If not for chance — and a dying theater-producing organization — the musical “Oklahoma!” may never have seen the footlights.
The play, which Arizona Repertory Theatre opens in previews Sunday, was the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
In 1940, the suffering Theatre Guild asked Rodgers and his then-partner, Larry Hart, if they would be interested in writing the musical version of Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” about a cowboy’s love for a farm girl set in the midst of the rush to settle in Oklahoma territory. Rodgers was interested; Hart was not. Enter Hammerstein, with whom Rodgers had never worked. They clicked.
Rodgers and Hammerstein worked together on “Oklahoma!” and began a collaboration that launched what many called “the golden age of musicals.”
“Oklahoma!” opened in 1943 without big stars on stage, but with a lush score that was woven into the story and reflected the plot line. It ran for more than 2,200 performances, won Rodgers and Hammerstein a special Pulitzer Prize, was staged around the world, made into a film, and has had a number of revivals.
And Danny Gurwin, director of the Arizona Repertory Theatre production, is not going to mess with a good thing.
“I originally thought I wanted to reimagine it,” Gurwin said. “But there’s nothing to reimagine. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. It’s such a gorgeous musical.”
Gurwin, an assistant professor in the UA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television, is an accomplished musical actor with a résumé that includes productions on Broadway and off. He’s no stranger to “Oklahoma!” — has played Curly, the lead cowboy in love with Laurey, our farm gal, twice.
But he has never directed it before and is relishing the experience.
“It’s been great for me to look from the outside in, after knowing it from the inside out,” he said.
While the presentation is tradititonal, Gurwin says it won’t be staid. “We’re setting a classic tone,” he said, “but still an exciting one.”