Theatre yesterday and today



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The great Frank Loesser died on this date, July 26, 1966. He was fifty-nine years old, the age I am now (yikes!). He left us way too young and it's hard to imagine how much richer the American songbook might be today if he had lived longer. But a chronic smoker like Loesser was playing Russian roulette with his health. Take a look at photos of him and you'll almost always see a cigarette either in his mouth or hand, such as the one below where an ashtray lies close to his heart.

The scores Loesser composed for Broadway included Where's Charley?,

Guys and Dolls, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Most Happy Fella, certainly the most ambitious of his career. When it premiered on Broadway in 1956 it was unique in its day, as it was almost entirely thru-sung, a form which became overwhelmingly popular via Andrew Lloyd Weber and others of that ilk in the 1970s and 80s. When Loesser was writing his opus in the 1950s, he was told by friends and advisors that what he was attempting was impossible. He was doomed to have what would be his first failure in the commercial theatre if he went through with it.

But Loesser had a reputation for being stubborn and the nay sayers only forged his conviction that he should stick with what his gut was telling him. He knew he had something distinctive with Fella, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play They Knew What They Wanted, by Sidney Howard. Both tell the story of a mail order bride and the hard-working immigrant who lures her to the winery he owns in northern California, tricking her by using a photograph of his foreman, a much younger and handsomer fella. True love wins the day (after all, it's a musical), when the May-December romance between the rancher and the young woman blossoms, despite some old-fashioned, but touching plot complications.

In poker terms, Loesser was "all in" with his unconventional musical. For in addition to writing the adaptation of the book himself, he was also a silent producer (putting his money where his mouth was). His faith wasn't altogether misguided either. The show received generally good reviews, but had the unfortunate timing of opening two months before a little show blew into town called My Fair Lady. This Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Lowe, Moss Hart (and George Bernard Shaw) blockbuster sucked up all the oxygen between 42nd and 52nd Streets. Broadway hadn't seen the likes of such a hit since 1943's Oklahoma!, when it helped to heal a war-torn nation, premiering when it did in the midst of World War II.

Perhaps those who called The Most Happy Fella an opera were the ones who helped seal its fate by branding it as something "other." Opera and other were "o" words that usually spelled doom for any conventional musical. And Fella, though thoroughly conventional with its plotting, was completely unconventional with its score. For his part, Loesser put it in simple terms: "I may give the impression this show has operatic tendencies. If people feel that way—fine. Actually all it has is a great frequency of songs. It's a musical with music."

Besides Loesser and lead producer Kermit Bloomgarden, there were two investors with not only a financial interest in the show, but with a means to provide some extraordinary free publicity. Desilu Productions, the producing company owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, had a vested interest in Fella, so for anyone who has ever seen the I Love Lucy episode titled "Lucy's Night in Town," which aired in March, 1957, know to what I am referring. Its plot unfolds when the Ricardo's and the Mertz's find themselves in a screw-up, holding tickets to an already expired matinee of The Most Happy Fella, forcing the foursome to sneak into the evening performance instead. And even though it aired during the sixth and final season and was one of the very last episodes of I Love Lucy ever filmed (#175 out of the #180 produced), it was still, at that time, the #1 rated show in the nation and seen by an audience of 46 million people.

In 1960, Loesser had what would turn out to be his one-and-only produced Broadway failure with the musical Greenwillow, which has never been much of a candidate for reevaluation or resurrection. But Loesser's next show, with the aid of Abe Burrows, the writer and director who helped make Guys and Dolls his biggest hit to date, resulted in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the longest running show of both men's illustrious careers. It garnered them that most elusive of awards for a musical: the Pulitzer Prize. In 1962, it was only the fourth time in its forty year history the esteemed committee awarded a musical instead of a straight play.

The Most Happy Fella has been revived numerous times over the years, twice on Broadway and twice at the New York City Opera. Loesser's beautiful score has only grown in stature over time. The song "Joey, Joey, Joey" is on the CD by the recent Tony Award winning actor and star of Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr, and "My Heart is So Full of You" made it to one of Barbra Streisand's best selling Broadway albums. Loesser is also still one of the very few to solely (and successfully) turn out the book and score of a musical on Broadway: Meredith Willson (The Music Man), Jonathan Larsen (Rent) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) are the others in this exclusive club.

As for me personally, I have always been in love with this The Most Happy Fella. I even saw (not once, but twice) the controversial "two-piano" version that played Broadway in 1996. Scaled down with no orchestra, the music resonated for me as it did for many others, due to a well-cast production funny and moving in equal measure. I have a recording of a 2007 production that took place at the outdoor Ravinia Theatre near Chicago that, in a concert version, starred a then seventy-three year-old George Hearn in magnificent voice.

I look forward to the next time it's done—wherever it's done. Look for it yourself. It'll make you happy.

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