The New York Times, October 30, 1955


Playwright's Adventure in the Field Of the Broadway Musical Comedy


Co-author of "Fanny," celebrating its first birthday Friday.

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 quick visa.

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!

The Meeting

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.

Audience Reaction

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 least.

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.

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