In its long and storied history, the Westport Country Playhouse has never staged Oklahoma!
But our local theater played a crucial role in creating that classic American musical.
In 1940, a production of Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs incorporated turn-of-the-century folk songs and a scene with a square dance. Theatre Guild producer Theresa Helburn suggested to Lawrence Langner and his wife Armina Marshall — founders of both the Playhouse and Guild — that it would make a good musical.
The trio invited Richard Rodgers — who lived just a few miles away — to see a performance. Three years later the Guild produced Oklahoma! on Broadway, based on Green Grow the Lilacs.
Over the years, Oklahoma!‘s bond with Westport tightened even more. At just 17, dancer Bambi Linn made her Broadway debut in the show. She was Dream Laurey, the dancer in the dream in which Laurey tries to decide between Curly and Jud.
Bambi Linn — whose Broadway career flourished after Oklahoma! — moved to Westport in the early 1960s. She and her husband, Joe de Jesus, taught generations of young Westporters to dance.
Though Oklahoma! never made it to the Westport Country Playhouse, audiences will soon see it here. It’s Staples Players‘ fall production, opening November 9.
“It was revolutionary,” director Dave Roth says of the 1943 production. “It’s considered one of the first shows in modern musical theater. Up to that point, songs didn’t really move the plot forward. They were really just there to entertain.”
Oklahoma! told its story through music — and, thanks in part to Bambi Linn, dance.
Oklahoma — the state — may be 1,500 miles from here. But the road from Oklahoma! — the musical — to the Staples stage ran right through the Westport Country Playhouse, just a couple of miles down the road.
PS: There’s one final Westport-Oklahoma! connection. Richard Rodgers’ grandson — composer/lyricist Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza) — is engaged to actress Haley Bond. Before graduating from Staples in 2003 — where she was known as Haley Petersen — she played Cinderalla (Into the Woods), Marian the Librarian (Music Man) and Irene (Hello, Dolly!), among other Players productions.
Not Oklahoma!, though. The last time Players presented the ground-breaking — and Westport-connected — musical was 1995.
(Click here for Staples Players ticket information.)