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Oklahoma! in Abundance

To celebrate the return of Oklahoma! to Broadway, Michael Portantiere reviews some of the most notable recordings of the score. logo

Like most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Oklahoma! has a happy history of recordings, from the original cast album to the CD of the 1998 Royal National Theatre production that is the basis for the current Broadway revival. It remains unclear whether or not the Cameron Mackintosh-Trevor Nunn-Susan Stroman production now playing at the Gershwin Theatre will be recorded with its New York cast but, in the meantime, here is an overview of the best of the existing Oklahoma! discs.

Decca's 1943 album of Oklahoma! would be an essential part of any collection if only for its authenticity and for the fact that it was the first more or less complete aural document of the score of a Broadway musical with its original company and the original theater orchestrations. The sound quality of these recordings, first released on 78-rpm discs, is not bad at all for 1943 and is better than ever as heard on the most recent, remastered CD edition. Though Alfred Drake may display a somewhat too covered, "legit" sound to have been 100% perfect casting as Curly, he works hard to sound convincing as the sweet young cowboy and succeeds admirably. As Laurey, Joan Roberts unfurls a soprano voice so lovely that one may choose to overlook the fact that her New York accent comes peeking through on occasion. (Listening to this album again after sampling other recordings of the score, I was struck by how much Roberts indulges in rubato--and I believe she also sings one or two lyrics incorrectly. It's surprising that R&H allowed such liberties.) Celeste Holm is comic perfection as Ado Annie and Lee Dixon is a charming, Irish-sounding Will Parker. Howard da Silva's performance as Jud Fry is limited here to his duet with Drake on "Pore Jud is Daid"; Jud's solo number "Lonely Room" is sung by Drake in a performance recorded as part of a second volume of Oklahoma! 78s more than a year after the show opened, also including "It's a Scandal! It's a Outrage!" and "The Farmer and the Cowman." Finally, one of the most wonderful aspects of this CD is that it offers a complete, alternate take of "Pore Jud is Daid" by Drake and da Silva as an appendix; a drastically cut version was presumably included on the original album because the full take was too lengthy to fit on one side of a 78.

The cast of the first London production of Oklahoma!, led by Harold (later Howard) Keel and Betty Jane Watson as Curly and Laurey, recorded edited versions of the show's songs that are available today on a budget-priced CD from LaserLight. Listening to this 1947 album for the first time, you may be struck by the fact that Keel sings in a more open-throated manner than was heard in his many M-G-M musical films following his screen debut in Annie Get Your Gun. Watson sounds a touch operatic but, at least, does not sound British. Nor do the remainder of the cast members exhibit Brit accents--which is a good thing, because clipped, cultivated tones would surely be the kiss of death in this show. (For all I know, some of the other leading and featured players may have been as American as Keel.)

In 1952, Columbia issued a studio recording of Oklahoma! with Nelson Eddy (!!!) as Curly. Though the idea of Eddy in this role may sound laughable, the reality is anything but: This famous co-star (with Jeanette McDonald) of screen versions of operettas offers a manly, relaxed, decidedly baritonal interpretation of Curly that works very well on its own unique terms. Virginia Haskins is fine as Laurey, the inimitable Kaye Ballard makes comic hay as Ado Annie even while doing more actual singing than Celeste Holm, Lee Cass is a sonorous Jud--and it's nice to have the late Portia Nelson on hand as Aunt Eller.

The 1955 soundtrack album of the Todd-AO film version of Oklahoma! is a revelation in several respects. This was the first stereophonic recording of the score and, as heard on the most recent CD reissue from Angel, it truly sounds as if it were made yesterday. The disc includes a great deal of music not heard on the LP version of the album or its previous CD incarnations. Shirley Jones is an entirely winning and lovely Laurey, and Gloria Grahame and Gene Nelson are adorable as Annie and Will, but the most treasurable performance here is that of Gordon MacRae as Curly. Whatever personal problems may have hampered his career in later years, the young MacRae had the amazing ability to sound natural, spontaneous, and unaffected while singing in an undeniably legit voice, and this is exactly what Curly requires. If you don't get goose bumps when you hear him wrap his vocal cords around "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," the climax of "People Will Say We're in Love," and the rousing title song, I don't want to hear about it.

A 1964 studio recording of Oklahoma! is commendable for the Curly and Laurey of John Raitt and Florence Henderson but suffers from some unpersuasive new orchestrations by the normally astute Philip J. Lang. RCA's cast recording of the 1979 Broadway revival is most noteworthy for the fabulous vocalism of Christine Andreas and Martin Vidnovic as (respectively) Laurey and Jud, and for Harry Groener's ingratiating performance as Will; Laurence Guittard, with his gorgeous but very trained-sounding voice, is less than ideal casting as Curly.

Which brings us to the recording of the Royal National Theatre production, available in the U.S. on the First Night label. Hugh Jackman, who played Curly just before he began his swift ascendance to movie stardom, is every bit as delightful in the part as you might expect, but the vocal deficiencies of Josefina Gabrielle as Laurey are all too well documented here--and, of course, are unmitigated on the recording by the dancing talent which reportedly caused Mackintosh et al. to bring her over for the Broadway run. On the other hand, Shuler Hensley's rendition of "Lonely Room" is fully realized and extremely moving--except for some ill advised yelling toward the end on the line "it was all a pack of lies!" William David Brohn's fine updates of the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations seem to owe a lot to the film version's arrangements (also by Bennett). Overall, the album can be enjoyed thoroughly while we wait to see if Patrick Wilson and rest of the Broadway cast will get to record the score. Here's hoping!

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