MUCH HAS BEEN written about the historic night on Broadway in 1943 when the curtain rose on an elderly woman churning butter, while offstage a lyric baritone voice was heard singing the first notes of 'Oh What A Beautiful Morning'. The show was the legendary Oklahoma] and the offstage voice was that of Alfred Drake. Drake created the role of the cowboy hero Curly and for the next decade was the greatest male musical star of the New York theatre. Drake was not only the possessor of a fine voice, but had a magnetic presence and acting skill that put him ahead of his singing rivals of the period.
Born Alfred Capurro in New York in 1914, he was educated at Brooklyn College, where he sang in the Glee Club. He made his theatrical debut in the chorus of The Mikado during a New York season of Gilbert and Sullivan in 1935; then was given a small role and made understudy to a leading player in White Horse Inn (1936). The following year he was part of the youthful cast in Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms, introducing the title-song. Several revues followed - the first, One for the Money, revealed Drake's flair for waspish wit when he wickedly impersonated Orsen Welles, and claimed that he 'knew Shakespeare backward at two, forward at three and personally at four'. The Straw Hat Revue (with Danny Kaye), Two for the Show (in which Drake introduced the standard 'How High the Moon') and Out of the Frying Pan followed.
Drake took on non-musical roles with success, and made his Shakespearean debut as Orlando in As You Like It in 1941. After a year as Curly in the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, he starred with Burl Ives in a compilation of folk music, Sing Out Sweet Land (1945), and played Macheath in Beggar's Holiday (1946), a modern version of The Beggar's Opera which had Duke Ellington's first score for the stage. When Bella and Sam Spewack and Cole Porter conceived the idea of a musical based on The Taming of the Shrew, Drake was their immediate choice to play Fred Graham, the flamboyant, conceited actor pursuing a tempestuous backstage relationship with his ex-wife while playing Petrucchio on stage. Backers were not easy to find - Porter had been off form for years, Drake had not been in a hit since Oklahoma] and his leading lady Patricia Morison had been doing Hollywood B movies for several years. But Kiss Me Kate turned out to be one of the musical theatre's masterworks, and Drake gave a magnificently full-blooded performance, stopping the show with his solos 'I've Come to Wife It Wealthily in Padua' and 'Where is the Life that Late I Led', while lending melting lyricism to 'Were Thine That Special Face'.
Rodgers and Hammerstein chose Drake to star in The King and I, but he declined because of a directing commitment and because of misgivings about the small amount of music for the King. He later played the role for 10 weeks in 1953 while Yul Brynner was on holiday. Later that year Drake had another personal triumph as Hajj the Poet in the musical version of Kismet, for which he won a Tony, the Donaldson Award and the New York Critics Award. The show initially received poor reviews, but, due to Drake's endearingly bravura performance as the beggar-thief, it eventually became a hit. With the golden age of the Broadway musical coming to an end, Drake returned to Shakespeare as Iago in Othello and played Benedick opposite Katharine Hepburn in Much Ado About Nothing.
George Wright and Robert Forrest, who adapted Borodin for Kismet, wrote the music themselves for Kean (1961), which provided Drake with a made-to-measure role as the roistering Shakespearean actor of Regency London, but it was not a success. Drake played Claudius to Richard Burton's Hamlet in John Gielgud's Broadway production (1964) and was consistently active as both writer and director. He triumphed once more in the musical theatre when he played the role of Honore in a stage version of Gigi (1973), though it enjoyed only a moderate run. He played the title-role in a BBC radio production of Othello and television appearances included Volpone and The Yeoman of the Guard. Ironically, Howard Keel, the actor who played Curly in London, went on to star in the film versions of both Kiss Me Kate and Kismet.
Drake made only one film, a minor musical, Tars and Spars (1946), introducing 'I Waited For You', the only hit in its lacklustre score by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. Two years ago, Drake was presented with a special Tony Award for his outstanding contribution to the American theatre.