OKLAHOMA! FACT #1: "The Old Razzle Dazzle"

OKLAHOMA! FACT #1: "The Old Razzle Dazzle"
 Rouben Mamoulian, director of Oklahoma!

Rouben Mamoulian, director of Oklahoma!

When it came to finalizing his concept for the show’s physical production, director Rouben Mamoulian didn’t have a choice; “Less is more,” was all his producers could afford. For the most part, that didn’t bother him. After it had been realized by scenic designer Lem Ayers, the sparsity of the settings would serve to highlight the wide open expanse that was the prairie in 1906. Still, during tryouts in New Haven, Mamoulian started getting nervous. And no wonder! The show was unlike mostly anything that had ever been done before. Mamoulian decided what the show needed to assuage the audience was a some old-fashioned tricks. Or, as we call it in show business, "razzmatazz". That's when he called in the vaudevillians.

Upon Mamoulian’s request, the producers managed to find a real-life cowboy to spin a rope around Curly (Alfred Drake) and Laurey (Joan Roberts) while they sang the title song. George Church, the original ‘Dream Jud’, recalls the roper's audition. “[Alfred Drake & Joan Roberts] were scared silly. Suddenly that rope scraped Alfred’s face and gave him a pretty good rope burn. He grabbed the rope and threw it on the floor. Neither he nor Joan Roberts would permit themselves to being roped a second time.”

The notoriously temperamental Mamoulian accused his actors of being obstinate brats. To demonstrate how harmless the act was, he volunteered himself to be lassoed. There was only one problem: Mamoulian was rarely seen without an ever-burning cigar permanently attached to his lip. He stood at center stage and the cowboy set the rope a-spinnin'. It wasn't long before the rope clipped Mamoulian's cigar, which-- as you'd expect-- sent flaming ash into his ear. The cowboy was dismissed. Mamoulian never spoke of the incident again.

Then, he moved onto his second best idea: live birds. An old vaudevillian with a cage full of trained pigeons was found. Mamoulian gathered the cast onstage for a demonstration. The cage was opened and the vaudevillian swung a big stick in a circle above his head. Everyone ooh’ed and ahh’ed as the birds flew in various formations throughout the theater. It was really a sight to be seen. Then, without warning, a car backfired outside the backstage alley doors. The birds got spooked. They scattered and flew as far as they could into the far reaches of the backstage loft. As Alfred Drake recalled, “When we left for Boston [those birds] were still flying around up there.”

There was even a time when Mamoulian considered putting a live cow onstage. I'm sure the stagehands were pleased when that gem of an idea got put out to pasture....