State Fair – Part III

The 1996 Broadway production – continued

Fifty years later, the beloved 1945 State Fair movie was transformed into a toe-tapping, knee-slapping, hum-along Broadway musical.

Since Rogers and Hammerstein had written only six songs for the original movie version, the new Broadway production team had to start searching for suitable material to augment the score. Tom Briggs, who was working on the stage adaptation as well as serving as director of the R&H Theatre Library at that time, gave this account of the task they faced. “Whatever songs we needed would have to blend stylistically with those from the movie, illuminate the various characters, and above all (as R&H taught us), propel the story forward.”

It all seemed to come together at the end. The first song they added was the comic number ”He’s More Than Just A Friend” that Rogers had written for the 1962 movie revival. Okay, how many of you can sing along to that one? Come on now… “Sweeeeeet hog of mine, sweeeeeet hog of mine…!” They took two songs that had been cut from Oklahoma: “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” and “When I Go Out Walking With My Baby.” From the lesser-known shows, such as Me and Juliet, they plucked the songs: “You Never Had It So Good” and “That’s The Way It Happens” – the song that definitely puts you in the mood for “some French-friend potatoes and a T-bone steak”! From Pipe Dream, they used “The Man I Used To Be” and “The Next Time It Happens.” And finally the score was rounded out by a song from Allegro called “So Far.” After all the “hunting, picking and choosing” was done the new theatrical score included 14 crowd-pleasing R&H songs.

Jamie Hammerstein (Oscar’s younger son) was co-director of the State Fair stage production.

When music was needed to cover a scene change, Jamie added one more song to the show. Using lyrics based on lines from Phil Stong’s original novel and a melody from a song that had been dropped from Allegro, he created the song “Driving At Night.” “Hey, kick the old jalopy in gear… We’re Here, We’re Here!” With those exuberant words the Frake family turns their car past the bend and arrives at the I-Oh-Way State Fair!

The newly minted production of State Fair opened at the Civic Center in Des Moines, Iowa, on August 12, 1995. Of course, the premiere was planned to coincide with the opening of the real Iowa State Fair that year. The show made an eight month, 22-city tour and then finally landed at Times Square in March of 1996. The New York cast was led by Broadway stars John Davidson and Kathy Crosby (playing the role of the parents); Andrea McArdle played Margy; Donna McKechnie was the seductive band-singer. The play racked up more than a hundred performances and two Tony nominations for the year (Scott Wise who played the wise-crackin’ worldly reporter, Pat Gilbert, was nominated for Best Featured Actor in a Musical and the music was nominated for Best Original Score.) It was the final Broadway musical produced by the legendary David Merrick.

Once again State Fair proved to be a nostalgic, heart-warming, irresistible slice of Americana. The stage production sparkled with Midway lights, Big Band pizzazz, and most of all,  the lush and glorious melodies of Rogers and Hammerstein. It was the eleventh musical borne out of the R&H partnership, and without a doubt, it was a show that gave modern theater-goers a taste of what the Golden Age of Broadway was really all about.

Perhaps Jayne Blanchard (a theater critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press) said it best when she wrote these words: “There is a State Fair in everyone, a summer place in your soul where the sun touches the backs of your legs and a lit-up roller-coaster standing in the moonlight promises not just a two-bit thrill, but the ride of your life!”

Lynda Elizabeth Jeffrey grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and has been a “State Fair” fan for many summers of her life.


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