After decades of writing melodies ranging from cleverly ragtag to professionally functional to supremely memorable with words by Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers, following the June 1960 death of long-time partner Hammerstein, felt confident enough to match his melodies with his own lyrics. He was uncertain yet determined, and when Twentieth Century Fox approached him in early 1961 to write new songs for an expanded remake of their highly regarded 1945 musical State Fair, he recalled in his Musical Stages: An Autobiography with bracing simplicity, “I told them that I intended to write my own lyrics, but that if I didn’t like them, they’d never see them. I also assured the studio that if they didn’t like what I’d written, they didn’t have to use it. Within a few weeks I sent them three songs which apparently won their approval because then they asked me for two more. While they weren’t exactly world-beaters – and neither was the picture – they did give me enough confidence to plan on writing the lyrics for my next show, whatever it would be.” Thus, in the spring of 1962, with The Sound of Music still packing them in on Broadway and the film version of Flower Drum Song (1961) winding down its theatrical run with five Academy Award® nominations to its credit, this insecure but profoundly influential melodist scored a Broadway triumph with the March arrival of his innovative, Paris-fashion world-set No Strings, earning notices that admired its producer/score-writer’s wordcraft as well as his melody-making. And given that movies take some time to reach their finished form, that meant that Fox could boast in their New York Paramount Theater opening day ad 56 years ago this week that State Fair (1962) would prove “So fresh and so wonderful with Richard Rodgers’ NEWEST melodies and NEWEST lyrics!”
The NEW contributions, true to Rodgers’ estimation, weren’t the most sparkling assets of the project, a cost-conscious but colorful Cinemascope enlargement – adapted by Richard Breen, produced by Charles Brackett and directed by José Ferrer – transplanting from Iowa to Texas the Frake family’s pilgrimage to the annual title event. The big songs of the 1945 original – now performed by younger generation stars Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, Bobby Darin and Pamela Tiffin (voice-doubled by Anita Gordon) and their charming elders Tom Ewell and Alice Faye – remained the show’s anchors: Oscar® winner It Might As Well Be Spring, It’s a Grand Night for Singing, That’s for Me and Isn’t It Kinda Fun? But, as they were the skill-stretching exercises that empowered Rodgers to delve into the chic experimentation of No Strings, the songs Willing and Eager (a seductive, plain-spoken duet for a romantically attracted Boone and Ann-Margret) and This Isn’t Heaven (a declarative swoon for the unexpectedly smitten city slicker Darin) offer glimpses of the sophistication that would be more finely honed in No Strings’ clutch of standards like The Sweetest Sounds, Look No Further, Nobody Told Me and the title tune. The new material for the parents – mother Faye’s now-outmoded Never Say No to a Man, father Ewell’s More Than Just a Friend ode to his competitive, prize-winning hog, and the couple’s folksy The Little Things in Texas – were old-school, heartland-pitched attempts at characterizing songs that may spark as many groans as smiles today, but relatable audience favorites Ewell and Fay give them their best shot.
If these three numbers were game but inexpert sketches for character-revealing songs whose old-fashioned feel stylistically clashed with the friskier plot elements dealing with the younger set, one need only look to Rodgers’ next solo efforts which worked better and became his most resonant combo-music-and-lyrics achievements: his two contributions to the film version of The Sound of Music (1965) – postulant Maria’s nervously brash solo I Have Confidence (a sentiment by now applicable to its creator) and the tender, mature Maria/Capt. Von Trapp duet Something Good – proved such world-beaters that they have been regularly interpolated into stage revivals of the property ever since. Rodgers would write his own lyrics on only one more occasion, tackling a TV musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion (1967); after that, he opted to go back to partnering with other, established lyricists. State Fair (1962) is a corny, breezy and entertaining artifact of a time when a prodigious talent boarded a unfamiliar fairground ride and had the confidence to produce something good, and it’s kinda fun on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.