"Fanny" at Encores

There’s good reason that Ezio Pinza and Walter Slezak received the star-billing for Fanny when the musical opened on Broadway in late 1954. Though the show was named after its ingenue, and her character is most important to the entire dramatic thrust of the evening, the play belongs to two older men Cesar and Panisse, lifelong friends whose bonds of bickering friendship are further tied together by the function of this girl in their lives. A couple of codgers (as Kari called them), the wisdom and experience of the two men provides some beautiful and poignant contrast to the naive passion of the young lovers. It is the quieter moments provided by these characters where the musical reaches its emotional heights.

The two men have lived across the street from one another for year; Cesar owns and operates a popular cafe, Panisse runs a successful store. They play cards together, they drink, they bicker, etc. The widower Cesar lives in the cafe with his son Marius, who longs to escape and explore the world by sea (much to his father’s disapproval). The recently widowed Panisse finds himself stepping out of his mourning clothes three months following his wife’s death, looking to remarry to avoid the loneliness, compounded by the inability he and his wife had to produce an heir. Enter Fanny, a charming waif who sells fresh shellfish for her mother, Honorine. Fanny loves Marius; Marius loves Fanny but not enough to shake off the call of the sea and Panisse is smitten with Fanny. Complications arise when Fanny is impregnated by Marius, and in light of Marius running off to sea marries Panisse.

The new musical, which opened on Broadway in late 1954, was the offspring of producer David Merrick, who was looking to establish theatrical clout (after four misses). The idea was to recreate the success of South Pacific, and was hoping to enlist Rodgers and Hammerstein to write the score (and from what I understand they were very much interested in doing so). However, Rodgers was opposed to Merrick, and refused to relegate their above the title billing as producers to the novice. Merrick was; however, able to acquire Joshua Logan, who had directed and co-written South Pacific. Original stars Pinza and William Tabbert were also hired. (Mary Martin was considered but went to Peter Pan instead). Twenty year old Florence Henderson would play the title character; Austrian character actor Slezak was Panisse and walked home with that year’s Best Actor in a Musical Tony.

The score was unlike anything Rome had ever been called upon to write. He was known mostly for his politically conscious revues, such as the popular Pins and Needles and the light musical comedy hit Wish You Were Here. Here he attempted his first musical play with considerable success; there are several musical scenes, intelligent use of the reprise and of course, those soaring, romantic leitmotifs. He would write other ambitious scores (The Zulu and the Zayda and the four hour Japanese language Scarlett, the first musical of Gone with the Wind), but none were as romantic or operatic as Fanny. However, the show has fallen into relative obscurity in the last half century, with revivals few and far between. It doesn’t help matters that Steven Suskin’s liner notes in the CD release of the now out of print cast album make frequent reference to all of the show’s inherent flaws.

was selected for the 50th production in the City Center Encores! series, with direction by Marc Bruni and musical direction by Rob Berman. Having known the score, and admiring its range and depth for many years, I was very excited for that opportunity to see and hear the score in a live performance setting. Much to my surprise, I found myself finding the libretto in better shape than I had been led to believe. The script glosses over some character aspects (the victim of condensing six hours of film to 2 1/2 hours onstage) and the lyrics sometimes fail to live up to the lush underlying melodies, but I’ll be damned if this Encores! wasn’t one of their more charming efforts.

George Hearn and Fred Applegate headlined as Cesar and Panisse, respectively. Hearn’s voice has lost some of the power it once had, but was a welcome presence in his first Encores appearance. If he relied more on his prompt script than the actors, he still managed to convey the necessary emotions and nailed plenty of his laughs. He delivered warmly in “Welcome Home” and the understated “Love is a Very Light Thing.” It was Applegate who walked away with the evening, charming, warm, funny; his Panisse was again the heart and soul of the piece and with impressive delivery of his character’s many honest introspective numbers, particularly the charming “Panisse & Son,” the lilting “Never Too Late for Love” and the heartfelt toast “To My Wife.”

Elena Shaddow was in fine voice as Fanny, but she was much stronger in her scenes in the second act after Fanny’s maturation into adulthood. The evening’s surprise was James Snyder. Known mostly for his pop/rock music career, and his Broadway turn in Cry-Baby, Snyder displayed a legitimate tenor of such range and emotional expression that the actor should seriously second guess ever looking back into the rock territory. Priscilla Lopez, last minute replacement for ailing Rondi Reed, was a game Honorine. Michael McCormick, David Patrick Kelly and Jack Doyle were onhand to fill amusing secondary character roles. Ted Sutherland has one of the best singing voices I’ve ever heard on a child actor, but wasn’t as perfect in his line readings.

This was one of the first Encores! presentations to keep all action in the downstage area, and I think that worked to the show’s advantage (especially after missteps with an elevated upstage area in On the Town and Juno). Kudos to director Bruni for his seamless staging; it’s easy to scoff at a show so unapologetically romantic as this one. There are a couple of moments that seem jerry-rigged into the show, particularly the act one belly dance “Shika Shika,” but Bruni paid attention to make those moments part of the dramatic throughline. Roxie pointed out that the Cirque Francais, which I’ve seen dismissed by many, was interpreted in the sense of a dream ballet. The circus, late in the second act, reflects the emotional turmoil of Fanny, as she is pitted between two men, one affluent and affable, the other young and virile (and a sailor).

Berman caressed every one of the score’s nuances from the exceptional Encores orchestra (31 players!) with his usual flair. The trend is to look at the Encores! productions for Broadway transfers, which isn’t entirely fair, as many of the shows presented are supposed to be titles that are considered lost, forgotten or unrevivable. However, in this case, a transfer would be lovely but unlikely – and that’s okay. However, I do wish that the powers that be could raise the funds to record this particular cast, since the original (while lovely) doesn’t contain all the material, and ends with “Be Kind to Your Parents,” a charm song from the middle of the second act that doesn’t come close to reflecting the subtle but effective finale ultimo.

The Encores! season will conclude in April with a presentation of Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ 1964 flop Anyone Can Whistle to celebrate Sondheim’s 80th birthday.

January Wrap-Up

I can’t really say it’s been an exemplary month in the world of my theatre-going. There were two trips: Ragtime at the beginning and Tyne Daly at Feinstein’s in the middle. The month saw its usual amounts of closings. Ragtime, Finian’s Rainbow, Superior Donuts, Altar Boyz and some other limited engagements ended their runs. It’s a bit tough to look on and see the critically acclaimed work fall short of the financial mark while underwhelming mediocrities walk away with the golden egg. However, like every other year there is always the promise of spring, and there are some high profile productions slated to open in the coming months.

I’ll be back at the Regency for Betty Buckley’s new show For the Love of Broadway next weekend, followed the next day by the Encores! revival of Fanny. I’m particularly excited for both: the former marks the first time I will have ever seen Ms. Buckley live in performance, the latter possesses a score that I have long admired.

The original Broadway production of Fanny was a big hit in 1954, running 888 performances and establishing David Merrick as a producer to be reckoned with. The show was based on Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of plays which were also popular films in the 1930s.

In an attempt to repeat the success of South Pacific, Merrick went out of his way to bring as many folks on board. Initially Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were on board, but they passed on the project. Rodgers and Hammerstein were approached, but they were at the point where they were producers of their own work and supposedly Rodgers disliked Merrick. Merrick was able to snag from the South Pacific team director and co-librettist Joshua Logan, singers Ezio Pinza and William Tabbert, scenic and lighting designer Jo Mielziner as well as the Majestic Theatre. At one point they even considered casting Mary Martin in the title role.

Unable to enlist Rodgers and Hammerstein, Merrick hired composer-lyricist Harold Rome. Rome has been known mostly for his revues and a light musical comedy Wish You Were Here. This would prove to be one of his most ambitious scores, often finding itself reaching operatic heights. Walter Slezak (who would win a Tony for his performance) and 20 year old future TV icon Florence Henderson (as Fanny) rounded out the cast. The show opened to positive reviews; there were some issues with the book. But the show proved an audience favorite with its story of young lovers separated; he goes off to sea, and she stays in Marseilles unmarried and pregnant. She marries a kindly older widower because he loves her, and because she knows he will provide her and her child. Melodrama and legit singing ensue. A cast recording was released by RCA. (I’ll go into greater detail on the music when I report on the Encores! production).

Logan and Rome collaborated on the 1961 film adaptation. In a move that would be replicated by the later musical Irma La Douce, the songs were dropped from the feature, and the musical themes adapted as underscoring. The non-musical drama starred Leslie Caron in the title role, Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier and Horst Buchholz. The film was a critical and financial success, garnering five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

2010 brings about numerous birthday celebrations for Stephen Sondheim. Encores! will closed out its season with a rare NYC revival of his beloved cult bomb Anyone Can Whistle with Sutton Foster and (as rumor has it) Harriet Harris as Cora Hoover Hooper. Final word on casting is pending. There will be galas from the NY Philharmonic, Ravinia Festival, City Center, Roundabout’s Broadway run of Sondheim on Sondheim (much better than the alleged original title iSondheim) and many others. And of course, the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music continues to play at the Walter Kerr Theatre. So your options are ample.

I did see A Little Night Music starring the gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones and sublime Angela Lansbury. The musical has been long overdue for a Broadway revival. However, this production stumbles from its initial concept. Going for Chekhov off the bat, director Trevor Nunn misses the balance between the light and dark that makes the show a substantial, touching comedy. While I gather this production benefitted from the intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory, it is not conducive to plant a production built for a 150 seat theatre into the 990 seat Walter Kerr. The set is ugly, the costumes are drab, the orchestration anemic. I am loathe to place blame on the actors, as the problems with the production all stem from his misguided directorial vision for the musical.

Casting is uneven. Erin Davie is a bit of a mess, playing Charlotte as a victim with far too many tears. Aaron Lazar fares better. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and Ramona Mallory are projecting a bit too broadly, with Mallory the worse of the two. Leigh Ann Larkin’s accent jumps through three countries in as many scenes. She sings well enough, but there is no directive for “The Miller’s Son” making it stand out more than usual. Alexander Hanson is the epitome of elegance and panache as the aging lawyer Fredrik Egerman.

Catherine Zeta-Jones brings star quality and an eagerness to the role of Desiree Armfeldt. However, in doing so she tends to lose some of the poignancy. There is a tendency for her to oversell her songs, as though trying to prove something. Her performance is far too mannered and comes into some semblance of humanism far too late. She’s gives an adequate performance, but it lacks the spark that has long made the role such a dynamite success for other actors (Glynis Johns, Jean Simmons, and Judi Dench to name a few). Angela Lansbury outdoes her Tony-winning performance in Blithe Spirit with a delicious, understated performance as the disapproving, observant Madame Armfeldt. In the eleventh hour, her character has a reveal so moving I was convinced that the legendary actress is destined for a record sixth Tony. If the rest of the production lived up to her stunning performance, I would say it was worth the ridiculously high ticket price they are asking.

What this revival points out to me is that no matter the production – the book and lyrics of Hugh Wheeler and Sondheim, respectively, can survive even the most inept handling of the material. This revival would have been better served with the Lincoln Center team- Bartlett Sher, Cathy Zuber and Christopher Akerlind – exploring and fine-tuning every nuance and color waiting to be revisited within this glorious musical.

The City Center Encores! 2009-2010 Season

Girl Crazy
Music: George Gershwin
Lyrics: Ira Gershwin
Book: Guy Bolton
November 19-22, 2009

Music & Lyrics: Harold Rome
Book: Joshua Logan & S. N. Behrman
February 4-7, 2010

Anyone Can Whistle
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim (who incidentally turns 80 next year…)
Book: Arthur Laurents
April 8-11, 2010

Whatever happened to the renovation of the City Center that was supposed to be taking place?

Some cast recordings and DVD releases

While I couldn’t care less about the impending CDs of The Little Mermaid or Ring of Fire, DRG is putting out three on March 4 that make me considerably happy.

Happy Hunting1956 OBC. Initially released by RCA Victor, the album has been long out of print and goes for a costly used fee on amazon.com or ebay. It’s the weakest of the post-WWII musicals to feature Merman. However, due to Merman’s audience appeal, she managed to keep the show running for a year, and allowing it to make a profit. Working with the inexperienced song-writers on this less-than-stellar project was the reason she nixed Stephen Sondheim as composer for Gypsy, demanding an established professional (Jule Styne) take the honors. So I guess we can thank Harold Karr and Matt Dubey for indirectly leading to the 1959 musical of musicals being the perfection that it is. “Mutual Admiration Society,” an upbeat mother-daughter charm duet, is the only song that had a life outside of the show (I enjoy the recording made by the late Teresa Brewer).

Annie Get Your Gun1962 studio recording. This one features Doris Day and Robert Goulet in the leading roles. I assume it’s not faithful to the stage orchestrations and it more of a curio than a document of the stage show. This is the first time the CD will be available in the US. This was originally supposed to be released on the Sony Masterworks series in the late 90s/early 00s (which appears all but dead).

Say, Darling1958 OBC. This is more a play-with-music than an actual musical. Loosely inspired by his experiences adapting his novel Seven and a Half Cents into The Pajama Game, Richard Bissell wrote Say, Darling which documented a musical going through its creative and rehearsal periods. The cast features Robert Morse, Vivian Blaine and David Wayne. Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green supplied the score.

It’s good to have DRG keeping up on the neglected scores, especially with the market being anything but stable for lost treasures and curiosities. And while I’m on it, whatever happened to the CD premiere of my beloved guilty pleasure Illya, Darling?

DVD front: The 1961 film Fanny is being released on DVD for the first time on June 17. The film was an adaptation of the 1955 Harold Rome musical (which in itself was based on the Marcel Pagnol film trilogy of the 1930s). Directed by Josh Logan (who also co-wrote and directed the Broadway production) and starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer, the film adaptation eliminated the singing and adapted the musical themes as underscoring. I saw the film before I knew that, but it doesn’t have any impact on how much I enjoyed this Oscar-nominated and underrated classic. (A Best Picture nominee… it was lost in the shuffle of The Hustler, Judgment at Nuremberg and West Side Story). And while I’m on the DVD front, there are going to be DVD premieres of Kismet (and a handful of other musicals in a boxed set and individual) and Light in the Piazza (both from Warners). Criterion is issuing a boxed set of Ernst Lubitsch musicals of the early 1930s (including The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, One Hour With You and The Smiling Lieutenant). There will be restored reissues of The Music Man, Gigi, An American in Paris and The Great Ziegfeld. (the latter two may actually just be an upgrade from those awful cardboard snapcase DVD cases to the plastic keepcase, that is most prominent; I refuse to buy any of the card board ones, part of my OCD). The Member of the Wedding is going to be issued as a part of a Stanley Kramer boxed set, which is irritating because I already own Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night and would prefer to purchase this one separately. There will also be a reissue of Ship of Fools in the set, and one hopes that they present it in its actual original aspect ratio.

I’m still waiting for DVDs of The Magnificent Ambersons, The Enchanted Cottage, Love With the Proper Stranger, The African Queen, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Wings. Also, it’s time that someone reissued Rebecca, Notorious, Spellbound (previous Criterions, long since deleted) and MGM should get Wuthering Heights w. Olivier and Merle Oberon back into circulation.