It is quite amazing how a single note can set the musical mood and time period in a performance. Such a note appears in the opening measures of the Lyric Stage's production of Oklahoma! at the Irving Arts Center.
Music Director Jay Dias has assembled a full symphony orchestra to play the newly restored original score, but right at the beginning of the overture, he asks his principal trumpet player to use vibrato. No orchestral trumpet player would ever use vibrato in a symphonic performance, so Dias is telling the audience right up front that Oklahoma! is a synthesis of musical styles from big band and folk to classical and ballet. He tells us all of this in one note, which is typical of Dias' careful preparation.
The music of the show is indeed a combination of styles. It was the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and the two arrived at the partnership from two different artistic places. Rodgers, working with librettist Lorenz Hart, had written two Broadway shows, The Boys from Syracuse (1938) and Pal Joey (1940). Both of these were in the existing manner of inserting songs into a play. Pal Joey, in particular, had a mix of nightclub songs but added more thoughtful ballades that were reflective of the dramatic situation, such as "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."
This is not to say that Rodgers was a stranger to incorporating the classical with the popular. In 1936, he and Hart produced On Your Toes, a musical about love and murderous intrigue in a ballet company. The plot revolves around the production of a jazz ballet called Slaughter on 10th Avenue and Rodgers composed an actual ballet that was choreographed by none other than George Balanchine.
Hammerstein had been writing the libretti for operettas such as Rose-Marie (1924), The Desert Song (1926), The New Moon (1927) and, most importantly for the future of Oklahoma!, Show Boat (1927). While he didn't produce any blockbusters in the '30s, he was still active in film and writing words for songs with other composers. In Show Boat, Hammerstein created the first combination of operetta, where the music was integral to moving the plot, and the vaudeville style shows where songs were stuck in the drama where needed for contrast.
Oklahoma! was conceived as the next step in the evolution of what we now think of as a Broadway show. This led directly to today's unclassifiable shows such as Sweeney Todd, which is done in the opera house almost as often as by theater companies. This show has elements from both musical worlds. Jud's soliloquy "Lonely Room" is pure opera, yet there is a barn dance that opens the second act ("The Farmer and the Cowman") and some outright vaudeville ("I Cain't Say No"). Also borrowed from opera, each of the characters has their own musical style.
"You can identify who they are from the music alone," says Dias.
Rodgers first sketches were minimal; what today we would call a lead sheet. This consisted of the melody line and some basic chords notated to remind him of the harmonic structure of the tune. However, he would also prepare a piano version that contained the skeleton of how the music would progress, with many of the counter melodies and accompaniment figures written out. This, he would hand to his orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett, to turn into the score that you hear at Lyric Stage.
"Bennett's orchestration has such depth," says Dias. "He knew exactly how to get an endless variety of sounds and instrumental combinations. He also knew how to balance the pit and the stage so that one never overpowered the other."
Bennett also had the job of knitting the songs together into a fully realized score. One of problems in writing about the music in a musical is to figure out who wrote what. Definitely, Rodgers wrote all of the songs and hinted at their full realization, but everything else (such as the intros and the music between or under the scenes) is left up to the orchestrator. While this is not the most creative job, Bennett's work was crucial to making the show play on the stage.
However, Oklahoma! presents a particularly sticky wicket in the music for the extended Dream Ballet that ends the first act. While other musicals used ballets, most notably the aforementioned Pal Joey, the Dream Ballet in this show is integral. The choreographer, Agnes de Mille, came from the world of ballet and modern dance. She had just finished choreographing Aaron Copland's Rodeo, so she was primed for more western lore.
In a way, the plot of the show is simple and revolves around a country girl's decision on who can give her a ride to a barn dance social. Based on the 1930 play Green Grow the Lilacs, her choice is between the rascally but lovable cowboy, Curly, who can't get up the courage to ask her, and her fear of her other sort-of suitor Jud, the hired hand who we would now call a stalker. The ballet is her nightmare in which she sees how her situation could turn out for the worst for everyone.
At the time, special ballet composers were brought in to write the music for any extended dance numbers. "The German born composer Trude Rittmann was the go-to person for dance music at the time," says Dias. "She wrote the ballets for shows such as The King and I, Carousal, My Fair Lady and Camelot but she wasn't involved with Oklahoma!"
So who wrote the ballet?
In the interest of tracking down some more information, Dias emailed Bruce Pomahac, who is the Director of Music for The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization and lives in New York City. He in turn referred us to a book by Tim Carter, Oklahoma! The Making of an American Musical.
Having read the 15 pages from this book about the Dream Ballet, I must admit that I am still without an answer. It appears that no one person is responsible for the ballet music.
In his book, Carter quotes an article by Rosemary Tauris, which was based on an interview that de Mille gave her for the December 1979 issue of Cue New York. While de Mille was certainly self-aggrandizing to a certain extent, her account probably has some truth in it or at least as much as we are likely to find elsewhere. Tauris starts out with a shocking statement that there was no ballet music written at all when de Mille started.
"De Mille had written out a scenario which Rodgers 'stuffed in his pocket' never to look at again. What do I play on the piano?" wondered de Mille.
"You have the songs," replied Rodgers.
With that he departed. How do you create a 17-minute dream ballet without music? The orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett, came to the rescue. As de Mille tells it, Bennett wrote whet he called 'hurry music' to tide her over until Rodgers changed it. Rodgers never did."
While the songs could form a basis for most of the events in the dream, there was nothing in the score for the "death" scene that closes the ballet. So, de Mille just choreographed it without any music at all and hoped for the best. Rodgers suggested putting the repeated timpani notes under the ending and added a coda.
And that was that.
In her 1980 book America Dances, de Mille sums up the situation of the ballet like this:
"The ballet, however, showed what was going on in her mind and heart, her terrors, her fears, her hopes; so in fact the happiness in her life, her life itself, depended on the choice. And the first act, which normally would have ended with a bland and ordinary musical comedy finale, ended starkly with the murder of the hero."
Who actually wrote the music for this ballet, which was one of the first to elevate the element of dance to the level of words and music in a Broadway show? It appears that it was a group effort, written by committee, as it were. This story of last minute improvisation makes it all the more magical when you experience the power of the ballet in all its orchestral glory under the baton of Dias, a superb conductor.
Lyric Stage is one of the few in the country to use the full orchestra when presenting these classic shows and rarely has this policy been more appropriate than hearing the Dream Ballet that ends the first act of Oklahoma!
Hearing it with anything less would be, well, less.
◊ To read Martha Heimberg's review of Lyric Stage's Oklahoma! click here.
◊ Here is part of the Dream Ballet from the 1955 movie version of Oklahoma! with choreography by Agnes de Mille: