Actors Equity is in hog heaven today after reaching a deal with the producers of the national tour of State Fair. John Davidson, who starred on Broadway as warbling pig farmer Abel Frake, will repeat his role in the tour, now under a one-time Equity contract.
That was always the plan, but the producers had wanted the tour to be non-Equity, despite Davidson's presence. This raised the hackles of the actors' union, who feared the precedent of a Broadway star lending his talent (and legitimacy) to a non-Equity production.
In a July 22 statement, producer Ken Gentry (of NETworks), wrote, "We are delighted that our production of State Fair will be the test case for a possible new category of Equity touring contracts. Equity has seen the need for flexibility in this market and has shown enormous good faith in this experiment."
Equity executive director Alan Eisenberg said in a statement, "this is a potentially groundbreaking special agreement. This kind of touring contract, while not consummate, will be a viable job option for many Equity members." The union also points out that production contract guarantees are generally between 50 and 75 percent higher than they'll be for State Fair. Eisenberg also expressed relief that the union won't have to expend its energy campaigning against the show.
As for Davidson's involvement, Gentry said the actor "voluntarily gave up, at his union's request, one-third of his compensation to support the proposal."
"I've always been a member in good standing of all the performers' unions," said Davidson. "I pushed hard to make the State Fair tour an Equity production, and I am delighted that both NETworks and Equity were willing to make concessions." The producers' concession is this: the show can only play one-week or split-week engagements where the guarantee doesn't exceed $200,000.
Though State Fair spokesperson Susan L. Schulman told Playbill On Line (July 23), "The basic major concessions were financial," she would not further elaborate on details of the agreement. She did say the tour was due to start Sept. 7 in Pennsylvania and that the rest of the casting should be announced within the week.
Though filmed twice and previously adapted to the stage, the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musical made its debut on Broadway in spring of 1996, but closed after a disappointing 118-performance run.
At that time, spokesperson Norman Allen said the 1996-97 tour would not be the same production, despite the presence of Davidson, but it will use the same Tom Briggs script, the same sets and costumes and the same score that adds Rodgers and Hammerstein trunk songs to the familiar film score (such as "Well Be Spring" and "It's a Grand Night for Singing").
Allen said no cities or dates have been finalized. Variety quoted Meredith Blair of The Booking Group as saying the show will hit large markets like Atlanta, Houston and Miami during a 35-week tour.
The producers are planning a smaller-scale version of the show, hoping to avoid some of the problems of the 1996 Broadway version, which was so lavishly produced that it failed to turn a profit even though it was drawing substantial crowds during its pre-Broadway 1995-96 tour.
In the end, keeping State Fair open on Broadway proved to be too much of an effort, even for legendary showman David Merrick, who came aboard as executive producer just before Broadway previews began.
State Fair, whose plot hinges on a $5 bet, was estimated to have cost $2.5 million to produce, and Merrick sank an estimated $2 million to $2.5 million more into promoting the show and making up operating losses. All, or nearly all, that investment was reported to have been lost.
"The public was the final arbiter, as they always are." said Merrick spokesman Michael Alpert at the time. The new production is turning to another public -- that on the road outside New York -- where interest in the show is reported by theatre operators to be strong.
The Broadway State Fair starred Davidson, along with Kathryn Crosby, Donna McKechnie and Andrea McArdle. McArdle, the actress who originated the title role in Annie, broke her ankle June 5, 1996 while performing the role of ingenue. She was replaced by Susan Egan.
Merrick made headlines when he sued the Antoinette Perry Awards over Stage Fair's nomination in the Best Score category. Merrick filed a $2 million lawsuit claiming it was unfair of the nominating committee to rule that only four of the show's 15 songs were eligible. The suit was dismissed.
Adapted by Tom Briggs and directed by lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II's son James Hammerstein, the 1995-96 production used the original film score, and interpolated several songs heard in relatively obscure R&H shows like Pipe Dream or cut from shows including Oklahoma! Only the trunk songs were ruled eligible for Best Score. The show lost the award to Rent.
State Fair may have been the last Broadway opening of a new Rodgers and Hammerstein stage work. In a career that included Oklahoma!, South Pacific, the King and I and The Sound of Music, among others, the only remaining major R&H project never produced on Broadway is the stage adaptation of the team's TV musical Cinderella, which has been performed at New York City Opera.