Like an ornery farmer defending his name against a good-fer-nuthin’ cowhand, the title number in Oklahoma! really packs a punch. The mere mention of it has you singing in your head: “You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma—O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A! Oklahoma! YE-OW!” And with its robust wall of choral sound, intricate harmonies, and electrifying build, the song never fails to stop the show. But this wasn’t always the case. The song in its original form was proving in early performances to be somewhat lackluster. But when the show was out-of-town in Boston, ensemble member Faye Elizabeth Smith approached composer Richard Rodgers with a better idea.
“With the voices you have in this show,” she asked, “why are you having us do this song in unison? If we did ‘Oklahoma’ in harmony, we could take the roof off every theatre in this country.” Rodgers, a true collaborator, wasn’t too proud to admit the girl was right. There was only one problem: the show’s musical arranger Russell Bennett had already gone home to New York. After a frantic phone call from Richard Rodgers, Bennett grabbed his hat and hopped the train back to Boston. He finished the new arrangement along the way.
The ensemble proved eager to learn the improved arrangement of the song. They were so eager, in fact, that they volunteered to rehearse it on their only day off. Bennett placed the sole copy on the piano. Everyone gathered around. He plunked out parts painstakingly while the more skilled musicians of the group sight read parts and took turns humming and then drilling their peers.
Now that the song’s dynamics finally matched its bountiful sentiment, it needed the staging to match. As you might expect, that task was relegated to choreographer Agnes de Mille. As it had happened so often throughout the process, inspiration came to her quick. The cast began chanting quietly their “Okla-homa, Okla-homa…” at the song’s coda and de Mille had them creep slowly upstage. Then, for the final push at fortissimo, they rushed forward in a triumphant gallop toward the footlights. Their energy was palpable. When it was performed at the very next performance—and for every performance thereafter—the number received the hearty ovation it deserved.
According to the show’s original conductor Jay Blackton, “It gave the show a punctuation— a real exclamation point. In fact, I’m certain that’s where the exclamation point in the title came from.”
Funny enough, his little jest isn’t too far from the truth. The title Oklahoma— without its signature exclamation point— had been rejected in the early stages of conception. The creative team feared that audiences wouldn’t buy tickets to something that sounded so blandly geographical. Also, Rodgers & Hammerstein felt it ostentatious to name their show after a state. The original title of the Lynn Riggs play upon which it was based, Green Grow the Lilacs, hadn’t sold them any tickets in its first go-round. So, it was back to the drawing board. Scrawled on letterhead from the various desks of the Theatre Guild were many (not so great) alternate titles. They included:
- Swing Your Honey
- Oklahoma Honey
- Party Tonight
- Swingin’ Pretty
- Goin’ to the Party
- Play Party Tonight
- Laurey and Me
- One Two Three
- Now Altogether
- Party in the Plains
- Prairie Song
- Prairie Party
Can you tell they were trying to sell their show as a good time? That’s likely how they settled on the neither-here-nor-there Away We Go! as it was called in its embryonic days. But when audiences cheered that spankin’ new arrangement of the title song, the authors knew they had a hit. In an exhibition of his newfound confidence, Hammerstein proclaimed, “Why don’t we just add an exclamation point and be done with it?” From then on, the title was officially Oklahoma!
The Okies themselves were quite flattered by the attention. On May 11, 1953, “Oklahoma!” was adopted by the Oklahoma Legislature as their official state song.