It's been about 32 years that I've been almost exclusively obsessed with musical theater. Oh, there's been the odd diversion along the way: a college degree over here, a career in business writing over there. But even given all that time of near single-minded devotion, there occasionally arises the odd show that I'm not intimately familiar with.
Until recently, Fanny was one of those shows. I had certainly heard of it, and knew a few of the songs, mostly because they would pop up now and then on my iPod. I knew it was based on Marcel Pagnol's trilogy of plays-cum-films, and that the original cast included Ezio Pinza, Walter Slezak, and a youthful Florence Henderson in the title role.
But opportunities to see Fanny are scarce indeed. The show played in New York in 1954, and then in London in 1956, and then sort of dropped from view. The 1961 film version of "Fanny" removed all of the songs, and is consequently of little interest to me.
Fortunately, the folks at Encores saw fit to include the show as part of their current season, and the production, which played the weekend of February 4th through 7th at City Center, was a delight. The show's book, by S. N. Behrman and Joshua Logan, is actually a tad scandalous, at least for 1954, featuring impulsive sexual encounters, illegitimate pregnancy, and a marriage of convenience.
Despite the sauciness, the show features the sort of honest, everyday interactions that we really don't see a lot of anymore in Broadway musicals. Fanny is more along the lines of She Loves Me than South Pacific. No arching social agenda, just an appealing group of people dealing with love and loss in a French seaport town. (I'd say, "They don't write 'em like that anymore," but in fact they do: A Catered Affair. The financial failure of that show would seem to indicate that, even if they do write 'em like that anymore, that doesn't mean they're gonna make money.)
But the show's main attraction is the lovely score by Harold Rome. Rome is perhaps best remembered for his biggest hit, the 1937 revue Pins and Needles, and for penning the score to the 1962 book show I Can Get It for You Wholesale, in which a certain Miss Barbra Streisand made her Broadway debut. Rome was a remarkably talented man, gifted as both composer and lyricist. Unfortunately, few of his shows have found a lasting legacy. The 1946 revue Call Me Mister is hopelessly dated, as the subject matter is rather specific to the end of World War II. Wish You Were Here (1952) and Destry Rides Again (1959) have their respective charms, particularly the haunting "I Say Hello" from Destry. But, on the whole, they're simply not very good.
Fanny may be Rome's most accomplished score, featuring straightforward, heartfelt lyrics and a seemingly endless stream of bright, fresh melodies, particularly that of the song "To My Wife," which is just gorgeous. What's more, most of Rome's songs seem to be of a piece, with the possible exception of "Be Kind to Your Parents," which is just a bit too twee and cutesy.
I've sometimes heard people dismiss Fanny because of the repetition in the lyrics: the young Marius's stirring wanting song, "Restless Heart," ends with the lines "My restless heart. My restless, restless, restless, restless, restless, restless heart." And the title song, which Marius sings with the title character, repeats the name "Fanny" no fewer than 24 times, not counting the reprise. But I'm inclined to think of these as character choices on Rome's part. Fanny and Marius aren't very educated or erudite people: they feel more than they think, and this is reflected in the lyrics. Rome certainly proves himself a nimble wordsmith in some of his other shows, but here he seems to be deliberately writing to suit the characters rather than to impress.
The Encores production staff featured two names previously unknown to me: Marc Bruni as director and Lorin Latarro as choreographer, and both did a solid, professional job with the show. Bruni doesn't appear to have any major projects to his directing credit, but he was assistant or associate director on numerous brand-name shows, including the recent revivals of Wonderful Town and The Pajama Game. Lotarro's work was fluid and graceful, particularly for the charming "Why Be Afraid to Dance." Worth keeping an eye on both of these seemingly talented players, I think.
In addition to Rome's lovely score, the appeal of this production of Fanny lay in its cast of veteran performers, most especially the wonderful Fred Applegate as Panisse. Applegate exhibited both here and in the otherwise dreadful Young Frankenstein the restraint and subtlety that most of the cast of Mamma Mia, the show I saw earlier that day, were missing. Applegate seems to fully comprehend that the key to engaging audience members lies in making them come to you, rather than pushing everything out to them. Sure, we're talking wildly different shows here, but good acting transcends genre.
Tony winner George Hearn as Cesar was nearly Applegate's match in the professionalism department, although I do have to say that, in the many Encores shows I've attended, Hearn was the first actor I've ever seen actually reading from the script that Encores performers are required to carry. (Equity rules, you know.) Yeah, sure, it's technically a staged reading/concert version of the show, and the scripts are supposed to there for a reason, but it was really jarring seeing Hearn with his face in his script while all the other performers seemed to be off book.
Although Fanny was ostensibly written to showcase the talents of Pinza and Slezak in the Cesar and Panisse roles, the main movers of the plot are the Fanny and Marius characters, played splendidly here by Elena Shaddow and James Snyder, respectively. The strong-voiced Snyder deftly underscored Marius's idealism and passion. Clearly, his starring role in the short-lived Cry-Baby didn't quite show us what this talented man is capable of. His rendition of the show's title number was particularly heartfelt and urgent. Shaddow was sweet and appealing as Fanny, and made me all the more interested in seeing the upcoming revival of La Cage aux Folles, in which Shaddow plays Anne, Jean-Michel's intended.
So, Fanny may have settled in as a musical-theater footnote, but fortunately the show lives on through its cast recording, the CD of which has been in and out of print for years. Although the CD is again out of print, the songs and full cast recording are available for MP3 download on Amazon. I highly recommend what may indeed be Harold Rome's masterwork.