REMEMBERING FLORENCE HENDERSON ON HER BIRTHDATE By Peter Filichia
Would you really be surprised to learn that such a sweetie as Florence Henderson was born on Valentine’s Day?
She would have been seventy-three this week, but, alas, Henderson died on Thursday, Nov. 24th – just three days beyond the fifty-second anniversary of her recording of Fanny’s original cast album.
That made me recall the conversation we had a few years ago about her Big Broadway Break as the show’s title character.
“I wasn’t originally supposed to get the part,” Henderson said, eyes flashing mischievously. “It was written for Judy Garland.”
“It had a lot to do with the big success she’d had with her show at the Palace in 1951,” said Henderson. After Garland’s Hollywood difficulties, few expected that she’d faithfully show up for what would be a 266-performance run, but indeed she did. Broadway took notice and started considering her for starring vehicles.
Henderson just smiled and didn’t answer my question “Wasn’t Garland too old by then?” Do the math, friends; when Garland’s show closed in June 1952, she’d just passed her thirtieth birthday. In Fanny’s source material – the films Marcel Pagnol made in the early ‘30s: Marius; Fanny; and César – Fanny is established as a twenty-year-old growing up in Marseilles.
Of course, plenty of stage performers have played ten years younger than they really are. But Garland – and I say this at the risk of infuriating her devoted fans – looked older than thirty in 1952. Watch Summer Stock, made two years earlier in 1950. Does she look only eleven years older since The Wizard of Oz?
Garland, sad to say, wouldn’t have been convincing as Fanny, the virginal lass in the throes of first love with Marius, the lad torn between staying with her and going to sea to see the world.
Meanwhile, Henderson was just about to start her Broadway career in Wish You Were Here the same month that Garland was closing at the Palace. As Henderson said, “My character was actually called ‘The New Girl,’ and I had one line.” Her character name was apt for she was all of eighteen – making her the age-appropriate twenty when Fanny opened.
Henderson surprised me at her knowledge of the show’s history. “Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg,” she said, “were originally supposed to write the score.”
All right, Arlen was almost always marvelous, and so was Harburg – but the latter had a whimsical sensibility that wouldn’t seem to be right for the uber-romantic Fanny. Would Harburg have been able to harness his penchant for made-up or snipped-off words (which I detailed a few weeks ago in a Finian’s Rainbow column)? Or would he have written something like “Women look so Gallic in their dresses made of calic?” — allowing the listener to add the missing “o” that he’d had in mind?
“And the book was going to be written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett,” Henderson said, citing the married team who’d reach their greatest success a few years later with The Diary of Anne Frank. “They wanted Judy Garland, too.”
That sent me to The Real Nick and Nora, the biography of the writers authored by David Goodrich, Frances’ nephew. Indeed, he substantiates that both writers as well as would-be-first-time-lead-producer David Merrick went see Garland’s show at the Palace and sauntered backstage to tell the star that they were working on a show for her.
The biographer also revealed that his aunt was more interested in writing Fanny than his uncle-by-marriage; one of her letters revealed, “Albert keeps saying, ‘What are they going to sing about?’” As it turned out Ms. Goodrich had her own stumbling block: Merrick. As a later letter proved: “I cannot,” she wrote, “express in decent language my feeling about him.” So they left the project, as did Arlen and Harburg.
“Josh told Merrick that he’d direct but he had to co-produce, too,” said Henderson. “Merrick thought it’d be worth it to have him, so he agreed. He also thought that with Logan aboard, he could get Rodgers and Hammerstein, for they’d worked on South Pacific together.”
(Not all that happily, by the way, but you know show business: “We’ll never work with that person again until we need him.”)
R&H were taken with the idea of doing Fanny, but wouldn’t work for Merrick; by this point, they’d been their own producers on South Pacific and The King and I, so they weren’t interested in becoming mere hired hands as they were on their first three collaborations under the aegis of The Theatre Guild.
Too bad, for R&H would have been good for it; to their deaths they regretted the lost opportunity. As the R&H shows had become more serious – Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific, The King and I – Fanny would seem to have been right up their theatrical alley. In actuality, they’d already written a musical that was somewhat similar; just as Fanny and Marius love each other — but are reluctant to proclaim it and pretend they really don’t — so did Curly and Laurey.
Fanny, however, involves one of musical theatre’s archetype themes: Career vs. Love. Should Marius marry the woman he adores or follow his star? Fanny loves him enough to set him free – before she discovers that she’s pregnant. Once she learns the dire truth, her scandalized mother urges her to marry Panisse, the much older man who has been asking for her hand. At this point, Fanny wants to avoid disgrace; besides, if she can’t have Marius, she doesn’t care whom she marries. That Panisse is rich is not important to her, although it is to her mother.
“After Rodgers and Hammerstein turned down Merrick, (composer-lyricist) Harold Rome signed on and (playwright) S.N. Behrman would co-write the libretto with Logan,” said Henderson. “So Josh really made out as co-producer, co-director and director.”
Yes, given that the producers’ share of the profits was $428,424 on the 888-performance run, Logan’s co-producing demands cost Merrick $224,212. On the other hand, would Merrick, whose four efforts as a non-lead producer had averaged sixty-eight performances, have been able to raise the $275,000? Logan himself invested $55,000, so sure he was of the show’s success potential.
“Josh wanted Mary Martin to play Fanny,” said Henderson.
If we thought Garland was old, what about Martin? She would have been nearing forty-one by the time Fanny would open. To be fair, however, five years after that, Martin played a different European girl supposedly around Fanny’s age and won a Tony for her efforts. So maybe this unlikely candidate could have pulled it off.
“I don’t know how far they got with Mary Martin,” Henderson admitted, “but I was lucky that Josh knew me. He’d directed me in Wish You Were Here and came to see me play Laurey in Oklahoma! (at City Center in 1953).
“My favorite moment in the show was singing ‘Be Kind to Your Parents,’” Henderson said. It was a Broadway rarity: a charm song that was also the eleven o’clock number. No one knew it at the time, but it set the stage for Henderson’s most famous role: as a parent of three daughters and a step-parent of three sons, all of whom were indeed kind to her.
But Broadway fans won’t remember Henderson for The Brady Bunch. They’ll recall Wish You Were Here, The Girl Who Came to Supper, South Pacific, Oklahoma! and, of course, Fanny, all of which you can hear on Masterworks Broadway recordings.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.