Jess Cagle
March 26, 1993 AT 05:00 AM EST

One-half century ago, on March 31, 1943, some 1,600 people took their seats in the St. James Theatre, expecting the usual Broadway-musical fare: A rousing opening number, perhaps, or an explosion of ruffly chorus girls. Instead, the curtain rose on an old lady in a rocking chair, while off to the side a lilting baritone proclaimed something about a beautiful morning. The audience was charmed; so were the critics. Hence, with the opening of Oklahoma!, the American musical was changed for good.

Oklahoma!, which is being honored this year with a U.S. postage stamp as well as with two reverent books (Ethan Mordden’s Rodgers and Hammerstein and Max Wilk’s OK!: The Story of ‘Oklahoma!’) is the simple story of a farm girl and the two suitors vying for her company. It was the maiden collaboration between Richard Rodgers, already a major Broadway composer, and Oscar Hammerstein II, a brilliant librettist. Together they seamlessly united music and book, creating characters who seemed fully real and alive — a rarity in musical comedy at the time — even if they did break into song in mid-conversation.

The musical ran for 2,212 performances (a record until My Fair Lady broke it in 1961) and made a star of its choreographer, Agnes deMille. ”Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin”’ became an instant standard, ”People Will Say We’re in Love” remains a wedding favorite, and the show still rates nearly 600 productions a year in the U.S. alone. Rodgers and Hammerstein went on to eight more Broadway shows, from Carousel (1945) to The Sound of Music (1959).

Ironically, before Oklahoma! arrived on Broadway, the word of mouth wasn’t promising. Producer Mike Todd had walked out of a preview and reportedly said, ”No legs, no jokes, no chance.” But one of its stars, Celeste Holm, wasn’t surprised at the show’s success. One day in a tearoom, shortly after she’d auditioned for the part of Ado Annie, a gypsy read her tea leaves and told her that someone with the initials R.R. would change her life.

”She said, ‘I see you surrounded by dancing cowboys,”’ recalls Holm, now 73. ”It was the silliest thing I ever heard. I didn’t think a thing about it — until opening night, when I looked around and realized, Oh, my God, there are the dancing cowboys!

Time Capsule: March 31, 1943
Harry James claimed ”I’ve Heard That Song Before,” Lloyd C. Douglas put The Robe on top of the best-seller list, Hepburn and Tracy squabbled in Keeper of the Flame, and The Lone Ranger rode the radio waves.

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