Joan Roberts dies at 95; female lead in original 'Oklahoma!'

Joan Roberts, who originated the female lead role of Laurey in the 1943 Broadway production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's long-running hit musical "Oklahoma!" and made a final return to Broadway after a more than five-decade absence in a 2001 revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," has died. She was 95.

Roberts died Monday of congestive heart failure at her home in Stamford, Conn., said her son, John Donlon.

A New York native with a strong, distinctive soprano voice, Roberts was 25 when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II cast her as Laurey, the high-spirited young farm girl in "Oklahoma!," their first professional collaboration.

During out-of-town tryouts of the musical in New Haven, Conn., and Boston, Roberts told the Hartford Courant in 1993, "I don't know if everyone knew it was great-great, but everyone in the cast knew they were involved in something wonderful."

"Oklahoma!" opened on Broadway in March 1943, with a cast that included Alfred Drake as the cowboy male lead, Curly; Howard Da Silva as Curly's bitter rival, Jud Fry; and Celeste Holm as Ado Annie, the girl who "cain't" say no.

With the death of Holm in July, Roberts was the last living major principal in the original Broadway cast.

"She had a very clear, strong, classic musical-theater voice that never needed microphones," Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical, told The Times on Wednesday.

Kreuger, who saw the original Broadway production, said the character of Laurey "is rather self-centered, not the sweetest girl in the world. She's playing two boys against each other, and the reward is which one will have the opportunity to take her to a box social. That's the essence of the plot of 'Oklahoma!'"

Describing "Oklahoma!" as a historic show, Kreuger said it "was a turning point in the development of the modern American musical in that songs always grew out of character and situation."

Although the show didn't close until 1948, after 2,212 performances, Roberts left the production after two years and signed a film contract withDavid O. Selznick.

"I said I couldn't work for anyone but him, but he could never find something for me to do," she told the New York Times in 2001. "But everything works out the way God wants it. If I'd gone to Hollywood, I never would have met my wonderful doctor," her first husband, Dr. John Donlan, who died in 1965.

Born Josephine Rose Seagrist in New York City on July 15, 1917, Roberts grew up in Astoria, Queens, not far from a movie studio, where she worked as an extra as a young child.

She later appeared in stage productions and toured the country in musicals and operettas for the Shubert Brothers before making her Broadway debut in 1941 in the short-lived Sigmund Romberg-Hammerstein musical "Sunny River."

After "Oklahoma!," Roberts originated roles in two short-lived Broadway musicals in 1945: "Marinka" and "Are You With It?" She also replaced Nanette Fabray in the hit 1947 musical "High Button Shoes."

While raising her son in Rockville Centre on Long Island, she appeared in a few early TV shows, did a nightclub act and performed in summer theater.

"When you've been in the best and greatest, everything else, by comparison, weakens," she told the Associated Press in 1993. "'Oklahoma!' is a milestone in the theater. I was happy to have been a part of the show and that I did well in it. That's been enough for me."

In 2001, Roberts returned to Broadway for the revival of "Follies," Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's musical about a reunion of former musical revue performers in an old Broadway theater slated for demolition.

Roberts played aged performer Heidi Schiller, with Brooke Sunny Moriber playing the young version of the character.

On her return to Broadway after so many years, Roberts told the New York Times, "I don't feel like I've been away. I'm right back where I belong."

Until early this year, Roberts conducted workshops on singing and voice projection in her home.

Roberts' second husband, Dr. Alexander Peter, died in 1993.

In addition to her son John, she is survived by two stepsons, Dr. Robert Peter and James Peter.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World