would still work. As musical theater would progress, this would become less and less possible, to the point at which songs and dances have become such an essential part of the story-telling process that we have numerous examples of shows that are all-sung (Les Miserables, Once on This Island) or even all or mostly danced (Movin’ Out, Contact).
Next year, the Boston Conservatory will be putting on a production of Oklahoma!. This production of Something for the Boys is a chance for students and audience members to appreciate that show for the milestone it is.
If you're in the Boston area tonight or tomorrow night, and would like to see Something for the Boys, you can call 617-912-9144 for reservations. The shows are at 8 pm both nights in the Zack Box Theater. Admission is free, and seating is general admission.