The Surprising Broadway Musical That Provided the Soundtrack to a Real-Life Royal Romance

In spring 1947, a first-time visitor to London described the capital as “a decaying, decrepit, sagging, rotten city.” The after-effects of World War II were still being felt: buildings were puckered with shrapnel scars, wartime rationing continued, and the shortage of housing following the Blitz meant that many returning soldiers found themselves homeless.

In short, London was in dire need of cheering up.

Relief came in an unexpected form, with the arrival of Oklahoma!, the quintessentially American musical by legendary duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, which this year celebrates its 75th anniversary. Following a runaway success on Broadway, where it opened March 31, 1943, Oklahoma! had its West End debut in April of 1947. It was the first American musical to travel to London after the war. Outside the theater, London was “cold and foggy”; inside, however, the set was Technicolor bright and the musical score bounding with energy.

And while the British audiences found themselves enraptured by the onstage cowboy love story, a royal romance was playing out in the theater.

Courtesy of Rodgers & Hammerstein: A Concord Music Company, 1947 playbill for the West End run of Oklahoma!

The play opened on April 30, 1947 at the Drury Lane Theatre, to 14 encores and an hour of curtain calls. Tickets were in high demand; Gemze de Lappe, a dancer in the original London show, told the BBC: “The Oliviers came [Laurence Olivier and his second wife, Vivien Leigh] and Noel Coward — anyone who was anyone wanted tickets.”

However, on opening night, the guests of honor were none other than the royal family: King George VI, his wife the Queen, Princess Margaret and her older sister Princess Elizabeth. The family reportedly loved music and singing, with both princesses performing in pantomimes at Windsor Castle during the war. And accompanying the family at the theater that night was a dashing foreign prince: Prince Philip, the future husband of Princess Elizabeth, who later became Queen Elizabeth II.

At the time, the royal couple were not yet engaged — but the princess was already smitten. As third cousins, they had first met as children in 1934. However, it was in 1939, when Elizabeth, 13, and Philip, 19, met again in Devon, England, that the princess first fell in love, according to Sir John Wheeler-Bennett,

Source:: Time – Entertainment


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