By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
January 24, 2015
The third musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein, following “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” this is the only one written directly for the big screen. The greatest team in Broadway musical history, even today, they wrote a total of eleven shows, one of which was directly for the movies (this one), and one of which was originally for television (“Cinderella.”)
I became interested in Richard Rodgers, because it dawned on me one day that more Americans have heard and loved his compositions than most other 20th Century composers, and perhaps he should be regarded among the greatest, up there with Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland and the like. But I didn’t know that much about the overall arc of his work, so I decided to seek him out and try to listen to more. Pretty soon I realized that one of the joys of Rodgers is that there is a seemingly inexhaustible treasure to be discovered, a trove that spreads over some 900 songs and 43 Broadway musicals. The other thing that I soon discovered was the amazing contribution of his lyricist Oscar Hammerstein to American musical theater in a career that stretched from before 1920 until his death in 1960. After you familiarize yourself with the idiom of Hammerstein songs, the clever word-play is unmistakable. I used to think that he was just a lyricist and that lyricists were disposable because the composer of the music did the hard work, but I was wrong. Hammerstein was the architect of the musicals he wrote for, usually writing the entire book and shaping the music as much as the composers he collaborated with. And his influence was far-reaching. Stephen Sondheim is often spoken of as a disciple of Hammerstein for instance.
Richard Rodgers is sometimes dismissed as a serious composer because he almost always relied on others to orchestrate his works, so that much of the Richard Rodgers sound that we know is only partially his own work. The usual orchestrator that is most identified with Rodgers is composer/arranger Robert Russell Bennett, who tirelessly gave the sound we most recognize as the Broadway sound to countless works over 6 decades beginning in 1919. I personally don’t think that this fact detracts from Rodgers’ pre-eminence as a 20th Century popular composer. After all, we live in an era where song-writers who can’t even read music are adulated as fine writers (Lennon & McCartney come to mind) even though they actually never “wrote” any music in the sense of putting notes on a page. To cite one of Richard Rodgers’ more famous works, the score to “Victory at Sea” was mostly written by Robert Russell Bennett, all except for a dozen key themes that Rodgers contributed, but it still stands as inimitably a Richard Rodgers composition. Along the same lines, the famous orchestral version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (originally written for the piano, as are the drafts of Richard Rodgers’ songs) is an orchestration by Maurice Ravel. We don’t think anything less of Mussorgsky for that, nor should we think anything less of Rodgers.
There is such a thirst for more shows by Rodgers & Hammerstein that State Fair has been retro-fitted from the movies back into a Broadway show. First, more songs were written for a less successful 1962 movie remake. It was then adapted to the stage in 1969. A new version, with a new book, was prepared in 1992 and came to Broadway in 1996. This official modern Broadway version is much expanded musically from the original film of 1945, which had only 6 songs; the Broadway version has all 6 of those, plus 2 songs that had been cut from Oklahoma!, plus 2 from the score of Pipe Dream, and 1 from Me and Juliet. Thus, the Broadway version of State Fair not only draws on the 1945 movie, but it is a pastiche of lesser known Rodgers & Hammerstein material that was deserving of being revived.
State Fair (1945) is actually a re-make of a non-musical 1933 film based on a novel (by a real Iowan) about a Midwestern farm family’s preparations for and adventures at the Iowa State Fair. It is a sweet and gentle film, altogether wholesome family fare, that rises above its corniness. The movie is undeniably gorgeous, with a Technicolor sheen that makes it seem larger than life despite the rather ordinary, every-day goings-on that are happening on-screen. But most memorably, the score is luscious. It only takes until the second song in the film to realize that we are witnessing timeless cinema. “It Might As Well Be Spring” is one of the most soaringly romantic songs Rodgers & Hammerstein ever wrote, as the ingénue realizes that she is having spring fever during the wrong season of the year and longs to meet the man of her dreams. The number deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Song. That song and others have you humming or whistling the melodies long after the screening is over.
The tensions that drive the story-line in State Fair are mild at best. The film is mostly just a slice of life story without much in the way of conflict or resolution. The most suspense offered up regards which housewife is going to win the pickle and mincemeat judging at the fair. The farmers’ hog, in contention for the grand prize, falls sick, and you think he’s going to have to drop out of the contest, but he rallies and wins anyway. You think for a moment that the ingénue has fallen for the wrong man, a player who is going to kiss her and disappear, but he turns out to really love her and comes to get her in the end. Frankly, I would have liked to see the pig die, just to spice up the film a bit. But this is a gentler film than that, propelled by a sense of mid-Century nostalgia for an America that probably never really existed, and helped along by a sumptuous score that has you singing along, even after the closing credits. Knowing it is Rodgers and Hammerstein, you can hear a preview of greater things to come. A snippet of the song “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” makes you just certain that it is about to morph into “My Favorite Things” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s later masterpiece The Sound of Music. . .reason enough to seek out this charming little film.