For musical show composers, staying sane is a critical battle in the unending creative wars.

Since 1937 Harold Rome has been creating lyrics and music. He started with "Pins and Needles." There have been 18 shows in the 41 years since - some triumphs, some disasters.

All his life Harold Rome has remained sane. Now does he do it?

"I paint," explains the trim, fit fellow who looks 50 and will be 70 next month.

His paintings and interest in African art will bring Rome to Washington Monday when his vocational and avocational activities blend for a benefit for the Museum of African Art.

As the only American composer who writes his own lyrics an is sassy enough to perform them in public, Rome will play his hit parade Monday night in the Kreeger Theater. Then the audience will move to the Museum of African Art for an exhibit of Rome's "House of Cards," a display of 52 oils in which he has adapted the styles and motifs of African art to the conventional designs of playing cards.

Hartford-born Rome went to Yale to study law, but switched to architecture, graduating in 1934.

During the Depression who needed architects?But the ILGWU - the International Ladies Garment Workers - needed a composer. To lift his draftsman's pay, Rome played piano at parties. "Sing Me a Song of Social Significance" he wrote and proceeded to do just that with a tiny revue performed by amateurs which became a smash of the late '30s.

Its tone was on the nose for the Roosevelt era, which accounts for some of those legendary names on the museum's benefit committee, Ben Cohen, Tommy "The Cork" Corcoran, Abe Fortas and Averell Harriman.

Rome's words were sharp, sly and bristling and he had just the zingy tunes to fit: "Sunday in the Park," "One Big Union for Two," Four Little Angels of Peace" and "Nobody Makes a Pass at Me."

Topical revues followed. "Sing Out the News" found Rex Ingram introducing Rome's exuberant "Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones," indirectly teaching the correct pronunciation of Roosevelt. As an ex-service man, Rome came up with a 1946 revue, "Call Me Mister," of which he once noted: "Having conceived the notion that a soldier who went away a jerk might return still a jerk, all that remained was for improvisations on the established theme."

With the decline of revues, he turned to adaptations. "Having Wonderful Time," Arthur Kober's play about Catskills summer camps, inspired "Wish You Were Here." "Franny" gave Ezio Pinza a follow-up to "South Pacific." "I Can Get It for You Wholesale" had a song, "Miss Mermelstein," for an unknown Barbra Streisand. "Destry Rides Again" came from a Jimmy Stewart-Marlene Dietrich film.

"I start work by 8 in the morning, writing lyrics, then music for four or five hours. Enough.

"Afternoons I paint. I love it. I've had one-man shows in London, New York and now this for Washington. Years ago I got into African art and my sculpture collection of heddle-pullies is one of the finest there is on African tribal sculpture. That's how I first knew Warren Robbins and why I'm doing this benefit." Robbins is director of the Museum of African Art.

"I'm working on a new book show, from Anouilh's 'Waltz of the Toreadors,' about people my own age. I'll do some of its songs for the first time in public on Monday night."