“Sing me of wars, sing me of breadlines, / Tell me of front page news,” composer-lyricist Harold Rome wrote in his signature tune, “Sing Me a Song with Social Significance.” It came from his 1937 revue Pins and Needles, one of the two works for which Rome is best known, the other being I Can Get It for You Wholesale, which launched Barbra Streisand’s career. But Rome’s output consisted of far more than those two Broadway hits.
Born in 1908 in Hartford, Connecticut, Rome studied architecture at Yale and made a stab as an architect, though he had already been drawn to painting and musical theater during his undergraduate years. But work was scarce. “I was an architect with no buildings to build,” he commented, “a painter with no patrons.”
His first musical revue, Pins and Needles (1937), was one of his most successful. It was typical of his work as a whole in that it reflected his concern with social issues. Written originally for members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Pins and Needles presented a series staunchly pro-union skits (devised by various writers along with Rome, including Marc Blitzstein). Despite this unlikely premise for a smash hit, the musical was a huge success; it ran for 1,108 performances and was for several years Broadway’s longest-running show. In 1962, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the premiere, Columbia Records issued a studio recording of Pins and Needles featuring Barbra Streisand.
With his newfound success, Rome went on to write, or contribute numbers to, several other revues: Sing Out the News (1938), with June Allyson; Streets of Paris (1939), featuring a rare Broadway appearance by funnymen Abbot and Costello; Star and Garter (1942), starring the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, with dancing girls aplenty; Let Freedom Ring (1942); Ziegfeld Follies of 1943; Call Me Mister (1946), performed by members of the armed forces; Alive and Kicking (1950); and Bless You All (1950), with Pearl Bailey.
In 1952, Rome wrote the music and lyrics for the musical Wish You Were Here, about a resort for adults where romance inevitably flourishes. The set was notable for its large swimming pool in the center of the stage. The original cast featured future television stars Jack Cassidy, Phyllis Newman, Larry Blyden, and Florence Henderson, as well as Sheila Bond, who won a Tony®.
Rome’s next musical, Fanny (1954) – based on Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy Marius, Fanny, and Cesar – starred opera-idol-turned-Broadway-star Ezio Pinza as Cesar, performing alongside Walter Slezak and Florence Henderson. Rome wrote incidental music for Romanoff and Juliet (1957), written by and starring Peter Ustinov, and the music and lyrics for Destry Rides Again (1959), starring Andy Griffith.
I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962) was Rome’s next hit; set in New York’s garment center, it starred Elliott Gould as the overambitious Harry Bogen, who will do anything to get ahead, and introduced Barbra Streisand, who in her song “Miss Marmelstein” already showed signs of future stardom. The Zulu and the Zayda (1965), with a cast featuring Ossie Davis and Louis Gossett, as well as Yiddish theater veteran Menasha Skulnik. The play takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, ad focuses on relationships between the races.
Rome’s later work included lyrics for La Grosse Valise (1965). He also wrote Scarlett (1970), an adaptation of Gone with the Wind, performed in Tokyo, London, and Los Angeles. Film credits include Rear Window, Anchors Aweigh, Thousands Cheer, and Babes on Broadway. Rome died in 1993.