Harold Rome wrote the songs for a series of stage musicals from the 1930s to the 1970s, his biggest successes coming with the shows Pins and Needles, Call Me Mister, and Fanny. Like his contemporary,…
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Harold Rome Biography

by William Ruhlmann

Harold Rome wrote the songs for a series of stage musicals from the 1930s to the 1970s, his biggest successes coming with the shows Pins and Needles, Call Me Mister, and Fanny. Like his contemporary, Marc Blitzstein, Rome tended to write topical material with a left-wing political bent during the Depression years of the '30s. His later work was more typical of Broadway show music, but he never lost his concern for ordinary working-class people. Many of Rome's songs became popular outside the theater, and they were performed and recorded by a who's who of singers and jazz musicians, including the Andrews Sisters, Paul Anka, Tony Bennett, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Duke Ellington, Eddie Fisher, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Erroll Garner, Coleman Hawkins, Peggy Lee, Glenn Miller, the Mills Brothers, Charles Mingus, Edith Piaf, Cliff Richard, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Kate Smith, Barbra Streisand, Mel Tormé, and Sarah Vaughan.

Rome had a privileged background. His Russian immigrant father owned the Connecticut Coal Company. He began his higher education at Trinity College in his hometown of Hartford, CT, then transferred to Yale, from which he graduated in 1929. He then enrolled at Yale Law School, but after a year transferred to the Yale School of Architecture, from which he received a B.F.A. degree in 1934. All this time, he was also studying music with such teachers as Lehman Engel and Joseph Schillinger, and he helped pay for his education by playing piano in a dance band. After leaving Yale in the middle of the Depression, he found work with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal employment program. In the summer of 1935, became musical director at Green Mansions, a resort hotel in upstate New York. He put on musical revues there over the next three summers. In 1936, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) commissioned him to write songs for a topical musical revue to be put on by amateur members of the union. The result was Pins and Needles, which was first performed on June 14, 1936, and eventually made its way to Broadway, opening on November 27, 1937, and running 1,108 performances, with continual updates and new additions through June 22, 1940, making it the longest running musical in Broadway history up to that time.

The topical songs included such titles as "Doing the Reactionary," "It's Better With a Union Man," and "One Big Union for Two." The most popular song in the score was "Sunday in the Park," which reached the hit parade in April 1938, the best-known recording by the Hudson-DeLange Orchestra on Brunswick Records. The original Broadway cast album had not yet caught on as a form, and the there was no full-length cast recording at the time. But Rome himself recorded "Song of the Ads" and "I Wanna Be a G-Man" for Keynote Records, and members of the original cast made individual recordings of songs from the show. Ruth Rubinstein recorded "Chain Store Daisy" and Millie Weitz recorded "Nobody Makes a Pass at Me," both for Decca. There were also later recordings of songs added to the show over the course of its run. In 1962, Columbia Records celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Broadway opening of Pins and Needles by recording a studio cast LP of the show that featured Rome and other performers, among them the young Barbra Streisand, who had recently made her Broadway debut in a later Rome musical, I Can Get It for You Wholesale.

The success of Pins and Needles made Rome an in-demand songwriter on Broadway, and he was quickly hired to write songs for the revue Sing Out the News, which opened September 24, 1938, and ran 105 performances, closing January 7, 1939. He recorded a single for Decca containing the show tunes "Plaza 6-9423" and "Yip-Ahoy," but the hit of the show was the patriotic "F.D.R. Jones" (aka "Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones"), which was quickly recorded by Chick Webb & His Orchestra with Ella Fitzgerald on vocals, also for Decca, and by Cab Calloway for Vocalion. Later, the song was interpolated into the 1941 movie musical Babes on Broadway, in which it was sung by Judy Garland, who also recorded it for Decca.

Rome spent the late '30s and early '40s continuing to update Pins and Needles and contributing incidental songs to several theater productions. With the entry of the U.S. into World War II in 1941, he became involved in writing shows for servicemen, the first of which was Lunchtime Follies, staged at the Todd Shipyards in Brooklyn starting on June 22, 1942. Soon after, he joined the Army himself. In 1945, Rome did an English adaptation of the French song "Ma Mie" (music by Henri Herpin, lyrics by Jean Marie Blanvillain), creating "(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings," a rare instance of his writing a song not associated with a stage production. It was recorded by Martha Stewart (not to be confused with the later entrepreneurial homemaker of the same name) on Bluebird Records and became a Top 20 hit for her in February 1945; Johnnie Johnston's competing version for Capitol reached the Top Ten the following month. In July, the song was interpolated into the film Anchors Aweigh, in which it was sung by Kathryn Grayson. Paul Anka's revival on ABC-Paramount Records was a Top 20 hit in 1959; Mel Carter's for Imperial reached the Top 40 in 1965.

After his discharge from the army, Rome wrote the songs for a Broadway revue about servicemen adjusting to postwar civilian life, Call Me Mister. The show opened April 18, 1946, and ran 734 performances, closing on January 10, 1948. Decca Records recorded an original Broadway cast album, and the score produced two pop hits: Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters recorded the humorous "South America, Take It Away" for a Top Ten hit on Decca that outdistanced a Top Ten cover version by Xavier Cugat on Columbia, and Margaret Whiting had a Top 20 hit with "Along With Me" for Capitol. The 1951 movie version of Call Me Mister kept only three of Rome's songs.

Rome worked on several theatrical projects in the late '40s and early '50s, with only the revue Bless You All, among his major efforts, reaching Broadway for an unsuccessful run of 84 performances on December 14, 1950. His next hit show was the book musical Wish You Were Here, which opened June 24, 1952, and ran 598 performances, until November 28, 1953. The show, set at an adult summer camp much like the one at Green Mansions and based on a 1937 comic play, was recorded for an original Broadway cast album by RCA Victor that reached the Top Ten, while Eddie Fisher recorded the title song, also for RCA, and hit number one with it, beating out Top 40 recordings by Jane Froman (for Capitol) and Guy Lombardo (for Decca). Rome scored an even bigger success with his next musical, Fanny, which opened on November 4, 1954, and ran 888 performances, closing December 16, 1956. RCA's original Broadway cast album was a Top Ten hit. The show was adapted into a movie in 1961 that was not a musical, though Rome's songs were used as background music, and the soundtrack album was a chart entry.

Rome recorded an album of his own performances of the songs from Fanny for Heritage Records in 1954. He followed it with a series of albums of songs from his other shows over the next few years: A Touch of Rome, also in 1954; Rome-antics in 1956; and And Then I Wrote, also in 1956, for Coral Records. He returned to Broadway with a musical adaptation of Destry Rides Again, the Max Brand Western story that had been the source for the popular 1939 movie starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. The Broadway version, starring Andy Griffith and Dolores Gray, opened on April 23, 1959, and ran 472 performances, closing June 18, 1960. The original Broadway cast album was released by Decca. I Can Get It for You Wholesale, Rome's next musical, returned him to the sources of his earliest work, with a setting in the New York garment district during the Depression. It opened March 22, 1962, and ran 300 performances, until December 8, 1962. Not a financial success, the show is best remembered for introducing Barbra Streisand in a small featured role. Columbia Records recorded the original Broadway cast album.

Although he continued to work in the theater for another decade, Rome struggled in the latter part of his career. The Zulu and the Zayda, a play with music, ran for 179 performances on Broadway in 1965-1966, its cast album released by Columbia. La Grosse Valise had a run of only seven Broadway performances in December 1965. The songwriter's last major project was a musical adaptation of Gone With the Wind. He was commissioned to work on it in the late '60s, and a version titled Scarlett opened on January 1, 1970, in Japan, performed in Japanese. This successful production was recorded for a cast album by Japan's Nivico Records. An English version of the show, titled Gone With the Wind, opened in London in 1972 and ran 397 performances, resulting in a cast album recorded by the British Columbia label. The show began an American tryout in Los Angeles on August 28, 1973, but it closed there, never going on to Broadway. Rome retired; he died of complications from a stroke at the age of 85.

Harold Rome had an up-and-down career as a theater music composer that found him changing his approach with changing times. He emerged as a writer of satiric and topical songs for musical revues, and when revues went into decline, he managed to adapt to writing songs for book musicals. That saw him through until the 1960s, when styles changed again, but he was still finding some success in the early '70s, well into the fifth decade of his writing career.

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