OKLAHOMA! Fact #5: Agnes de Mille, World-Class Understudy

OKLAHOMA! Fact #5: Agnes de Mille, World-Class Understudy
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The process of collaboration is often fraught. Creative types are strong-willed, and those working on Oklahoma!  proved to be no exception. Throughout the process, director Rouben Mamoulian frequently bullied the show’s choreographer Agnes de Mille. It began as early as casting. (Keep in mind that this show was written and produced in the days prior to the concept of the “triple threat”. Shows then required a separate acting ensemble, singing ensemble, and dancing ensemble— or in the case of Oklahoma!, a corps de ballet.)

 De Mille had made her final selection of female dancers for the dream ballet. She readied them to meet the appriasal of Mammoulian by having them wait in a tidy line. With one passing glance, the director dismissed the lot. “They’re certainly not pretty," he said. "They’re useless to me.” De Mille was enraged by his curt kiss-off. And to make matters worse, the insults just kept waggling. He singled out one girl in particular. Recalled de Mille: “That little girl,” he said,  “with the braces in her teeth, and the tiny head, and those big legs…” The choreographer had heard enough. In a fit of rage, she chucked her purse at the back wall of the theatre and screamed in his face, “If she goes, I go!” Mamoulian shrugged in acquiescence. “Just keep them out of my way.”

And what choice did she have? Mamoulian demanded use of the stage for all his rehearsals. This relegated the dancing ensemble to the lobby of the theater. Recalls company member Bambi Lynn, “That deserted and badly lit box room was filled with cartons, and we placed them all in one corner, and then the dust began to come up. There was no way of opening a window to let the dust out, and you didn’t want to open the window because it was very chilly. So sooner or later, we would all get sick.”

Like a prophesy foretold, it wasn’t too long before all that dust in the enclosed lobby began to take its toll. Kenneth LeRoy was the first to fall ill. He’d come down with a case of German Measles (what we now know today as "Rubella"). A pinkish-red rash is accompanied by swollen glands, fever, and flu-like aches and pains, and the wheezes and the sneezes (and a sinus that's really a pip). Excused from rehearsals, the dancer took temporary leave. But it was too late-- the German Measles are spread by contact with droplets from an infected person's sneeze or cough. Rehearsals continued without LeRoy. Meanwhile, the ensemble was entirely unaware that they were now dancing in an incubator.

By the time the show made it to Boston, the measles were running so rampant throughout the company that the cast was nearly quarantined by local authorities. Recalls Agnes de Mille, “In pure exhaustion, I decided one night to forgo dinner and have a nap instead. I was barely bedded when the phone rang. Maria [Harriton] had broken out in spots and no understudy was ready. An hour later I was onstage in Maria’s dress and bonnet.” Ms. de Mille subsequently had to fill in for several cast members as they were all slowly nursed back to health. Come rain, come shine, in sickness and in health, the one thing that will never change about the theater is that “The show must go on.”