When the Civic Center curtain rises next week for the opening of Lyric Theatre’s production of “Oklahoma!,” audience members will delight in the folksy charm and toe-tapping tunes from the classic show.
But most theatergoers probably won’t realize that a portion of the ticket proceeds will benefit research at OMRF—just as they have with every “Oklahoma!” performance for the past 38 years.
“It’s a unique bond between our state’s namesake musical and namesake medical research foundation,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “I don’t know of any other show that simultaneously entertains audiences and provides funding to help fight human disease.”
In total, performances of “Oklahoma!” have yielded more than $600,000 to support work at OMRF. And none of it would have been possible without Oklahoma-born playwright Lynn Riggs.
In 1930, Riggs wrote “Green Grow the Lilacs,” a play based on characters from his hometown of Claremore. Although the play closed the next year after only 64 performances, it found new life in 1943, when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein adapted it to create “Oklahoma!”
The musical borrowed copiously from Riggs’ work, keeping the same characters and story line. “Mr. Riggs’ play is the wellspring of almost all that is good in ‘Oklahoma!’” Hammerstein wrote in the New York Times. “I kept many of the lines of the original play without making any changes in them at all for the simple reason that they could not be improved on.”
For his contributions, Riggs received a share of the show’s box office receipts. When he died in 1954, he willed equal shares of his royalties to his four siblings. Upon his death in 1977, Riggs’ brother William Edgar bequeathed his portion to support heart disease and cancer research at OMRF.
Since that time, OMRF has received a small percentage of the proceeds from the musical, which is performed more than 600 times each year in the U.S. and Canada alone. That has translated into an average of more than $15,000 each year in support of medical research.
Penny Voss, OMRF’s vice president of development, remembers the first time a royalty check from “Oklahoma!” crossed her desk.
“It was soon after I’d joined OMRF, and I thought it was a mistake,” she said. “After all, why would Rodgers and Hammerstein be sending money to OMRF?”
She soon learned that the check represented the foundation’s share of a year’s worth of performances. Voss has since grown accustomed to receiving the annual payouts, which OMRF uses to help fund experiments in its cardiovascular biology and cancer research programs.
“Cancer and heart disease touched the Riggs family, so they gave up their share of the proceeds from ‘Oklahoma!’ to fight those illnesses in perpetuity,” said Voss. “That kind of selflessness is one more reason that I feel proud and even exhilarated every time I hear our state song.”