Eighty years ago today — on March 31, 1943 — Oklahoma! debuted on Broadway.
But the road to the St. James Theatre began 50 miles away, in Westport.
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, in Fairfield — to see a performance. Inspired, he wrote a show with those elements with his lyricist partner, Oscar Hammerstein.
Three years later the Guild produced Oklahoma! on Broadway — with a grateful nod to 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.
Oklahoma! was revolutionary. It’s considered one of the first shows in modern musical theater. Up to then, songs did not really move plots forward. They were sung to entertain.
Oklahoma! told its story through music — and, thanks in part to Bambi Linn, dance.
There’s one final Westport-Oklahoma! connection. Richard Rodgers’ grandson — composer/lyricist Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza) — married actress Haley Bond. Before graduating from Staples in 2003 (where she was known as Haley Petersen) she was an actor herself, with Players.
The high school troupe has (of course!) produced Oklahoma!. Theystaged it 4 times: in 1973, 1989, 1995 and 2012.
Players is known for their near-Broadway quality work.
Which, in Oklahoma!‘s case makes a ton of sense, given its birthplace — or at least, conception — right here in Westport.