Matt Mattox: the Australian years – from Oklahoma! to Song of Norway

Oh What a Wonderful Mornin’ it was for Rodgers and Hammerstein when Oklahoma! opened in New York in March 1943.

Neither could have dreamed of the musical’s great success and the royalties that would come in the years to follow.

The musical ran for more than five years in the US and then for many years in countries around the world.

In 1949, J C Williamsons brought the show to Australia where it opened with a seven month run in Melbourne before touring throughout Australia into 1950.

Act I of the show ended with the Dream Ballet (“Out of My Dreams”) in which the lead characters of Laurey, Curly and Jud were interpreted by three dancers.

In the original production, Curly, in the Dream Ballet, was danced by Marc Platt, Laurey by Katharine Sergava and Jud, for the first two months, by George Church, then by Vladimir Kostenko.

The creative team took the dancing roles seriously and cast with care.

Sergava, Platt and Kostenko had all danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and went on to future careers as professional ballet dancers.

In Australia, the role of Curly was danced by Matt Mattox, an excellent jazz dancer, while Laurey was danced by Strelsa Heckelman and Jud by Vassilie Trunoff.

Both Heckelman and Trunoff had danced in the Borovansky Ballet.

Heckelman died last December (2012) and Mattox died less than two months later, in February (2013) aged 91.

Soon after his death in France, Mattox was acclaimed by the dancer, Jacques d’Amboise as “one of the greatest male dancers that ever was on a performing stage. He’s equal to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.”

Mattox’s most remarkable role was that of Caleb Pontipee in the 1954 movie, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

As one of seven frontiersmen in Oregon in the mid 19th century, Mattox starred in a spectacular, barn-building scene in which his virtuosic solo featured soaring split leg jumps. His ‘floor’ for the high jumps was a wooden horse saw.

Directed by Stanley Donen, the movie was choreographed by Michael Kidd who chose a group of excellent dancers, among them Mattox, d’Ambroise, on leave from New York City Ballet, Marc Platt, Tommy Rall and Russ Tamblyn.

Harold (Matt) Mattox was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma so it seemed as though fate would lead him to the musical of the same name.

In Australia, Williamsons brought Mattox to help stage the operetta, Song of Norway, but a reshuffling of the opening dates of various Williamson shows meant he danced in Oklahoma! first.

In an oral history for the National Library of Australia,the dancer, Strelsa Heckelman, told the interviewer, Lee Christofis, that in Australia, Mattox’s first Laurey in the Dream Ballet was Edna Busse, however he found her too short to partner.

Cast lists for the musical in the initial Melbourne season show Busse in the role but some time during 1949, Heckelman took over the part.

The dancers were coached by Gemze De Lappe, an American dancer who had worked closely with Agnes de Mille, the original choreographer of Oklahoma!

De Lappe, who danced the role of Laurey in the Dream Ballet in the London premiere of Oklahoma! in 1947, is listed in programs as the choreographer for the Australian production.

But why De Lappe, and not de Mille?

It seems that de Mille did not retain the rights to her choreography for the musical and therefore anyone could be commissioned to reproduced her work or create their own choreography. That meant of course she received no royalties for any of the long running productions whereas the composers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, did.

By 1958, the show had earned an estimated $US60 million in royalties but de Mille received nothing more than her initial fee.

As for the Australian production, Mattox was a “lovely” partner, Heckelman told Christofis, though in rehearsals, he was demanding, insisting she danced with more attack. He achieved that attack by “making me cross” in rehearsal.

At the end of 1950, Wiliamsons staged Song of Norway, with Mattox listed in the program as choreographer. Along with Heckelman, he also danced in the operetta.

In the original 1944 production in the US, George Balanchine choreographed the dance sequences that included both folk dancing and ballet.