Fanny (Feb. 4-7 at New York City Center) is the 50th regular-season production in the history of Encores! and yet it is the first time we have presented a show by composer and lyricist Harold Rome (1908-1993). While not as acclaimed as other composer/lyricists such as Berlin, Porter or Sondheim, the talented and underestimated Harold Rome had a distinguished career during the golden age of Broadway.
After studying law and architecture at Yale, Rome pursued his musical career in New York and first had success with the revue Pins and Needles, which opened in 1937 and ran for four years. With this show, he established his reputation for writing comedic, satiric and topical songs. He would continue to do this in the revues Sing Out The News (1938) and Call Me Mister (1946). These shows introduced hit songs such as "F.D.R. Jones," "Sing Me a Song of Social Significance" and "South America, Take It Away." Encores! featured a number of Rome's revue songs in its 2007 production of Stairway to Paradise.
In 1952 he collaborated with director and writer Joshua Logan on the musical Wish You Were Here, which was about a summer camp in the Catskills and famously featured a swimming pool onstage. Recorded by Eddie Fisher, the title song was one of Rome's biggest hits. When Logan was called upon by producer David Merrick to adapt Marcel Pagnol's trilogy of films ("Marius," "Fanny" and "Cesar") into a musical, Logan again turned to Rome, although not before Rodgers and Hammerstein turned down the project.
Fanny opened in November 1954 to mixed reviews, but it proved to be a large success, running for 888 performances. It starred Ezio Pinza as Cesar, Walter Slezak as Panisse and Florence Henderson in the title role. The film version starred Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron. To the great disappointment of Rome, all of the songs were cut from the film and you can hear his music only as underscoring. Fanny marked a departure for Rome. Instead of writing songs of "social significance," he was now required to write songs of emotional significance in order to serve the powerfully poignant and romantic story. Fanny was not a revue and not a musical comedy, but a true musical play. And for the first time, Rome was voicing non-American characters.
He was aided by a first-rate musical team. The arranger Trude Rittman provided musical continuity, dance arrangements and the effective cinematic underscoring. Conductor Lehman Engel supplied vocal arrangements, and Broadway veteran Philip Lang wrote the orchestrations, which use mandolin and concertina to evoke the setting of Marseilles.
Rome's score soars, charms and breaks your heart. It is emotive but not excessively sentimental and always in service of the drama. He and Logan were striving for an emotional realism. Thus, the lyrics are not overly poetic; they are based in the grounded language of real people. Listen to the nervous and breathless Fanny trying to confess her love to Marius: "I have to, I have to, I have to tell you / I have to, but I don't know where to start." The overwhelmed Marius responds in the title song: "Only you, long as I may live, Fanny...Fanny, Fanny." These are young impassioned lovers trying to articulate their feelings. Rome's use of repeated phrases in the lyrics are not instances of laziness or lack of creativity; they are attempts to bring a realistic intensity to the drama.
Listen to Marius' first song about his yearning to be at sea, "Restless Heart." The rhythms throb insistently and the harmonies itch and rub. Rome beautifully evokes the nagging call to the sea that is inside Marius, from which he cannot escape.
Panisse's songs have a gentle, twinkling quality. "To My Wife" is a gem of a sweet song and "Never Too Late for Love" is a genial, lilting waltz, which is contrasted by Cesar's more robust waltz, "Why Be Afraid to Dance?" In general, Cesar's music has a warmth which conveys the big-heartedness behind the character's short-tempered nature.
And is there a more romantic and soaring melody than the one Rome wrote for the title song, "Fanny"? In the bridge of that song, when Marius urgently sings about his love for the sea, the harmonies become more chromatic and dissonant. Ascending augmented triads under the lyric, "I must know them all or sleep no more!" make Marius seem possessed, almost unhinged.
The only song which found prolonged life outside of Fanny is "Be Kind To Your Parents." This song doesn't really sound like anything else in the score, but perhaps this was intentional on Rome's part because the scene takes place 12 years later and everything in the lives of these people has changed, including the musical language. The character of Fanny now sounds like an adult. After Fanny, Rome had two more shows of significance: Destry Rides Again (1959) and I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1962), the latter of which introduced a 19-year-old Barbra Streisand to the world.
In a personal letter to Rome about Fanny, the critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, "People probably realize in their bones that you wrote the music for the play and not for yourself. That's what makes it so affecting in the theatre." Rome was never interested in fame or glory — he just wanted to make good work. And as you will hear, he made very good work.
(Rob Berman is the music director of Encores! This piece appears in the February 2010 Playbill for New York City Center. The Encores! concert of Fanny, starring Elena Shaddow, which plays New York City Center Feb. 4-7.)