Broadway Blip: Fanny
How can a musical be such a hit in one decade, then become almost obscure the next? Fanny is a musical that was a minor hit in its day, had a healthy Broadway run, was predominantly a critics’ darling, garnered one Tony Award for Walter Slezak, but never received a Broadway revival and is seldom discussed today. Based on Marcel Pagnol's trilogy of plays entitled Marius, Fanny and César, Fanny has a book by S. N. Behrman and Joshua Logan and music and lyrics by Harold Rome. Directed by Joshua Logan and choreographed by Helen Tamiris, Fanny opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on November 4, 1954 where it ran 888 performances. The cast included Florence Henderson as Fanny, Ezio Pinza as Cesar, William Tabbert as Marius, and Slezak as Panisse.
Composer Harold Rome had been dazzling Broadway for over a decade, an eclectic maestro of musical theatre, adept at writing revues like the celebrated Pins and Needles (1937) and Call Me Mister (1946), as well as the traditional musical comedy Wish You Were Here (1952). Fanny marked a major evolution in his musical complexity, writing a score that borderlines on serious operetta and that tackles a mature storyline. The title song, “Restless Heart” “Welcome Home” and “I Have to Tell You” are standouts in a lush score that soars with the emotion of its soap opera-like premise.
The setting is the Marseilles waterfront, and Fanny is essentially a love story about two childhood sweethearts, the title character and the sailor Marius. When Marius decides to go to sea for five-years, his father Cesar disowns him. After his departure, Fanny finds out that she is pregnant with Marius’s baby. In an effort to not be disgraced, she agrees to marry an older gentleman named Panisse who will keep the secret of the child’s illegitimacy. A year passes and Marius returns to find out Fanny married. Cesar turns Marius away and it will be another twelve years before he returns. The boy runs away to follow Marius to sea, much to the heartbreak of Panisse, who is old and dying. Marius returns his son to Fanny, whereupon Panisse insists, as his dying wish, that Fanny and Marius finally be together.
The musical Fanny is very romantic, tragic, and full of heightened emotion. It was, arguably, one of the last vestiges of the operetta-style that was soon to fade on Broadway when the 1960s ushered in rock, pop and folk music as part of the musical theatre lexicon. This is perhaps why Fanny is not as revered or as remembered as some of the other big musicals in the operetta-meets-Rodgers and Hammerstein style. Broadway changed and so did its audience’s expectations of its scores. It came at a transitional period and never had the luxury of a revival to keep is fresh in the ears of those who love a more traditional musical theatre experience.