Anyone with an interest in musical theater knows the name of the giants who helped develop the art form during the last century. Names familiar to many include, of course, Sondheim, Rodgers, Hammerstein, Gershwin, Porter, Lloyd Webber and, to a lesser extent: Jerry Herman, Irving Berlin, William Finn, Frank Loesser and Harold Rome.
Wait a minute! Who? Harold Rome is one of Broadway’s most unsung composers. Among other achievements, he’s partly responsible for giving audiences a chance to hear one of our greatest stars during her debut on the New York stage. Sadly, most people haven’t heard of the musicals he’s written, much less seen them. If, however, there was ever a composer who wrote about what he knew, it was Rome.
Following graduation from Yale, where he studied architecture and then law, Harold Rome was drawn toward theater, and was hired to score shows at Green Mansions, an Adirondacks resort. This led to his first Broadway show, when he was hired to compose the score for Pins and Needles. The revue (a show comprised of songs and sketches, without a plot) became successful, playing for two years after members of the International Garment Workers Union, then on strike, took roles. Other Labor Unions supported the show, and later editions were produced over the years. A cast recording featuring the aforementioned star (who I will reveal below) is available.
In the 1930s, Arthur Kober’s wrote a breezy comedy called Having Wonderful Time set in a mountain resort. A movie version starring Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. shows up on TV infrequently. Two decades later the play was adapted by Kober and Rome, and directed by Joshua Logan, as the musical Wish You Were Here.
The standard-fare plot revolves around an unhappy secretary on vacation at the crowded resort. She falls for a waiter she thinks is two-timing her, but of course, all ends happily. Among the things that made the show unique are, of course, Rome’s lilting and hummable score, including an especially lovely title song that is, even half a century later, a popular standard. Under Logan’s direction, with choreography by Jerome Robbins, the set included a swimming pool. While it’s not an essential part of the story, the pool is probably a red flag for producers, but it would be a pleasure for both actors and audience if Wish You Were Here produced again.
Stars soon to shine
His work on Pins and Needles proved that Rome knew something about the garment trade, and he returned to this theme when he collaborated with Jerome Weidman (whose son, John, has written three musicals with Stephen Sondheim), on an adaptation of Weidman’s novel, I Can Get It for You Wholesale. This plot revolves around a scheming, ruthless businessman who uses unsavory methods, including embezzlement and betrayal, as he steps on people to succeed, only to be among the mighty fallen in the end.
A musical with a plot like this needs a renowned production team and big stars to sell it. For the original production, Broadway producer David Merrick hired Arthur Laurents to direct and Herbert Ross to stage the dances. Classic stars Lillian Roth (I’ll Cry Tomorrow), Harold Lang (Pal Joey) and Bambi Linn (Oklahoma) had substantial roles, however, two other performers would be the breakout stars, and it’s probably due more to them that I Can Get It For You Wholesale is remembered. The role of Harry was given to Elliott Gould (MASH) and, if the cast recording is any indication, he took to it with relish.
Still, it was 20-year-old Barbra Streisand in the role of the stressed-out switchboard operator who emerged triumphant. Her featured number, “Miss Marmelstein” is the highlight of Harold Rome’s score. In her concert dvd, One Night Only, Streisand remarks that she lost her first Tony nomination at this time to Phyllis Newman who starred in Subways Are For Sleeping (another musical with an uneasy plot).
I Can Get It For You Wholesale is one of a series of shows with reasonably similar plots featuring unsavory leading characters, including Do Re Mi, What Makes Sammy Run and J. Peirpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Only the latter was a popular, long-running hit.
Since musical tastes have changed so much, with anti-heroes like Jean Valjean and The Phantom as leading characters, it’s possible audiences will enjoy the antics in I Can Get It for You Wholesale more than they did in 1961.
Of all the musicals for which Harold Rome composed music and lyrics, his best is probably the score for Fanny. French playwright Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy: Marius, Fanny and Cesar, was controversial when it premiered because it dealt with teenage pregnancy. The plot follows Marius, who makes love to his childhood sweetheart before going to sea. Disowned by his father, Cesar, Fanny is pressured to marry Panisse, an older man who agrees to raise the child as his own. Marius wants to marry Fanny but is convinced to leave things as they are. Years later, his son runs away and joins his father at sea, but when Panisse is dying, Marius brings his son home, and learns that he and his beloved can, at last, be together.
Fanny was produced by David Merrick (a man who seemingly never balked at a challenge). With Joshua Logan and S.J. Behrman hired to prepare the libretto, Logan first offered the show to Rodgers and Hammerstein, who passed. Then Merrick wanted Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady) and Burton Lane (Finian’s Rainbow), but the job was given to Rome. Old thespians Ezio Pinza and Walter Slezak took the roles of Cesar and Panisse, with the title role going to Florence Henderson, the young star who would become famous on television as Mrs. Brady.
Now considered a landmark in musical theater, and seriously in need of a revival, Fanny features a splendid score that further enriches a lovingly rendered story. Perhaps because the score doesn’t force itself down an audience’s throat, when Logan made a film version Rome’s score was used but the lyrics were jettisoned entirely.
Indeed, only three songs from a Harold Rome score have been used in the film version of a musical (Call Me Mister) he’d written.
Gone with the Wind: The Musical
Rome’s last musical was probably ill-advised, but it has a remarkable place in theater history because of its pedigree. For the Tokyo World’s Fair, Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping epic novel Gone With the Wind and the classic film version were the basis for a successful nine-hour stage version titled Scarlett. While this wasn’t a musical, the production team then decided to try their luck at a musical version.
Playwright Horton Foote (The Trip to Bountiful) and Rome, under the supervision of director-choreographer Joe Layton, guided the show, again titled Gone With the Wind, to the London stage where it played for a year. While June Ritchie’s Scarlett was praised, Harve Presnell (Fargo) played Rhett and his performance was branded as wooden. More revisions were made, and an American production was scheduled, with Lesley Ann Warren (Norma Cassidy in the movie Victor/Victoria) and TV actor Pernell Roberts in the leading roles. There were bookings in California and Texas, but the producers chose not to move to Broadway. Why would audiences want to see a stage version of this classic movie in the first place?
A rare (and expensive) recording of the London production is available. It reveals that Rome’s score is every bit as good as his previous work. Still, in 2008, a second musical version, directed by Trevor Nunn (Cats) lasted for ten weeks in London. This version told the story from the servants’ point of view. In spite of poor notices, there’s always the possibility that Gone With the Wind could appear on American musical theater stages. (Don’t hold your breath!)
Harold Rome also provided scores for a stage version of the classic 1939 western comedy, Destry Rides Again. Fairly successful at the time, the original production starred Andy Griffith in the role Jimmy Stewart played in the movie and Dolores Grey as the bar room chanteuse made famous by Marlene Dietrich.
The time has come for Harold Rome to stop being an unsung hero of musical theater and take his rightful place. Theaters should give Wish You Were Here, I Can Get It For You Wholesale, Fanny and (in a world where it seems every movie will eventually become a stage musical) even Destry Rides Again a new opportunity to shine!