Skip to main content

Published by The Oklahoman – Read original article here

Originally published on June 22, 2015

Photo -

The history behind the lyrics of OKLAHOMA!

From the moment the curtains part to reveal a cowboy singing a cheerful solo, the musical “Oklahoma!” alludes to a frontier of optimism.

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,
An’ it looks like it’s climbin’ clear up to the sky.
Oh, what a beautiful mornin’,

– From “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin,” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, “Oklahoma!”

From the moment the curtains part to reveal a cowboy singing a cheerful solo, the musical “Oklahoma!” alludes to a frontier of optimism.

The mornings to which Lynn Riggs awoke were likely not so conventionally beautiful.

Riggs, the writer of the “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the play upon which “Oklahoma!” is based, grew up in a divided territory on the eve of statehood. Interwoven throughout the script are the societal challenges Riggs witnessed before Oklahoma was the state we know today.

“Curly just riding down on his horse, singing that song looking around, he’s the master of his domain with the freedom to just ride off into the sunset,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “If you think about when that play came out in the 1930s and how that must have struck people who were suffering from the depression, this optimism must have been a cool wind in tough times.”

The musical adaptation of “Oklahoma!” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II has been performed thousands of times worldwide. It was Lyric Theatre’s first show in 1963 and will be presented in six performances this summer.

“It was great for all of us to discover this story again, to see what it means for us today,” said Michael Baron, producing artistic director at Lyric Theatre and director of “Oklahoma!.”

‘Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’

Colby Frederick is the dramaturg, or theater consultant, for “Oklahoma!” at Lyric Theatre, and he said Riggs’ inspiration for “Green Grow the Lilacs” came from his experiences throughout adolescence.

“It had some darker and slightly heavier themes than the musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, but still had that core of community and sense of a connection to home.”

The uplifting nature of “Oklahoma!,” Frederick said, suggests the musical began as escapist theater. Viewers could escape the humdrum nature of their lives during a destitute time in Oklahoma’s history.

“We’ve had a lot of tragedy in this state. Right after it happens, the state comes together, helps each other out and moves forward. So far we’ve come back better than before,” Baron said. “I think the hopeful message of the show is that, you will get through it and things will shine even brighter when it’s over.”

The farmer and the cowman should be friends

Territory folks should stick together,
Territory folks should all be pals.
Cowboys dance with farmer’s daughters,
Farmers dance with the ranchers’ gals.

– From “The Farmer and the Cowman,” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, “Oklahoma!”

As the railroad plowed across the nation, Riggs saw Oklahoma divide before his eyes; farmers versus cowboys and Indian Territory versus Oklahoma territory.

Riggs was eight years old when Indian Territory and Oklahoma territory fused in 1907. Riggs’ mother was a Cherokee Indian and Blackburn said many of the songs in “Green Grow the Lilacs,” were Cherokee-inspired folk songs.

“The people of Indian territory, Lynn Riggs’ people, wanted a separate state,” Blackburn said. “But Congress wouldn’t have it.”

As the rift over Indian Territory grew deeper, another rift developed. Cowboys felt threatened by farmers and the settling of territory, Blackburn said.

“In a way, ‘Green Grow the Lilacs’ and ‘Oklahoma!’ brings you this same story of the wild wild West with the free ranging cowboys who live off their whips, the gun on their hip and a bedroll on their horse. They control their destiny,” Blackburn said. “Suddenly the land is being broken up into these farms with fences that hem you in and keep you tied to the land, because once you farm it, you have to mortgage your land.”

As tensions heighten, the musical introduces another force of conflict, Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler.

“The peddler in the movie kind of represents this urban culture that’s foreign and a little threatening to some people,” Blackburn said. “That was kind of a metaphor for this outside world encroaching in on our little rural paradise.”

A love triangle involving Laurey, farmer Jud and cowboy Curly seems to symbolize the divisions of Riggs’ upbringing. His solution was a simple one: “The farmer and the cowman should be friends.”

“People being divided by artificial divisions is still here today,” Blackburn said. “We might be divided by economic status, race, gender or other life choices and why can’t we all be friends? That song still works today.”


Despite the challenges tucked away behind the youthful verses and cheerful choruses of “Oklahoma!,” it seems Oklahoma has found the beautiful morning Curly sings of in the opening scene.

“I think that the reason it’s revived over and over is that there’s so many elements of the human condition in it that we enjoy seeing it and revisiting it,” Baron said.

“Plus, the music is spectacular. ‘Oklahoma’ I think is the only musical theater song where the entire audience stands up and claps along.”

We know we belong to the land
And the land we belong to is grand!
And when we say
Yeeow! Ayipioeeay!
We’re only sayin’
You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma!
Oklahoma O.K.

– From “Oklahoma” by
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, “Oklahoma!”