Tag Archives: Richard Rodgers

Friday Flashback #341

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 original poster has a story behind it. John Ford agreed to direct the show but was detained by film commitments. Substitute director John Haggott followed ideas he and Ford put together earlier in Hollywood.

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.

Bambi Linn, as Dream Laurey in “Oklahoma!” on Broadway.

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.

6 Degrees Of Playhouse Separation

Once upon a time, Richard Rodgers lived near the Westport Country Playhouse.  He saw “Green Grow the Lilacs” there; soon, that show turned into “Oklahoma!”  (You can read all about it in Westporter Max Wilk’s book “OK!  The Story of Oklahoma!“)

Richard Rodgers’ daughter, Mary Rodgers Guettel, became an apprentice at the Playhouse in 1950.  She later earned fame writing the music for “Once Upon a Mattress.”

James Naughton

James Naughton

Mary Rodgers’ son, Adam Guettel, wrote “Light in the Piazza.”  That musical starred Kelli O’Hara — whose father-in-law is noted actor Jim Naughton, our neighbor in Weston.

What’s the purpose of this “6 Degrees of Westport Country Playhouse Separation”?

All those folks — except of course Richard Rodgers, who is dead — will appear Monday at the Playhouse’s Gala 2009.  The evening includes a salute to Mary Rodgers Guettel.

Part of the proceeds will support the Joanne Woodward Intern and Apprentice Program — a fitting tribute to both the former Playhouse artistic director, and former apprentice Mary Rodgers.

One more “6 Degrees” note:  Stephen Sondheim, another 1950 apprentice, will be there to honor Mary Rodgers Guettel.

Kelli O'Hara

Kelli O'Hara

A musical performance — “An Enchanted Evening:  The Music of Richard Rodgers” — will feature Naughton, O’Hara, Steven Pasquale (who created the role of Fabrizio in — ta da! — Adam Guettel’s “Light in the Piazza,” and others.

Talk about a “community theater”!

(A cocktail reception and silent auction begins at 5:45 p.m., followed by the performance and tributes [7:30 p.m.] and dinner [9 p.m.].  Benefit tickets start at $500.  For tickets or more information, contact Kim Maresca, 203-227-5137, ext. 138; kmaresca@westportplayhouse.org.)