The Most Happy Fella

Seth Rudetsky reports that there are plans for a Broadway revival of the 1956 Frank Loesser musical The Most Happy Fella. The musical, a hybrid of opera and musical comedy was a big success, though it probably would have fared better had it not opened six weeks after the juggernaut My Fair Lady). Loesser took on the chores of both book and score, adapting Sidney Howard’s Pulitzer Prize winning play They Knew What They Wanted by dropping the sociopolitical elements and heightening the romance with impressive results. The basic story line is about a waitress who strikes up a correspondence with an elderly Italian vineyard owner Tony in Napa. When she asks for a picture, he sends a snapshot of his handsome foreman fearing she will reject him due to his age. The night she arrives to meet him, he is nearly killed in a car accident. In spite of her humiliation regarding the mixup, she marries Tony before he goes under anesthetic and ends up in the arms of the foreman. And this is only the first of three acts!

The show starred the operatic baritone Robert Weede, Jo Sullivan (later Loesser), Art Lund and that belter extraordinaire Susan Johnson. The show won no Tony awards, ran 676 performances and was never made into a film (unfortunately). There have been several revivals including one in 1979 that aired on PBS and a Lincoln Center produced import of a scaled-down, 2-piano revival originated at the Goodspeed Opera House. Most recently, the show was part of the City Opera lineup though that particular production was not well-received by critics or audiences.

I have a particular fondness for the score, combining the best of both worlds with soaring ballads and arias as well as memorable comedy and production numbers. The original cast album was produced for Columbia Records by Goddard Lieberson. Instead of releasing the usual one-LP record that was the norm for theatre music, Lieberson insisted on recording the entire show. It marked the first original cast album to be released on three LPs in a boxed set with the show’s souvenir program. (A highlights LP was concurrently put out as well; I have both). With the exception of a small scene, a few lines of dialogue and a bowlderized lyric here or there (they weren’t allowed to say “son of a bitch” on the record), the recording is the practically the entire musical making for a satisfying account of the original definitive performances.

Trivia for TV lovers: This musical was featured prominently on one of the final episodes of I Love Lucy in which the foursome comes into town for dinner and a show only to discover that Lucy has mistakenly ordered tickets for the earlier matinee performance. Shenanigans ensue at the Imperial Theatre (not the real one, obviously). The episode even presented a few snippets from the cast album during audience scenes. (The way they present the show it seems as though Desilu had some stake in the stage show).

Here are those leads appearing on Ed Sullivan in 1956: