OKLAHOMA! FACT #2: "The Producers Bet the Farm"

OKLAHOMA! FACT #2: "The Producers Bet the Farm"

Founded in 1918, the Theatre Guild quickly became the epitome of prestige among New York’s theatrical elite. As a producing conglomerate at the forefront of the “Art Theatre Movement”, the Guild was responsible for premiering many titles still performed today: The Adding Machine, They Knew What They Wanted, Ah Wilderness!, Saint Joan, and Porgy and Bess, just to name a few. As their popularity grew, so did their subscriber base. By 1925, the Guild used that influx of cash to buy their own theatre on West 52nd Street. It was aptly named “The Guild Theater”. For its debut production, the marquee boasted the inimitable Helen Hayes in a production of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra; future acting guru Harold Clurman was a player in the ensemble. Since then, The Guild Theatre has been renamed quite a few times. It became the ANTA Playhouse from 1950 to 1981. Then from 1982 to 2005, it was the Virginia Theatre. Today, you’ll find it on your ticket stub as the August Wilson Theatre— where Jersey Boys played a whopping 4,642 toe-tapping performances (and 38 previews).   

While their building was destined to withstand the test of time, the Guild’s tenure as an artistic powerhouse was not. Their string of artistic triumphs grew knotty and critical reception to their work fell flat. Throughout the 1930’s, they produced a series of frightful flops. Subscribers were abandoning the Guild in droves and by 1939, the institution (along with the rest of the country) struggled to keep its head above water. To be exact, they were $60,000 in debt. Adjusted for inflation, that’s somewhere over $1,000,000. The formerly renowned Theatre Guild found themselves one misstep away from going belly up— until fate intervened.

It was 1940 when founding member of the Theatre Guild, Theresa “Terry” Helburn, attended a revival at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut. That evening’s offering was Green Grow the Lilacs, a somewhat bucolic character study of life on the prairie before Indian Territory had become a state. Helburn found herself susceptible to Lilac’s charms. After all, she (under the auspices of the Guild) had produced the play on Broadway back in 1931. But, like most of the Guild’s shows in those days, it had proved a commercial disappointment. Lilacs had only played a disappointing 64 performances on Broadway. After its debut, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote that Lilacs playwright Lynn Riggs was destined to write a good play… as soon as he learned how. What stood out to Helburn upon this viewing, however, was the play's intrinsic musicality. For his pastoral cowboy drama, Riggs had included authentic songs that reminded him of his youth in Oklahoma, songs like “I Ride an Old Paint” and “Git Along Little Dogies”. At this viewing, those characters really seemed to sing. That’s what gave Helburn the idea that eventually saved her beloved Theatre Guild.

With her enthusiasm renewed by the prospect of adapting Lilacs, Helburn began to pound the pavement. Her enthusiasm, however, did not prove contagious. Acquiring funds was impossible; the poor dear must have had a bruised nose from all the doors slammed in her face. The Riggs play had flopped on Broadway and no investor was willing to throw good money after bad. Word on the street had dubbed this show, “Helburn’s Folly.” And, to complicate matters further, the Guild was operating at the time without a business manager because Uncle Sam had drafted theirs.

Helburn recalled the dread of those initial backers auditions in her autobiography, A Wayward Quest:

I remember the flat, empty feeling I had when a woman who for whom we put on this performance, our hostess at a particularly splendid apartment, all white-and-gold and filled with chic people, all her friends, said, in a chilly voice, ‘I don’t like plays about farmhands.’ When you’re trying to raise a lot of money, people reminded me, you ought to offer them a sure-fire success, not a play that hasn’t done so well in the past. ‘Musicals’, they said in disgust, ‘don’t have murders in the second act.’

In order for the project to continue, the Guild was left with no choice; they bet everything they had. It took the remainder of their assets along with small investments from 28 individual backers to achieve their modest capitalization of $100,000.

Ultimately, that gamble paid off. The show’s sunny jingoistic optimism struck a chord during the darkest days of World War II. The show was an unparalleled success. Oklahoma! ran for over five years— a total of 2,212 performances— which earned it the distinction of being Broadway’s longest running musical (until bested in 1961 by My Fair Lady). And, most importantly— the Theatre Guild was the toast of the town once more.

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The following images are from the Theatre Guild's original Broadway production from 1931 of Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs.

Theresa "Terry" Helburn (1887-1959)

Theresa "Terry" Helburn (1887-1959)