The instantly classic musical premiered on Broadway on March 31, 1943, before The Ed Sullivan Show was even on television. But Ed brought the show to his stage during his second season, on November 20, 1949.
The musical tells the complicated love story of cowboy Curly and farm girl Laurey. In order to make the other jealous, they each take different dates to a school function. Laurey soon realizes that her true love is Curly. But the man she unintentionally led on, Jud, isn’t quite ready to give her up. A secondary storyline involves the characters of Will Parker and the flirtatious Ado Annie.
Oklahoma! was the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, and was one of the first musicals to integrate music and storylines into a fluid production. It was such an incredibly popular musical that Sullivan set aside the entire March 27, 1955 episode for anyone and anything related to Oklahoma. Celebrating 12 years on Broadway, performers that evening included Barbara Cook (“Many a New Day”), John Raitt and Florence Henderson (“People Will Say We’re in Love”), Celeste Holm (“I Cain’t Say No”), Richard Collett (“The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” sung in the Swedish), and Gary Wright with Florence Henderson (“Be Kind To Your Parents”). Other noteworthy appearances that evening included the Augustana Choir singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and a bow from Oklahoma Senator Robert S. Kerr. When Ed said he was dedicating the episode to Oklahoma, he wasn’t kidding.
On November 22, 1970, Ed took The Ed Sullivan Show to the West Coast, for a tribute to Richard Rodgers at The Hollywood Bowl. Songs from The King and I and The Sound of Music were performed. For the Oklahoma! portion, the cast included John Davidson as Curly, Jeannie C. Riley as Laurey, and Minnie Pearl as Aunt Eller. The trio sang “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” They joined the rest of the show’s cast, including Johnny Mathis, The Lennon Sisters and Shirley Jones for the big finale of “Oklahoma!”
The original Broadway production of Oklahoma! ran for a little over five years before going on to very successful national and international tours. Rodgers and Hammerstein won special Pulitzer prizes for the show. The musical has been honored with Tony Awards, and the 1955 movie version won two Oscars. The musical was so identified with the state that the title song became Oklahoma’s official state song in 1953. Ed Sullivan’s favorite musical continues to inspire revivals on Broadway and around the world.