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Theresa Helburn
Theresa Helburn, producer
Rodgers & Hammerstein, Oklahoma! theatrical program
Theatre Guild production
1943
Theatre Guild Records

The first American musical to depart from the standard, “chorus-line-and-specialty-number” musical comedy style, the Theatre Guild production of Oklahoma!, choreographed by Agnes de Mille, was groundbreaking. In traditional musicals, song and dance numbers didn’t contribute to the story line of the musical, they were simply added throughout to enliven the show. The dance sequences in Oklahoma!, however, were incorporated into the narrative and plot. The musical’s famous dream sequence dance number was so compelling to audiences that nearly every new musical on Broadway the next season included a similar dance number.

 

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Under writer, director, and producer Theresa Helburn, the Theatre Guild became famous for producing great plays, regardless of their commercial viability. Helburn headed this pioneering group at a time when female producers were not common in the professional theater. She joined the newly formed company in 1919 as a play reader. “A year later,” Helburn remembered, “I was made executive secretary pro tem, a job that not only I didn’t want but that no one wanted. So started a career of theater production to which I had never given a moment’s thought, which had not interested me, and which I would have regarded in any case as beyond my capacities.”1 She went on to become the company’s Executive Director, a title she held for some forty years. She worked on the first productions of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), The Philadelphia Story (1939) by Philip Barry, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945). Of Helburn, Oscar Hammerstein wrote: “A producer is a rare, paradoxical genius—heard-headed, soft-hearted, cautious, reckless, a hopeful innocent in fair weather, a stern pilot in stormy weather, a mathematician who prefers to ignore the laws of mathematics and trust intuition, a realist, a practical dreamer, a sophisticated gambler, a stage-struck child. That’s a producer. That was Theresa Helburn.”2

1 Theresa Helburn, A Wayward Quest, Boston: Little Brown, 1960, p. 66.
2 Oscar Hammerstein, “Theresa Helburn,” [Privately Printed, New York, 1959] p. 2.

 

 

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