The great success and popularity of the musical Oklahoma! (1943) has probably obscured the quality of the play upon which it is based, Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs. Without slighting the creative and musical abilities of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, it is only fair to state that Oklahoma!, in essence, is Green Grow the Lilacs; the color, vitality, charm, and even many of the musical ideas are present in the original, as Hammerstein himself was the first to admit in the New York Times (September 5, 1943): “Mr. Riggs’s play is the wellspring of almost all that is good in Oklahoma! . . . Lynn Riggs and Green Grow the Lilacs are the very soul of Oklahoma!”
While Oklahoma! made fortunes for most of those connected with the production, Riggs, a U.S. Army draftee at the time, collected a royalty of $250 per week. That fact is perhaps symbolic of Riggs’s whole career. From his first play, Knives from Syria (1925), to his last, Toward the Western Sky (1951), Riggs was a prolific playwright who spent a lifetime on the brink of success in New York theater. Riggs was never able to establish himself as a Broadway playwright. Out of the twenty-seven plays he authored during his lifetime, only four were ever produced on Broadway, and of those, only two, Green Grow the Lilacs and Russet Mantle (1936), could be called even modest commercial successes. One of the final ironies of Riggs’s career is that this authentic regional artist did his most profitable work in...
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