“Our state fair is a great state fair, don’t miss it, don’t even be late!” That’s right, it’s state fair time again in Iowa. For me, it brings back a lot of memories. My first experience with the Iowa State Fair was marching in the State Fair Parade as a member of the Mount Vernon High School band. That was back in the days when bands wore their full uniforms, no matter what the temperature. As I recall, it was 90 plus degrees that night. It was also at a time when no one had even heard of water bottles. If you were lucky, sometime prior to falling into rank, you found a drinking fountain and took enough gulps to last you a couple of hours. We proudly marched down Grand Avenue – as a trombone player I was in the front row – and we played our hearts out. We won our class (the small school one), but got edged out by one of the big school bands for the Governor’s Trophy, awarded to the best band over all.
The male bandsmen pitched tents in a farm field adjacent to the fairgrounds (the females stayed in the 4-H Club Girls’ Dormitory) and we goofed off most of the night. The highlight was an apple fight in the orchard next to us (my very late, but sincere apologies Mr. Farmer, as I suspect the $5.00 apiece you charged us for the camping space didn’t make up for the damage we did to your apple crop). We ran through the fairground gates when they opened the next morning and ventured through the fair until about mid-afternoon, when many of us were too exhausted to walk another step. We spent the remainder of the day dozing and slowly rocking in the rockers that lined the veranda of the 4-H Dorm. By the time the school buses were ready to load us for the return trip we were more than ready to board. All in all, however, it was a very good time.
The opening quote above was written by Oscar Hammerstein II. Together with composer Richard Rodgers, it’s part of the opening lyric for the song “State Fair,” from the musical of the same name. That song always reminds me of the Iowa State Fair and with good reason, the musical is set in Iowa. Now I don’t know how much two New York City songwriters knew about either Iowa, or our state fair, but I consider it an honor that they chose to set it here. Actually, they based it on the Philip Stong novel and the screenplay for Fox Film Corporation’s 1933 movie starring Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers. Rodgers & Hammerstein, of course, were renowned for their wildly popular Broadway musicals, but State Fair wasn’t one of them. The score for State Fair was the only one they wrote expressly for Hollywood.
In 1945, 20th Century Fox produced State Fair starring Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews, though both were dubbed. That wasn’t the case with the second leads, Dick Haymes and Vivian Blaine, who show off their considerable vocal talents. The score featured six compositions, one of which (“It Might as Well Be Spring”) went on to win the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song. Directed by A-List director Walter Lang, it was filmed in gorgeous, saturated Technicolor. For the record, the 1962 version starring Pat Boone and Ann-Margret, retooled by Rodgers after Hammerstein’s death in 1960, was reset to Texas.
As early as 1969, The Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis adapted the movie version for the stage under the direction of James Hammerstein (Oscar’s son), and with the supervision of Rodgers. The show was revived in July-August 1992 as part of the Broadway Preview Series at the North Carolina School of the Arts, at the Stevens Center in Winston Salem. Strangely enough, I was at one of those early performances to review it for an area publication. From there, the show moved to the Long Beach Civic Light Opera in October 1992. Three years later, a restaged version opened at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines on August 12, in conjunction with the 1995 Iowa State Fair. A lengthy national tour followed, during which it was further tinkered with and refined.
The central problem with adapting State Fair to the stage was that six songs wasn’t nearly enough for a Broadway-style show. What had been done to remedy this during the early nineties was to add Rodgers & Hammerstein material from other sources to increase the size of the score. For instance, a song from the 1962 movie version, written by Rodgers alone, had been inserted, as well as a pair that they had written for Oklahoma!, but had not used. Other, lesser, scores that had been rare misfires for the team – Me and Juliet, Allegro, and Pipe Dream – were all mined for appropriate material. It wasn’t enough to find unknown Rodgers & Hammerstein songs, they had to be songs that could be integrated smoothly into the existing score.
The Broadway production, co-directed by James Hammerstein and Randy Skinner (also choreographed by Skinner) premiered on March 27, 1996 at the Music Box Theatre. That version ran for 110 performances and eight previews, and was nominated for two Tony Awards. The cast included John Davidson, Kathryn Crosby, Andrea McArdle, Ben Wright, and Donna McKechnie. In Broadway terms, it was neither a hit, nor a flop, but it was probably still a disappointment. The thing that stands out to me most as the most glaring error is the miscasting of Davidson as the Frake family patriarch. Although Davidson is a Broadway veteran, he’s also an overly charming, pretty boy singer, and as far from my conception of an Iowa farmer as anyone could be.
Both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had had significantly successful careers prior to coming together as a team. Rodgers paired with Lorenz Hart for such major Broadway shows as A Connecticut Yankee, On Your Toes, and Pal Joey. Hammerstein had worked with various composers, but his greatest partnership was with Jerome Kern. Together, they wrote such hits as Show Boat, Sweet Adeline, and Music in the Air. Independent of the other, Rodgers and Hammerstein both wanted to turn Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical, but neither of their then partners shared that interest. Eventually, they decided to work together. The result was Oklahoma!, which opened in 1943 and quickly became a landmark production in the history of Broadway. Incidentally, Hart died of complications of alcoholism that same year, while Kern died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945. What started as a temporary partnership soon became a permanent collaboration.
After Oklahoma!, Rodgers & Hammerstein created Carousel, which opened in 1945 and was another tremendous success. Their score for State Fair was just their third combined effort. Many of the greatest successes of the Broadway musical theater of the forties and fifties were Rodgers and & Hammerstein shows. Among them were South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound of Music. They also created one show for television, Cinderella, which has been produced three times. All of the titles mentioned in this paragraph were committed to film. By clicking on the linked titles you will be directed to the DVD held by the Des Moines Public Library. Don’t miss them, don’t even be late!