Robert Russell Bennett was a distinguished Broadway and Hollywood orchestrator and arranger, whose theatrical and film legacy alone amounts to over three hundred productions, working with many of the biggest names including George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. Bennett would be given sketches in varying detail by the composers for orchestration; Gershwin, for example, would give him a two-piano score with suggestions for instrumentation, while Richard Rodgers would merely write out the tune and then give Bennett very much a free hand.
Having orchestrated all these productions Bennett was given licence to arrange many of them into Symphonic Pictures, including Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, perhaps his best known, Irving Berlin’s Showboat, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (which MSO played in the 2017 Prom), and a number of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows
including South Pacific and The Sound of Music together with Oklahoma!. It is difficult to imagine better arrangements, and one feels at the end that one has virtually seen the show.
Oklahoma! was a groundbreaking musical, the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 11 in 1943, and based on a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs, Green Grow the Lilacs. Set in the mid-west in 1906 its context is the formation of the state of Oklahoma, but its plot centres round Laurey Williams, a farm girl in love with the somewhat feckless cowboy Curly McLain but coveted by her evil farm hand Jud Fry. The sub-plot concerns the flighty Ado Annie and her beau Will Parker, their romance threatened by the scheming peddler Ali Hakim. The show won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 and has remained one of the most-produced shows of all; the integration of plot, dialogue, song and dance pointed the way for many subsequent musicals, not least the further collaborations of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Oklahoma! was filmed in 1955 starring Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae and won Bennett an Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.
His Symphonic Picture: Oklahoma! begins with a dreamy foretaste of Oh, What O Beautiful Morning, Pore Jud is Daid and People Will Say We’re In Love. The piece bursts into life with The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends from the Box Social in Act 2, leading into the vigorous title song, Oklahoma! (with exclamation mark!). Next, People Will Say We’re In Love, epitomises the tentative romance between Laurey and Curly, followed by Out of My Dreams, the second act ballet which crystallises their secret desires. Oh, What a Beautiful Morning begins the stage action, and became the most singable number from the show. Next comes Pore Jud is Daid, a humorous mock funeral dirge, in which Curly fools Jud into thinking that he will be remembered fondly (‘His fingernails have never been so clean.’). The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, in which Curly describes the carriage he’s borrowing to take Laurey to the Box Social, is surely the most delightful number, orchestrated by Bennett to include cocks crowing in saxes and clarinets. The coquettish Many a New Day, in which Laurey declares her ‘footloose and fancy-free-ness’ is followed by the soft-shoe-shuffle Kansas City, in which Will describes his trip to the city and the new world of mod-cons. The barn dance number from the Social, Farmers Dance, leads into the comic I Cain’t Say No, in which Ado Annie describes her lack of will-power when it comes to men, and finally the apotheosis-reprise of People Will Say and Beautiful Morning.