Loud boos. Audible vomiting. How Broadway’s edgy ‘Oklahoma!’ fared across America
“It was, as far as I know, the biggest flop in Broadway history.”
This is how Mark Linn-Baker, the show-business veteran who oversaw both “Oklahoma!” and the critically acclaimed “South Pacific” from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, once described his role in “Oklahoma!. We did everything. We did casting, we did wardrobe, we did everything. But we weren’t a big Broadway studio. We weren’t a major studio. We weren’t a big theatre, and we weren’t a big theater-within-a-theatre. We were very small-town. And that’s why we had the success that we did.
For Linn-Baker, who died today at age 62, it’s the truth.
Linn-Baker’s Broadway roots go much, much deeper than is often realized. His family emigrated to Brooklyn from Ireland during the Great Famine, and Linn-Baker went to college, then got a job at the Long Island Jewish Theater, where he wrote scripts and was eventually elected president of the theater’s board. By 1978, his Broadway credits included the first three Broadway plays (the other two being “Carousel” and “The Sound of Music”) and he had been responsible for the company’s first (and still only) off-Broadway production, a staging of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Two years later, Linn-Baker was hired to write the music and lyrics for what became the second Broadway hit of his career, “Oklahoma!”—a story told in the shadow of the state’s infamous racehorses, the Oklahoma Land Riders. (The characters were inspired by the Land Riders, and the town in which the production was filmed, Durant, Okla.) The success of “Oklahoma!” was more than just a triumph of showmanship; it was also a sign of things to come. Linn-Baker had been instrumental in turning out Broadway’s first all-black cast in the early 1950s—the first of which was “Oklahoma!”