(b. 7 October 1914 in New York City; d. 25 July 1992 in New York City), actor, singer, writer, and director whose award-winning starring role in the musical Oklahoma! revitalized American musical theater.
Alfred Drake, born Alfred Capurro, was the second son of John Capurro and Elena Teresa Maggiolo. The family attended Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Brooklyn, New York, where Alfred made his first singing appearance. He continued his interest in music by joining the glee club while attending Brooklyn College. In 1935 while still a student at Brooklyn, Drake and his older brother, Arthur, passed the Adelphi Theatre in New York City where auditions were being conducted for a summer production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Drake auditioned and was hired as an understudy and member of the chorus. When that nine-week engagement ended, he and his brother spent the rest of the summer of 1935 singing with an opera company on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Arthur Capurro had his own career as a singer using the name Arthur Kent.)
Drake returned to Brooklyn College, majoring in English and education, and received his B.A. degree in 1936, but he was no longer interested in a teaching career. He made his Broadway debut as a chorus member in the musical review White Horse Inn in 1936. In December ofthat year the star of the show became ill and Drake was hired as his replacement with hardly any rehearsal. As a result of his performance—he only played the lead for eight performances—Drake was cast in the Rogers and Hart musical Babes in Arms in 1937. That show ran for forty weeks and earned Drake good reviews from the New York critics. Over the next four years Drake appeared in musicals, plays, and reviews of various kinds. A versatile performer, he appeared as Orlando in Shakespeare’s As You Like It in 1941. After that short-lived production he was given the male ingenue role in Emlyn Williams’s Yesterday’s Magic, which starred Paul Muni. Drake’s notices were positive, although the play as a whole was not well received. Often, Drake was singled out for praise even if the production was not.
In 1943 Drake was given the role of Curly McLain in Oklahoma!, the first of nine musicals created by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein. Oklahoma! was immediately called a landmark of American musical theatre. Daring and imaginative, the musical opens with Curly singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” one of the most celebrated melodies in American music. Laura Wagner, in her article “The Versatile Rogue,” quotes critic Elliot Norton of the Boston Post who wrote that, in that opening, “American musical comedy took a new turn away from the stilted nonsense towards something like truth and beauty. And Alfred Drake, because he got all that into his manner, his bearing, and his exuberant natural singing voice, became in effect the herald of a new era.” It made Drake a star. He was awarded the New York Drama Critics Award for his performance.
Not content with Broadway stardom, Drake left Oklahoma! in 1944 to appear in the musical review Sing Out, Sweet Land with Burl Ives. The production was successful and critics again praised Drake as an actor and singer. In 1945 Drake was signed to appear in the Columbia Pictures musical Tar and Spars. The film was released in 1946. Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote the songs and music. Drake sang two of them: “I’m Glad I Waited for You” and “Love Is a Merry-Go-Round.” But Drake was fated never to have a successful film career. Whenever one of his Broadway successes was filmed—Oklahoma!; Kismet; Gigi; Kiss Me, Kate—another actor was always chosen to play his role. Years later, Drake explained why. In the winter 1998–1999 issue of Show Music, James Klosty excerpts an interview in which he asked Drake why he did not do the film version of Kiss Me, Kate. Drake responded that he was under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to do the film. “Then I was told MGM was worried I was too much of a liberal. The American Legion had decided that I sounded like a commie.” MGM cancelled his contract. Besides, Drake explained, MGM already had Howard Keel, who MGM believed could play the role.
Drake returned to Broadway in 1946, starring in Beggar’s Holiday and then The Cradle Will Rock (1947). In 1948 he starred in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. It was immensely popular, earning Drake the Donaldson Award. In 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein offered Drake the role of the King of Siam in their new musical, The King and I. Drake turned them down because the role did not require much singing.
In 1953 the composers Chet Forrest and Robert Wright hired Drake to star in Kismet, which became one of his signature roles. His performance earned him another Drama Critics Award and a Tony for best actor. In 1955 Drake made his London debut in Kismet. Ten years later he reprised the role at Lincoln Center in New York.
Drake’s choice of roles was often unconventional. As Wagner points out, he “didn’t accept roles because of any success it might bring him; instead he did them for their artistic merits. All this proved that he was a versatile actor, capable of any role handed him, and he couldn’t be typed.”
Drake was also highly regarded as a serious actor, director, and writer. In 1957 he played lago in Shakespeare’s Othello at the American Shakespeare Festival. He played Benedict to Katherine Hepburn’s Beatrice in John Houseman’s 1957 production of Much Ado About Nothing and appeared in the production of Hamlet that starred Richard Burton (1964). Drake also directed the original Broadway cast of Courtin’ Life, choreographed by George Balanchine. Drake wrote adaptations of plays by Moliere, Ugo Betti, and Carlo Goldoni. His last major role was in the 1975 revival of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.
Although a very private man, Drake was well regarded in the theater community. He served as president of the Players’ Club, as a member of the Tony Nominating Committee, and as artistic director of the National Lyric Arts Theatre Foundation. In 1964 he was given the Brooklyn College Alumni Association Alumnus of the Year award. He was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981. In 1990 he was awarded a Tony for lifetime achievement.
Drake married Alma Rowena Tollefsen on 29 September 1940. Following their divorce in March 1944, he married Esther Harvey Brown, a member of the cast of Oklahoma! He died of heart failure following a long battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.
Drake was one of the most acclaimed and versatile performers of the mid-twentieth century. Actor, singer, writer, and director, he will be long remembered for revitalizing the American musical with his immortal performance as Curly in Oklahoma!
While there is no full-scale biography of Alfred Drake, he is referenced in all of the standard theatre histories. Drake himself was an engaging writer. In “Actor’s Holiday,” Theatre Arts (Dec. 1950), he gives a delightful account of the British theatre. He is featured in Max Wilks, OK! The Story of Oklahoma! (1993). Laura Wagner recounts and interprets his career in “The Versatile Rogue,” Classic Images (May 1999). Jim Klosty published interviews with Alfred Drake in “Alfred Drake on the Life that Late He Led,” Show Music (winter, 1998-1999) and “Alfred Drake Revisits the Oklahoma! Territory,” Show Music (spring 1993). He is cited in Who’s Who in the Theatre in 1983 and in Current Biography 1944. Obituaries are in the New York Times (26 July 1992) and Variety (3 Aug. 1992). He is featured in the five-volume video-cassette Broadway! A History Of The Musical.
John Kares Smith