Monday, July 24, 2006

Will It Play in Peoria? How About Iowa?

Will It Play in Peoria? How About Iowa?

Going all the way back to the days of vaudeville circuits, a common refrain to measure broad-based success -- particularly among podunk* towns -- was to ask, "Will it play in Peoria?" With today's broad communications ranging from television to Internet to, yes, the touring companies of Broadway shows, our world is smaller than ever. Yet, I profess to being surprised whenever I learn just how broad-based the appeal of Broadway actually is.

Fast forward to this past Saturday and a mere 209 miles north-northwest of Peoria, Illinois to the quaint small town Decorah, Iowa, where I attended a good old-fashioned farm-family wedding. Much to my pleasant surprise, my dinner table discussion drifted to which Broadway shows were worth seeing -- and no, I did not initiate the topic!

Now, it should be noted that there is an interesting pedigree on the young groom's side of the family.

First, his great-great uncle was writer Philip Stong, who penned the best-selling, Iowa-based "State Fair" novel from 1932. "State Fair" was such a proven success that it became the basis for a top movie in 1933 with Janet Gaynor, Will Rogers and Lew Ayres; the film earned two Academy Award nominations including for Best Picture.

Then in 1945, to capitalize on the unparalleled success that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II enjoyed through Oklahoma!, "State Fair" was translated into a movie musical in 1945, starring Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Dick Haymes and Vivian Blaine; that silver screen version won Rodgers and Hammerstein their first Academy Award for Best Original Song, "It Might as Well Be Spring." (My mother, who's completely unrelated to the aforementioned farm family, once told me that this was the very first movie she ever saw, and she remembers it fondly.)

In 1962, a remake of "State Fair" landed at cinemas across the country with Pat Boone, Bobby Darin and Ann-Margret. And finally, in 1996, a Broadway incarnation of State Fair finally blossomed with John Davidson, Kathryn Crosby (wife of the late Bing Crosby), Andrea McArdle and Donna McKechnie. While the tuner received two Tony nominations -- including, incredibly enough, for Rodgers and Hammerstein in the Best Original Score category despite the fact that the music was not specifically written for the stage -- the show was no match for the season's light-years-ahead contemporary Rent. State Fair closed after a mere 110 performances at the Music Box Theatre.

Another part of the groom's interesting pedigree is his grandmother. She's the modern-day folk hero Norma "Duffy" Lyon, who's perhaps better known as The Butter Cow Lady for making life-sized sculptures out of butter for nearly 50 years at the very same Iowa State Fair mentioned above. Not only has she been featured on NBC's "Today" show and David Letterman, but she was also on "To Tell The Truth." It was during that appearance some 40 years ago that regular guest panelist Kitty Carlisle Hart correctly guessed who she was after asking, "Which type of cow is the only one to have brown eyes?" Duffy Lyon answered, "Jerseys."

So with a "six degrees of separation" scenario dancing in my head, I shouldn't have been taken aback that there would be such genuine interest in theatre even in Iowa, despite the crowd and locale. We talked at length about Cats (with the exception of one lone Cats lover, the show was universally panned by this unlikedly group of critics), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (my seat mate told me how she had gone to Broadway to see Mamma Mia! only to find it sold-out, so she took the recommendation of a friend and saw the show with Norbert Leo Butz and John Lithgow instead and loved it), and invariably Wicked and Rent.

Most telling was when my seat mate told me how addictive she found live theatre and how each performance she takes in makes her want to go see yet another show. If there's this much enthusiasm for the art of theatrical performances in small town, "fly-over" country, Broadway producers should be able to sleep a little easier knowing that there is a such vast market for what they do that movies and television can never take away.

As for the old line, "Will it play in Peoria?" The answer appears to be a resounding, "Yes!"

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

* The etymology of Podunk actually comes from the name of a small village in Massachusetts as well as a locality in Connecticut.

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