OKLAHOMA! Fact #3: "Stunt Casting and a Casting Stunt"

OKLAHOMA! Fact #3: "Stunt Casting and a Casting Stunt"

The producers of Oklahoma! had already bet the farm (see Oklahoma! Fact #2) and they'd need to sell a lot of tickets if they ever intended to keep it. In an attempt to fill those empty seats, stars with premium box office cache were sought. The Theatre Guild’s first choice for the role of doe-eyed 'Laurey Williams' was one of the biggest bona fide Broadway names of all time: Mary Martin. Ms. Martin had gained fame in 1938 by performing a (rather innocent) striptease in Cole Porter’s Leave it to Me! Martin, herself a Texan, would have been ideal for the role, too. Unfortunately, she bought too much into her own press, which declared her as the ultimate glamour puss. In order for her re-branding to be a success, she'd need to shy away from hickish roles that showed her roots (at least for the time being). Anyways, Martin had to decline as she was already committed to Dancing in the Streets, an ill-fated musical that closed out-of-town in Boston. Funnily enough, its neighbor down the street in Beantown, Oklahoma!, was only gaining steam.

The next star offered the role of 'Laurey' was none other than Shirley Temple. “Hollywood’s Biggest Little Star” was 15-years old at the time with 47 film credits to her name. Her parents, however, were still managing her career and didn’t think the role suited their daughter’s particular talents. Deanna Durbin was considered after that. The bombshell would have sold the Guild a lot of tickets, too, but she was too busy making money on the screen to find the time to appear on the stage. Ultimately, the president of Universal Pictures refused to release her from her contract. Grasping at straws, Helburn even approached Groucho Marx for the role of 'Ali Hakim'. (As you suspect, dear reader, he declined.)

In spite of having grown accustomed to rejection, these casting woes left producer Theresa Helburn somewhat crestfallen. The show’s authors, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more pleased. From the start, Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II had no interest in padding the roster with stars. Rather, they wanted to secure actors who could sing. That desire was easily met by Alfred Drake and Joan Roberts when they won their leading roles. But finding an actress to portray the show’s comic foil 'Ado Annie' had everybody stumped.  

Enter Celeste Holm. Ms. Holm was not anybody’s idea of a comedienne. At the time, she was appearing on Broadway in The Damask Cheek, a “comedy of quaint manners” by John Van Druten (Bell, Book and Candle; I Am a Camera). Brooks Atkinson said of her performance in the New York Times: “Celeste Holm is playing the dissembling actress with grace and guile in the best performance she has given here in recent seasons.” Thanks to that review, New York had taken notice of the beguiling beauty.

Ms. Holm unrelentingly urged for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s consideration. Eventually, they conceded and she was called upon to audition. Now all that was left was for her to do was make an impression. So, that’s just what she did...

As she recalls, “I didn’t notice the three steps leading down onto the stage. I fell flat on my face, with the music skating out in front of me.”

“That’s pretty funny,” said Richard Rodgers “Could you do that again?”

Mustering a smile, she replied. “I’d rather not.”

Scrambling to put herself and her music back in order, she approached the piano. She introduced her selection, 'Who is Syliva?' She sang the piece with great skill. Richard Rodgers was impressed. To be exact, he was too impressed; she sounded great but she didn’t sound like the character. He told Holm what they were looking for was a, “loud, unedited sound, like a farm girl.” He asked her to sing it again, only this time as if she’d never had a vocal lesson in her life.

This gave Ms. Holm an idea. With a wink, she told him, “I can call a hog.”

“I dare you,” he laughed.

Standing center stage, Ms. Holm got her bearings and let out a big bellowing, “Sooeee!” And, you wouldn't believe it-- but it worked. She handily won the role. With that one hog call, Celeste Holm cemented her place in the firmament. It was because of that hog call that she became a star. And let that serve as a reminder for all you young actors out there: never be afraid to be weird.

Joan Roberts and Celeste Holm

Joan Roberts and Celeste Holm