The scores Frank Loesser composed for Broadway (both music and lyrics) include Where’s Charley?, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying — significant benchmarks anyone with serious ambitions of writing for the theatre would be wise to follow.
When The Most Happy Fella premiered on Broadway in 1956, sixty-four years ago today, Loesser’s attempt at near-opera added his name to the few who had previously tried, such as George Gershwin (Porgy and Bess), Kurt Weill (Street Scene) and Marc Blizstein (Regina). Sadly, like Loesser’s attempt, none were big hits in their original productions. Many things contributed to why, but one consistent element lines up: they were all somewhat ahead of their time. It would be many years before the form morphed into quasi-opera, distinguished mainly by the wildly successful works of Andrew Lloyd Weber and his mostly sung-thru musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats and of course, The Phantom of the Opera, the longest running Broadway musical of all-time.
Frank Loesser (1910–1969).
Friends and advisors told Loesser that a Broadway opera was a near impossible task, but the composer turned a deaf ear. If it meant he would have his first failure in the commercial theatre, so be it (he had been on quite a streak). Also, Loesser had a reputation for being incredibly stubborn (and contentious), and the naysayers only forged his conviction that he should stick with what his gut was telling him. He never wavered in his belief that Fella, based on Sidney Howard’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize winning play They Knew What They Wanted, would make for a lush retelling as a musical. Both concern the story of a young mail order bride and the hard-working middle-aged immigrant who lures her to the winery he owns in northern California, tricking her by using a photograph of his foreman, a handsomer and more age appropriate 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 ultimately touching plot complications.
The adorable and joyous artwork from the original album cover (1956).
The gambler in Loesser (one who made him the perfect choice to write Guys and Dolls), served him well with Fella. In poker terms, he was “all in.” 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 after a little show blew into town called My Fair Lady. This Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, Moss Hart (and George Bernard Shaw) blockbuster sucked up all the oxygen between 41st and 54th Streets. As a result, Fella didn’t receive the recognition it deserved its first time out, not winning a single Tony Award. And though it ran seventeen months, it paled next to My Fair Lady’s run of six and-a-half years, which was the first musical to surpass the five year-run of Oklahoma!
As for its reputation as being more of an opera than a standard musical, The Most Happy Fella may have sealed its own fate when it released its cast album in 1956 on an unconventional 3-record set, encompassing dialogue and instrumental bridges. This was a first for a Broadway musical and naturally it raised a few eyebrows. For most of the public that couldn’t make it to Broadway and bought cast albums in huge numbers throughout the decade, they were stymied as to what kind of musical it was. 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.”
The exuberance of The Most Happy Fella (1956) with Robert Weede (far right).
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,” know to what I am referring. First aired on March 25, 1957, its plot unfolds when the Ricardos and the Mertzs 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. One of the very last episodes of I Love Lucy ever filmed (#175 out of the #180 produced), the series was still, at that time, the #1 rated show in the nation, and seen by an audience of 46 million people.
This I Love Lucy wasn’t shot at the Imperial Theatre, but on a Hollywood soundstage.
Loesser’s follow-up to Fella, the 1960 musical Greenwillow, was his one-and-only show to reach Broadway and be deemed a failure. He quickly rebounded though, for what would become his longest running hit. With the aid of Abe Burrows, the writer and director who helped make Guys and Dolls such a classic, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying became the shining star of both men’s careers. It garnered them that most elusive of awards for a musical: the Pulitzer Prize (although Guys in Dolls, in a nadir for that committee, was the 1951 choice for the award, only to be overruled by the Pulitzer Advisory Board, which had in its power the right to nullify any decision). There are many who feel this had to do with Burrows having been called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington D.C. during the anti-Communist hysteria of the late forties and fifties. That was all that was needed to taint his good name and cause the withdrawal of the Pulitzer. That wrong was only slighted righted with How to Succeed’ s honor in 1962.
Loesser, with his ever-present cigarette, and Abe Burrows.
The Most Happy Fella continues to thrive in revivals over the years, not only around the country and around the world, but twice on Broadway and twice at the New York City Opera. The most recent one I attended was Encores! 2014 production with Shuler Hensley, Laura Benanti and Cheyenne Jackson, which was (to quote Ben Brantley’s New York Times review) “glorious.” I was also very fond of a two-piano version that played Broadway’s intimate Booth Theatre in 1992, which by that reduction attempted to tone down its operatic overtones. Some didn’t think it totally worked, but for me, the score remained radiant, and it had a wonderful cast led by Spiro Malas, who acted it beautifully, even though he was a bass and not a baritone, like Robert Weede, the former Metropolitan Opera star who created the role.
Spiro Malas as Tony in the 1992 Broadway revival of The Most Happy Fella.
It’s hard to beat Loesser’s bountiful score for sheer variety with its comedy specialties (“Ooh! My Feet!”), lyrical ballads (“Somebody, Somewhere”) and full-blown production numbers (“Big ‘D’”). Its stature has steadily grown over time, and I can’t imagine it won’t be long before someone attempts it again, perhaps in a rousing new production with an expansive orchestra (Hello, Lincoln Center?). Loesser remains one of the only composers to solely (and successfully) be responsible for both book and score of a musical on Broadway: Meredith Willson (The Music Man), Jonathan Larsen (Rent) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) make for the best known trio in what is a very exclusive club.
And if for some reason, you have never heard The Most Happy Fella, grab its original cast recording (there’s never been one better) give it a listen (preferably when some of us are back in our cars again and on a long drive).
It’s a near two and-a-half hours of music that I promise will make you happy.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org