Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae, Oklahoma!

By Diane Claytor

It’s Back!!! Diablo Ballet and the Lafayette Library are thrilled to bring back, for the third year in a row, the popular summer Dance on Film series. Featuring classic musicals showcasing some of the best dances ever captured on film, the two movies showing this summer will have you cheering in your seats and whistling tunes as you head home.

Get ready to tap your toes, clap your hands and hum “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin” on Thursday, June 5 as the series opens up with Oklahoma!, the first musical written by the world famous team of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on a 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! opened on March 31, 1943. It was a box-office smash, running for an unprecedented 2,212 performances.

According to Wikipedia.com, this show epitomized the development of the “book musical,” a musical play where the songs and dances are fully integrated into a story with serious dramatic goals that evoke genuine emotions. Additionally, Oklahoma! features musical themes that recur throughout the play to connect the music and story.

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Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae, Oklahoma!

The play first opened for out-of-town-tryouts earlier in March 1943. Expectations for the show were low; Hammerstein had written six flops in a row, and the show had no star power. Producer Mike Todd walked out after the first act during the tryout and wisecracked, “No legs, no jokes, no chance.” But Rodgers and Hammerstein were confident. The New Haven audiences and then Boston critics were enthusiastic. Only a few changes were made before it opened on Broadway, but two would prove significant: the addition of the show-stopping musical number, Oklahoma! and the decision to rename the musical after that number. Rnh.com said that Oklahoma! launched a new era in the American musical.

Oklahoma! is set in a western Indian territory just after the turn of the century. The high-spirited rivalry between the local farmers and cowboys provides the colorful background against which Curly, the handsome cowboy, and Laurey, the winsome farm girl, play out their love story.

The musical was adaptedOK14681 into a movie in 1955, starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones (in her film debut). It was the only musical film directed by Fred Zinnemann, and Agnes de Mille choreographed. Rodgers and Hammerstein personally oversaw the making of the film to prevent the studio from making changes that were then typical of stage-to-film musical adaptations, such as including new songs written by others. The film followed the stage version more closely than any other Rodgers and Hammerstein stage-to-film adaptation.

A 1955 NY Times film review stated, “Inevitably, the question which leaps to every mind is whether the essential magnificence and gusto of the original [play] has been retained in the sometimes fatal operation of transfer to the screen… there is only one answer: under the direction of Fred Zinnemann—and, we might add, under the hawk-eyed observation of Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein—a full-bodied ‘Oklahoma!’ has been brought forth in this film to match in vitality, eloquence and melody any musical this reviewer has ever seen. ”

The movie received two Academy Awards for Best Scoring of a Musical Film and Best Sound Recording. Some of the familiar songs from this movie include “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.”

In 2005, when Oklahoma! was celebrating its 50th anniversary, BBC film critic David Mattin wrote “The question must be, is all this watchable today? Well, yes. 50 years and there’s still an infectious charm about Oklahoma! ….set against a compelling love story, and tunes – ‘Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’, ‘Oklahoma!’ – even the most determined hipster will have to admit are great. There’s no cynicism here or sensationalist thrills, just well-crafted, thoroughly enjoyable escapism. ‘I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No’? And it’s just about kissing? Ah, they were simpler times.”

On Thursday, July 10th,Funny_Face_1957 you’ll have the chance to see Funny Face, the 1957 Oscar nominated musical starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire – not to mention the fabulous music by George and Ira Gershwin.

Although having the same title as the 1927 Broadway musical Funny Face by the Gershwin brothers, and featuring the same male star (Astaire), the plot is totally different and only four of the songs in the stage production are included. (According to wikipedia.com, the movie plot is actually adapted from another Broadway musical, Wedding Bells, by Leonard Gershe.) World famous photographer Richard Avedon consulted on the film and Eugene Loring was the choreographer. Astaire plays Dick Avery, a still photographer, who is based in part on Avedon.

The story revolves around Jo, a shy, bookshop clerk/amateur philosopher, who is discovered by a famous fashion photographer and finds herself at a major fashion event in Paris, where romance blossoms. Some of the better known songs include “How Long Has This Been Going On” and “S’Wonderful.”

Unlike her later film, My Fair Lady, Hepburn sings the songs herself in this, her first musical. Her previous dance training is also called into play, not only in the two dance numbers she performs with Astaire but also for a Bohemian-style solo dance in a nightclub, which has often been replayed in retrospectives of her career.

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Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, Funny Face

According to tcm.com, “Hepburn, who had idolized Astaire since she was a child, was thrilled to be working with him, but very nervous. Although she was a trained dancer, she was by no means on Astaire’s level, nor was she a trained singer. But at their first meeting, Astaire put her at ease. ‘Fred literally swept me off my feet’, she later recalled. Putting an arm around her waist, he twirled her around, and his ease dissolved her nervousness. The perfectionist Astaire practiced with Hepburn for many hours, but made it so enjoyable that Hepburn didn’t mind.”

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Costume Design, cinematography, art direction, and screenplay. It didn’t win any of them. Tcm.com reports that with a few exceptions, the reviews for Funny Face were good, and the film did well in the big cities. However, it may have been too sophisticated for mass audiences, and did not make back its $4 million cost.

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Audrey Hepburn, Funny Face

Totalfilm.com calls Funny Face “one of Hollywood’s funniest, most stylish musicals and breezy satires…it thrives on the pairing of Astaire and Hepburn… Hepburn delivers the film’s most memorable routine: a joyously silly, sublimely choreographed pastiche of contemporary dance.” And David Parkinson of Empireonline called it “A timeless musical treat and the most fun you can have with really elegant clothes on.”

Both movies – Oklahoma! on June 5 and Funny Face on July 10 – will be shown at the Lafayette Library & Learning Center (3491 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette), starting at 6:30. Each evening is preceded by a brief presentation by Diablo Ballet’s Artistic Director, Lauren Jonas, and dancer Edward Stegge, who will regale attendees with behind the scenes facts about the movies and offer a dancers’ perspective. Admission is $5 and benefits the Lafayette Library.  Please click here to register, or to learn more information, call 925.943.1775.

These are evenings not to be missed if you live in the area. And if you’re reading this from afar, well, you can no doubt rent these wonderful movies so you, too, can spend an evening clapping your hands and humming along.

Diane Claytor, a Chicago native, has spent most of her adult life living in the East Bay and working for several different non-profit organizations. Although admittedly not a dance aficionado, she enjoys all types of music and is probably happiest when she’s plugged into her mp3 player listening to whatever the mood dictates.

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