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In Rodgers's previous collaborations with Hart, Rodgers had always written the music first, since the unfocused Hart needed something on which to base his lyrics.Hammerstein's previous collaborators included composers Rudolf Friml, Herbert Stothart, Vincent Youmans, and Kern, who all wrote music first, for which Hammerstein then wrote lyrics.Though Theresa Helburn, codirector of the Theatre Guild, suggested Shirley Temple as Laurey and Groucho Marx as Ali Hakim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, with director Rouben Mamoulian's support, insisted that performers more dramatically appropriate for the roles be cast.As a result, there were no stars in the production, another unusual step.
Rodgers and Hammerstein won a special Pulitzer Prize for Oklahoma! This musical, building on the innovations of the earlier Show Boat, epitomized the development of the "book musical", a musical play where the songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-made story with serious dramatic goals that are able to evoke genuine emotions other than laughter.
Set in Oklahoma Territory outside the town of Claremore in 1906, it tells the story of cowboy Curly Mc Lain and his romance with farm girl Laurey Williams.
A secondary romance concerns cowboy Will Parker and his flirtatious fiancée, Ado Annie.
In 1931, the Theatre Guild produced Lynn Riggs's Green Grow the Lilacs, a play about settlers in Oklahoma's Indian Territory.
Though the play was not successful, ten years later in 1941, Theresa Helburn, one of the Guild's producers, saw a summer-stock production supplemented with traditional folk songs and square dances and decided the play could be the basis of a musical that might revive the struggling Guild.