State Fair: 75 Years of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Film Musical

SBO Staff • August/September 2020ChoralCurriculum • August 19, 2020

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Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II collaborated on 11 projects: nine stage musicals, one television special (Cinderella), and one musical written directly for the cinema, State Fair. This article commemorates the 75th anniversary of State Fair by tracing back to its origins, describing its songs, and offering learning scenarios for music and performing arts.

State Fair, the title of a 1932 book by Phil Strong, inspired the 1933 black and white film of the same title. When 20th Century-Fox decided to create a remake for release in 1945, they decided it would make a great movie musical. Rodgers and Hammerstein had a catch: they would not be required to set foot in Hollywood to do their work for the movie musical. They were about to begin work on Carousel when studio head Daryl Zanuck called them to create the State Fair score and screenplay.

Rodgers explained the creation of State Fair as follows: the story, set in Iowa, would be filmed in California, and the music and lyrics would be written in Fairfield, Connecticut and Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where the pair resided. The 20th Century-Fox studio heads hired Rodgers and Hammerstein to create songs to capture the rustic charm of an Iowa state fair because of their success doing that for Oklahoma!

World War II moviegoers were going to see films in droves for both comfort and diversion. State Fair was one of several movie musicals during the World War II era that focused on Americana. Others included Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), For Me and My Gal (1942), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Can’t Help Singing (1944).

Unlike many other musicals, State Fair takes place in the then-current time, 1945. It depicts what contemporary life was like at the time of its release down to the home décor, clothing, and music. Big band style music was sung by two singers featured in the film, Dick Haymes and Vivian Blaine.

Hammerstein wrote the State Fair screenplay, adapting Sonya Levien and Paul Green’s 1933 script, and wrote lyrics that Rodgers set to music. The film was released on August 20, 1945 before the start of the state fair season. Haymes and Blaine could sing, especially because many actors had voice doubles sing for them in Fox musicals. Ironically, Jeanne Crain’s vocals were sung by voice double Louanne Hogan and Dana Andrews’ vocals were also dubbed. Hogan became the official voice double for Crain after 400 other singers were tested!

Margy’s song “It Might as Well Be Spring” won the Academy Award for Best Song and became a huge hit. State Fair gained an almost legendary reputation because of this song. The song is interesting for its F natural on the word “string” (“jumpy as a puppet on a string”). State Fair was later adapted as a musical play by Lucille Kallen and was staged at the St. Louis Municipal Opera in 1969. A big Broadway staging came in 1996 preserving the basic premise of the Iowan setting of the 1933 and 1945 versions and the original Strong book.

State Fair Learning Scenarios

The following areas can serve as a guide for State Fair lessons, including online lessons:

  • The Songs Students listen to the State Fair songs on YouTube and analyze the lyrics, including the reprises. How do the songs help develop the characters and move along the plot?
  • Calliope Music Students learn about calliope music, frequently played at fairs and amusement parks. Students listen for calliope renditions of State Fair songs in the underscore. Students learn about the Italian song “Funiculì, Funiculà” heard in the underscore.
  • State Pride Students create a state pride song for their home state similar to “All I Owe Ioway.”
  • Radio Students trace the history of radio and its importance for news and entertainment.
  • Big Band Students explore big band music including Dick Haymes and his five State Fair song recordings. What other musicians performed big band?
  • World War II Sentiment How do State Fair and other 1940s musicals fulfill a need before, during and after World War II? What impact did the musical have taking place in contemporary time?

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music can undoubtedly enhance the curriculum and their musical State Fair has much to offer students of music.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. writes extensively about musicals in the curriculum and commemorates milestone anniversaries of musical theatre and film works.

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