The New York Times, October 30, 1955
MY LIFE WITH 'FANNY'
Playwright's Adventure in the Field Of the Broadway Musical
By S. N.
Co-author of "Fanny," celebrating its first birthday
I have always loved musical comedies and revues; they are
the last stand of glamour in a bedeviled world. I know that
they have now become important, significant and profound,
but I still like them.
I used to go to Philadelphia with George Gershwin for the
tryouts of his shows. After working in my hotel room in the
mornings on whatever play I was then doing, I used to go to
the theatre where George's show was rehearsing and sit in
the back looking enviously at the proceedings, a pitiful
outsider. One day Alex Aarons, George's co-producer, not a
eupeptic man, caught sight of me. "What are you doing
there?" he shouted at me from the stage. "He's with me!"
said George, and Aarons accepted this, reluctantly, as a
So, when one day three winters ago, Joshua Logan called me
on the telephone to ask me whether I would collaborate with
him and Harold Rome on a musical play based on a trinity of
plays by Marcel Pagnol, I said yes at once. I had heard that
Mr. Logan had had a certain success in this field; and in
the theatre, as, I suppose, in other forms of life, it is
expedient to align yourself with success. Also, it drifted
through my mind that it would be pleasant to meet some
chorus girls on terms of equality. An insider at last!
When I met Mr. Logan and Mr. Rome—after assimilating M.
Pagnol's three plays—I expressed a certain doubt about my
own competence on the score of inexperience. They reassured
me. The text of a musical, they said, is about a third that
of a play. Also, they insisted, in each scene the emotional
climax is taken care of by the music and by the lyrics. This
took a load off my mind. Not avid for creative exertion, I
was perfectly happy to lead up to Mr. Rome and then let him
take over. It sounded like two-thirds off for the ride into
glamour, certainly a generous rebate. The production was
planned for later that season. I saw myself writing, under
Mr. Logan's guidance, one-third of a play—even less,
considering what Mr. Rome was to do.
Pagnol had written three plays, two of them superb. David
Merrick, our co-producer, had hung onto the rights to these
plays over the successive hurdles of explosive options.
I saw myself, a few months hence, after nonchalantly flaking
off some colorful pigments from Marcel Pagnol's triptych,
lounging in an orchestra seat and watching the choreographer
do his stuff, with no irascible producer from the stage in a
position to ask me what I was doing there. Everyone would
know, without asking, that I was with Mr. Logan!
Well, "Fanny" did not get on that season or the next; it
took the three of us two years to get it open in Boston on
Sept. 18, 1954. Luckily, the public took to it as if we had
dashed it off, and the run at the Majestic on Forty-fourth
Street threatens to equal the length of preparation.
The Work Begins
I went to Mr. Logan's house in Stamford, Conn., to work; Mr.
Rome took a house across the street so he could run in and
out to culminate emotion. We generated plenty! Mr. Logan
early explained to me that while, surely, Mr. Rome would
come in for the kill with his music and lyrics at the end of
each scene, we must contrive what should be the content of
those lyrics, what they should say. Also, on the first day,
Mr. Logan said—and he proved to be prophetic—"The problem of
this play is going to be how to get ensemble singing and
dancing and ballet into it!" The ballet, I discovered, must
help to tell the story, it must be functional.
In the two years we worked on "Fanny," a vast amount of time
went into thinking up schemes for this ballet. We wrote an
underwater one (discarded) and a terrene one—discarded on
the night we opened in Boston. This meant that the time I
had allotted in my vision to watching a choreographer was
spent in hotel rooms on the road devising what the
choreographer should choreograph.
I was to discover also that the ballets and the dialogue
scenes were rehearsed in separate theatres. I never got to
see the former; I was stuck with the latter. It was the same
old stuff! There were moments when I had the fleeting rueful
reflection that as far as getting close to the core of
glamour was concerned, it was better to be an outsider—as I
had been with George Gershwin—than to be an insider, as I
was now with Mr. Logan.
There were some in our councils who insisted that we needed
a ballet "like we needed a hole in the head." But Mr. Logan
felt that we did need one, that the audience expected it. We
finally got the one that is there now, a "circus ballet." It
is functional because from it the young Cesario runs away to
meet Marius, who, though he does not know it, is his father.
Mr. Logan, acutely aware of the problem, also anticipated
the criticism. In Philadelphia he told me that Miss Edna
Ferber had written him: "Is it really, do you think, the
kind of party a petty bourgeois Marseillaise would give for
his 14-year-old son?" On the other hand, and also in
Philadelphia, Oscar Hammerstein 2d liked it. It is
inconceivable, to those who know Mr. Hammerstein, to deny
him anything he likes, so the ballet stayed. Mr. Logan has
an uncontrollable prejudice in favor of what an audience
likes and he says that, judging by the audience reaction in
the year "Fanny" has run, if he had it to do over again he
would encourage history to repeat itself.
Besides the initial problem of songs, ensemble singing and
ballet, we were confronted at once by the almost insoluble
problem of time; we had three plays and two and a half hours
of playing time, besides having to allow for songs and
dances. It was a bit as if Jonah had swallowed the whale.
Then there was the time in the story itself, which goes from
Marius' running off to sea leaving (though he does not know
it) a pregnant Fanny at the age of 20, to the time when the
child of that pregnancy, Cesario, reaches the age of 14.
One Sunday morning (it was a seven-day-a-week schedule) Josh
got a lovely idea. "Three vignettes," he said simply,
smiling. As Logan is a Customer-at-Large and buys about
everything he sees, I thought he was boasting about a minor
triumph of his indiscriminate collecting. I was irritated by
the irrelevance. "Three vignettes!" he repeated
imperturbably, with the security of a prospector whose
Geiger counter has begun to click: "One: Pinza and Slezak
taking the baby out for an airing in a pram; two: the boy
has reached bicycle age—Slezak comes in on a bicycle (the
audiences have since shown their delight at this graceful
spectacle); three: We find that Panisse (Slezak) has moved
away from the waterfront into a grand house in order to
lessen the chance that the now 12-year-old boy will meet his
father if he should return to his old haunts." I got it all
right, once it had been explained to me. The three vignettes
were written in fifteen minutes. They take less than ten to
play. It is certainly an adroit example of what Mr. Logan is
always referring to as "the flexibility of this medium."
Pinza and Slezak
Another illustration of this resilience, which you could
never manage in a play, is an idea that Mr. Logan had the
very first week, when he was musing about the problem of
getting Mr. Pinza and Mr. Slezak to sing and dance together.
It hung on a reprise of Mr. Rome's song, "Never Too Late for
Love." Mr. Pinza, as Cesar, is off on his weekly amorous
prowling and Mr. Slezak, as Panisse, twits him by singing
this song. They end by dancing to it, and, Mr. Logan said in
a blaze of illumination, "right from their legs we go to the
legs of the dancer in Hakim's Cellar."
Nejla Ates' dancing in this scene, I might note, has
sufficiently powerful suction to draw in the mounted
policemen on Forty-fourth Street every night to watch. The
timing of the equestrians is infallible: they walk in
solemnly, take their positions in the aisles along the wall,
observe Miss Ates' gyrations, and file out when she is done.
The emotional content over which Mr. Logan, Mr. Rome and
myself labored so long seems not to concern them in the
It was tough in many ways, but for me there were
compensations nonmelodic plays do not offer. You could
always go back and stand in the wings beside stage manager
Jean Barrère's tall desk from where he keeps the vast thing
running. The girls, with parasols and little straw hats,
looking like luncheon guests in a happy Renoir, stand in the
wings and walk into the strong sunshine of the stage, where
they smile. They smile at Lehman Engel, the conductor, and
he smiles back at them, encouraging them.
When I was in college forty years ago, I used to watch the
then-girls from across the interstellar spaces of the second
balcony of the Shubert Theatre in Boston. But the now-girls,
I am sad to report, are not what they used to be in those
days—or at least what, at that distance, I thought them to
be. They are serious. They are ambitious. They study. When
they are not going to a ballet lesson they are going for a
singing lesson or a dramatic lesson. They read Proust and
Kafka. They haven't got a minute.