After their nightly triumphs out-of-town in New Haven and Boston, the team behind the recently re-titled OKLAHOMA! was prepared to take New York by storm. Mother Nature, however, was busy concocting a storm of her own. Opening night was scheduled for March 31, 1943. That winter had been particularly unrelenting. So, while the world inside St. James Theatre was all a-bustle, the streets outside had been slowed to a crawl by yet another blanketing of snow. This left plenty of vacant seats in the auditorium, their red velvet backs facing the stage like tombstones. As a last ditch effort to “paper the house” (give away free tickets to fill seats so the show looks popular) managers took to the streets. Any man they saw wearing a military uniform was invited inside. And, as if the reward of having warm toes wasn't kind enough, they were also about to see history occur.
Pressure was mounting backstage. Nowadays when a Broadway show opens, the critics attend during its final previews. This gives them a day or two until their deadline to consider their review before filing. But back in 1943, the critics were there on opening night. As soon as the cast would take their bows— poof, the critics had grabbed their hats and off they’d rush to their eagerly awaiting typewriters. Meanwhile, the show would know its fate by midnight when the early edition of the papers hit newsstands.
Naturally, it wouldn’t be an opening night without the requisite jitters. They’re usually harmless. Usually. But sometimes those jitters cause mishaps. And that’s precisely what happened on opening night of OKLAHOMA! to ensemble member Kate Friedlich. It was near the end of act one when she was dancing the ballet. Her partner, a particularly tall young man, was overly excited to be making his Broadway debut. After one lift, he momentarily forgot to employ the grace that's typically synonymous with ballet. Instead of placing Friedlich back on the stage, he dropped her. Thud. The result: she’d torn two ligaments in her heel. During intermission, a doctor backstage injected her with ethyl chloride, a local anesthetic which alleviated enough pain for her to dance act two (which, if you ask me, would have to be injected directly into the brain in order to dance on a foot that was probably flopping around like a wet noodle.)
Also on the list of stretcher-cases backstage was dancer Marc Platt. His foot had been bothering him since the show was in Boston (it was his doctor backstage with the steady supply of ethyl chloride). He and George Church performed a complex acrobatic routine during the dream ballet. Platt’s doctor had continuously warned him against performing that evening. But it was opening night on Broadway. Platt insisted. Well, as expected, his condition worsened rapidly. By intermission he was in a great deal of pain, so much so that Agnes de Mille herself took to the role of Florence Nightingale gently offering sips of brandy to the ailing Friedlich and Platt. Anyway, what’s an opening night without a little booze?
After that night, both performers were laid up for weeks. Neither could return to work until their doctors gave the all-clear. By the time they were able to dance again, several men in the ensemble had already been replaced. Turns out Uncle Sam needed them a little more than the show did; they'd been drafted. As a result, the original Broadway cast of one of the most important musicals of all time remained intact for only one performance.