The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Mark Eden Horowitz.
We celebrate the vernal equinox with one of the best songs ever to reference spring. Although it’s a song not set during the spring, it’s one that captures the sense of anticipation we associate with the season. “It Might as Well Be Spring” was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for their one film musical, State Fair (1945).
State Fair features the second score Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote together—following their triumphant Oklahoma! in 1943. After seeing Oklahoma! Darryl Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century-Fox, decided that Rodgers and Hammerstein would be ideal to write the score for a musical remake he was planning of the 1933 film, State Fair. Rodgers and Hammerstein signed the contract in the summer of ’43, and Hammerstein began writing the screenplay in January of ’44, with work on the songs to follow.
There are only six songs in the film (plus reprises). Of the six, two are particularly fine: “It’s a Grand Night For Singing”—one of Rodgers’ most infectious waltzes—and “It Might As Well Be Spring”—a tender and haunting ballad, and the real standout from the score.
In the notes in his book of and titled, Lyrics, Hammerstein wrote:
As the story opens, the young girl is unhappy. She is not in love with anybody. She is going to a state fair with her family, but is not looking forward to it. She has the blues. She doesn’t know why. It occurred to me that her feeling was very much like spring fever. It then occurred to me, very unhappily, that all state fairs are held in the autumn. September or early October. Then, wanting desperately to write a song about spring fever, I toyed with the notion of having her say, in effect, “It’s autumn, but I have spring fever so ‘it might as well be spring.’” Rather half-heartedly I threw the idea at Dick. He jumped up excitedly and said. “That’s it.”…In about a week I had written a refrain to this title. An hour after I gave the lyric to Dick he had set the melody.
While I’m sure that most of what Oscar recounts is true, there is one part we can question. In the Richard Rodgers Collection there are two complete and entirely different settings for “It Might As Well Be Spring”—two different melodies for the same lyric. This is the only example we’ve discovered where Rodgers has done this. They’re fascinating to compare. There is a noticeable and often-commented-on difference between Rodgers’s early music, when he was collaborating with lyricist Lorenz Hart, and his later collaborations with Hammerstein. The difference is also quite explainable. One primary reason is that, with Hart, the music virtually always came first, and Hart would then set lyrics to it. With Hammerstein, more often than not, the lyrics came first and Rodgers set the music to the lyrics. There’s also the fact that Rodgers and Hart shows were musical comedies, whereas those with Hammerstein were mostly musical theater, where the songs tended to have dramatic functions, and not just serve as respites from the action. And, when Rodgers and Hart were collaborating there was a greater emphasis on—well, let me quote Hammerstein himself: “The hit melodies of that time had to be good dance melodies. This being the most important consideration, it was better for the lyric writer to trail along after the composer and fit his words to a refrain written mainly to be danced to.” As a result, the music for Rodgers and Hart songs tends to be jazzier, more playful, and more propulsive; whereas Rodgers and Hammerstein songs tend to be longer-lined, have more varied sections within a song and, for lack of a better word, come across as more thoughtful.
The unused melody for “It Might As Well Be Spring” sounds more typical of a Rodgers and Hammerstein song, and is, I fear, a tad pretentious. The song we know sounds more like Rodgers and Hart, with its skipping tune, swing rhythm sections, blue notes, and chromaticims in the melody and harmony. My assumption has always been that the version used in the film was the second one written, but the manuscripts are not dated, and it’s possible that before settling on the version we know, Rodgers had an alternate idea he wanted to work out. What further complicates the question is this from Rodgers’s own memoir:
The only disagreement we had with the company [Twentieth Century-Fox] was over the proper tempo for the song “It Might As Well Be Spring.” I had written the music at a bright, medium tempo, and the studio’s music director wanted it done as a slow ballad. We argued the matter until the studio promised to reshoot the number if it did not go well at a preview performance…. Later, when we saw the picture, we had to admit that they were right and we were wrong.
So it’s possible the unused version was an attempt to meet the studio’s request, rather than simply slow the tempo of the number Rodgers had originally written. In the same memoir, Rodgers also wrote:
As for the melody, it is a good example of the way a tune can amplify the meaning of its lyric. The first lines are: “I’m as restless as a willow in a wind storm, / I’m as jumpy as a puppet on a string.” Taking its cue directly from these words the music itself is appropriately restless and jumpy. Moreover, since the song is sung by a young girl who can’t quite understand why she feels the way she does, I deliberately ended the phrase on the uncertain sound of the F natural (on the word “string”) rather than on the more positive F-sharp.
One other note about the lyric. In Oscar’s book of his lyrics he has two phrases in parentheses—“(I’d say that I had spring fever, / But I know it isn’t spring.)” and “(Oh, why should I have spring fever / When it isn’t even spring?)”. These parentheses fascinate me. They don’t appear in the sheet music, and a listener would never know they were there. But, should the performer know of them, it could (and should) color her performance of the lines. This also says something about Oscar’s attention to detail in the grammar and punctuation of his songs.
As to who would introduce the song in the film, it turns out that Hammerstein wanted Kathryn Grayson. In a letter to the film’s producer, William Perlberg, Oscar wrote:
Dick and I heard Grayson in THOUSANDS CHEER and we were very much impressed with her. The picture, however, does not show whether she can handle a song in a simple, straight way. All her renditions had coloratura fireworks in them. Do you know if there is any film on her which demonstrates her ability to put a song over simply and sincerely? In other words, if she has to rely on her vocal brilliance we don’t think she would be the one to play the part of “Margy”
Surreptitiously, Rodgers and Hammerstein arranged for Grayson to audition for them and they were suitably impressed, Hammerstein reporting to Perlberg: “The more we get into the picture—and you will be glad to know that we are really into it now—the better Grayson looks for the part of ‘Margy’.” Then: “I think Kathryn Grayson is just the right girl for the part and I hope you can get her.” Unfortunately, as Perlberg wrote to Hammerstein: “And now for some bad news. After waiting all this time for Kathryn Grayson, and after a definite promise from Metro that we could have her, they now tell us that they find themselves in a spot where they cannot let us have her for quite some time. I felt very badly about this because I had waited so long and thought the girl was ideal.”
The part of Margy went to Jeanne Crain (who couldn’t sing) and was dubbed by Louanne Hogan. State Fair opened on August 30, 1945, and it was deemed average when it was released. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther mentions the song in passing: “Best of the numbers are a cute one called ‘It Might As Well Be Spring.’” But then the song was nominated for that year’s Academy Award for best original song. Competition was stiff in those days, with a total of fourteen nominees—among them Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” and Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.” “Spring” won, providing Rodgers and Hammerstein with their lone joint Oscar (Hammerstein had won one in 1941 for “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” written with Jerome Kern).
The song has been recorded hundreds of times—including by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Doris Day, Johnny Mathis, Julie Andrews, and Nina Simone. But arguably its most famous rendition was by Margaret Whiting, whose recording first hit the Billboard chart in November, 1945, peaking at number six and lasting for six weeks. Coincidentally, six months earlier Whiting’s mother had written Hammerstein a letter: “My daughter Margaret is fairly well established as a recording artist and has done some singing on Radio. I really feel she is a fine talent. Margaret is anxious to try New York. She would like to do a New York show and I am sure she is ready and able to hold her own with the best. I would be so happy if you could arrange to hear her sing.” Hammerstein responded: “Your letter did not reach me until the day before I left California and I was so tied up with appointments that it would have been impossible to hear your daughter sing. I hope I can hear her the next time I come out.” I’m sure neither Hammerstein, Margaret Whiting, nor her mother could have imagined what a few months would bring.
You can hear portions of both versions of “It Might As Well Be Spring,” and view Rodgers’s manuscript for the alternate version on the Library’s YouTube channel. Excerpts from letters come from the Oscar Hammerstein II Collection.
Great post, Mark! Keep ‘em coming. I love reading the stories of older, famous songs. All the machinations to try to get Grayson hired! The rise of Margaret Whiting (even without R&H’s help)! What fun.
Bravo, Mark! A hauntingly beautiful song. Listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s recording is always a three hankie experience.
Thanks – now you have set me to singing!
“…I’d say that I had spring fever, / But I know it isn’t spring.)” and “(Oh, why should I have spring fever / When it isn’t even spring?)”
“…I deliberately ended the phrase on the uncertain sound of the F natural (on the word “string”) rather than on the more positive F-sharp.”
Thank you so much for this article. The detailed back and forth–these are artists who care deeply about each note, each word, think about how they fit into the characters, the dramaturgy of the musical.
No wonder we love and respond deeply to their songs decades later.
I stumbled on this blog entirely by accident, but it’s certainly in keeping with the generous spirit of the Library. I love the post, even more because “It Might As Well Be Spring” is actually my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein song. I know that’s heresy, but Rodgers and Hart are my guys. Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting exploration of this great piece, really one of Hammerstein’s best lyrics.