The Making of the Stage Musical
Fifty years after it was introduced, State Fair, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s only musical written for the screen, finally made it to the stage. The book for the stage version was written by Louis Mattioli and Tom Briggs, a Director of the R&H Theatre Library who also had the idea to adapt State Fair to the stage in the first place. Here, Briggs explains how the newest Rodgers & Hammerstein musical came to be:
Phil Stong’s novel State Fair was published in 1932 and a non-musical motion picture version was released the following year starring Will Rogers, Janet Gaynor and Lew Ayres. Twelve years later, fresh on the heels of their success with Oklahoma!, Rodgers & Hammerstein were persuaded by Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox studios, to adapt State Fair as a movie musical. Their version, released in August of 1945, starred Charles Winninger, Fay Bainter, Jeanne Crain, Dick Haymes, Dana Andrews and Vivian Blaine, winning R&H the Academy Award for their song “It Might As Well Be Spring.” A 1962 remake overseen by Rodgers (Hammerstein had died two years earlier) updated the story and transplanted it from its original Iowa setting to Texas; Rodgers augmented the score with several songs he wrote on his own. So it was with the combined resources of one novel and three film versions that my late collaborator, Louis Mattioli and I began our work in bringing State Fair to the stage.
We were facing two major challenges, the first of which was the story. While the movies were a brief evocation of the fair itself, the story, characters and relationships would clearly require deeper exploration and development for the stage. The second challenge was the score. R&H had written only six songs for the original picture, so it was clear the theatrical score would need to include other songs. But where to find them?
Whatever songs we needed would have to blend stylistically with those from the movie, illuminate the various characters and situations and, above all (as R&H taught us), propel the story forward. They could also not be indelibly associated with other R&H musicals. (No “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” or “Some Enchanted Evening.”)
Unlike many writers, R&H did not leave behind a plethora of undiscovered songs, or “trunk material.” Seldom was a song replaced, and if so, it often found a home in a subsequent musical. (For instance, “Getting To Know You” from The King and I began life as the melody of “Suddenly Lovely,” written for South Pacific.) Also, R&H were theatre writers and rarely wrote outside the context of the musicals they created.
We began our musical search with the 1962 remake of State Fair. There was a terrific comic number Rodgers wrote for it that seemed to fit perfectly, so “More Than Just A Friend” became the seventh song in the score. I was familiar with a lovely song that had been cut out-of-town from Oklahoma! when that show was still called Away We Go!. It was just right for the parents of our young protagonists and so “Boys And Girls Like You And Me” became the eighth song in our State Fair. We also discovered one of the earliest song written for Oklahoma! which had never even made it into rehearsal—”When I Go Out Walking With My Baby.”
Because we were setting the show in the postwar 40’s, we wanted the score to reflect the Big Band flavor of that era. We also had in Emily, a band singer, a character who could afford to surprise us with some arrangements that would jump a bit. Swing music is not exactly what you think of when the names Rodgers & Hammerstein pop up, but we wanted to try. Two songs written for 1953’s Me and Juliet fit the bill—”You Never Had It So Good” (which had been cut prior to Broadway) and “That’s The Way It Happens.”
We rounded out the score with two songs from Pipe Dream—”The Man I Used To Be” and “The Next Time It Happens”—and one from Allegro—”So Far.” 14 songs in all—now that’s a theatrical score!
The story of the Frake Family of Iowa and their outing to the State Fair, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “newest” musical began its national tour, naturally, in Des Moines during the opening of the ‘95 Iowa State Fair in August. The Theatre Guild, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first producers of Oklahoma!, Carousel and Allegro, revived that tradition as producers of this State Fair, with Philip Langner and Robert Franz at the helm.
Governor Terry E. Branstad hosted the opening night performance in Des Moines, Iowa, where stars John Davidson, Kathryn Crosby, Andrea McArdle, Donna McKechnie, Scott Wise and Ben Wright were hailed as adopted hometown heroes and even made honorary Iowans. Also on hand were Rodgers & Hammerstein—Mary Rodgers and her family, and Hammerstein’s son James, who not only carried the family name but also its theatrical pedigree—in this case, as co-director of State Fair with Randy Skinner.
To the Des Moines crowd, every line in State Fair that mentioned blue ribbon-winning hogs, tractor pulls, or corn dogs on the midway hit home with gusto. Songs like “It Might as Well Be Spring” and “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” were greeted as good old-fashioned showstoppers, while lesser-known numbers like “So Far” and “The Man I Used to Be” were warmly welcomed. As for “All I Owe Ioway,” it was received by the hometown crowd as nothing short of a standing-O, rip-roaring love-anthem to their Hawkeye State, earning State Fair a front-page rave review in the Des Moines Register.
In the months and cities that followed, this State Fair, to quote Hammerstein’s opening lyric, proved to be “a great State Fair” that triumphed far beyond local pride.
In Chicago, Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss declared, “The show is perfection... Just pin that blue ribbon on the theater marquee,” while her colleague Richard Christiansen of the Tribune wrote, “This is a smart, sharp and refreshing show, bursting with wonderful songs and beautiful voices, staged with savvy and snap, and performed with gusto, good humor and charm.” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel critic Damien Jacques called it “a pure delight... sweeter and more fun than cotton candy.”
Typical of many reviewers, Pamela Sommers of the Washington Post felt that State Fair is “corny and quaint, straight as an arrow and sentimental as all get out... But gosh darn it, [this] newly minted production... is surprisingly hard to resist.” Philadelphia Inquirer critic Clifford Ridley, after telling his readers that he “fell for” State Fair the first time he saw it on screen, confessed that, having now seen it on stage, “I tumbled for it all over again.” Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Examiner saluted State Fair for having “more glorious melodies than Broadway has seen in a very long time, [sung by] the kinds of gloriously bright voices... that remind you of Broadway’s heyday.” And in the trade paper Variety, Chris Jones decreed that “the crowd- pleasing charms of [this] ‘new’ musical are considerable and compelling—a witty book, lush R&H songs and a barrelful of strong performances are what provoked the lengthy and much-deserved standing ovation.”
After an eight-month tour, State Fair came to Broadway, where it racked up more than 100 performances. In early June, shortly before the show closed, DRG released the original Broadway cast album of State Fair—billed as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first in 36 years. Produced for records by Hugh Fordin, it has proven to be a welcome souvenir for fans of the show, and a consolation prize for those who didn’t catch its Broadway incarnation.
“The cast recording is a melodic delight,” reported Show Music. “The cast sparkles [and] the chorus is exemplary, bringing even more zest to the proceedings via Kay Cameron’s vocal arrangements. Bruce Pomahac’s vivid orchestrations make Rodgers’ melodies sound new, but stay true to their intent. It adds up to a State Fair that makes return visits a joy.” Billboard cheered, “This State Fair is a great State Fair... It all fits beautifully.” In his original stage review, Ken Mandelbaum of TheatreWeek predicted that State Fair “would make a delightful cast album,” and in his follow-up review for the album, confirmed it: “State Fair makes an expectedly smooth translation to disc... It makes for pleasant listening, and it’s one that should stick around, as this stage version of State Fair... becomes, as it is bound to, a stock and community theater staple.”
Indeed, State Fair is a beloved show in the R&H catalogue and a popular choice in community theaters across the country. And thanks to the recent release of the film’s 60th-anniversary double-disc DVD, an even wider fanbase is sure to emerge for this American treasure.