On a Theater Patron

Lynn Riggs had been in the US Army for over a year by the time he went on leave in New York City. The year was 1943, and Riggs had been away from his native Claremore, Oklahoma, for some time, having spent rounds as a college teacher and even working for a bit in Europe. But, here he was, on leave, and he was in a Broadway theater watching the brand new play, Oklahoma!

For those who don’t know, that production of Oklahoma! changed musical theater. It was the first collaboration between Rogers and Hammerstein, the famous Broadway musical duo who went on to create Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music among others. Before that duo, musical theater had been mostly productions that had great music but the musical and dance numbers were strung together with little plot in between. This production changed that. Oklahoma! was a story, a real story, of life in the Oklahoma Territory soon before it became a state that featured musical numbers. After that, all musical theater followed that formula.

That’s one major reason this soldier on leave from the Army wanted to see the production. Riggs was not your typical theater patron. Being a native of Oklahoma and also part Cherokee, Lynn Riggs had deep roots in that place. Of course, he loved the performance, the dances, and the music. It bothered him a little that, instead of square dancing that he was used to back home, the dances were complexly choreographed for New York theater audiences by the legendary Agnes de Mille. But the story rang true, and Riggs was suitably impressed by the production. The creative duo of Rogers and Hammerstein had made the story into a rip-roaring, patriotic (perfect for the war years) love story to the people of that state. And Riggs was ok with that.

Riggs had an even deeper connection to this play. He had been a playwright in his life before the Army. In fact, Riggs would pen over 20 plays during his lifetime and even one television script after the war. One thing that attracted him to this particular play was the source material. He knew the basis for the story came from a play penned by a native of his state. That made him especially connected to the production, and you can imagine his eagerness at seeing the performance.

Another thing about Lynn Riggs was that he was gay. As difficult as life had been growing up in rural Oklahoma, it was made doubly difficult being gay. Riggs had kept his secret from almost everyone back home. That was one reason that, while Riggs loved his home state, he longed to find a place in the world where he could feel free, to feel safe, to simply be himself. Theater had been that refuge, that safe place, for him.

But Lynn Riggs never forgot where he came from, and he appreciated what Oklahoma had given him, what it had made him. After the war and after leaving the military, Riggs was able to live off the proceeds from his plays. That money included a play that was produced on Broadway.

In fact, it was Lynn Riggs who wrote Green Grow the Lilacs, the play Oklahoma! was based on.


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