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And then there was another loss that may have been the unkindest cut of all…

As we discussed last week, although GUYS AND DOLLS was the biggest hit of the 1950-51 season, Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics lost the Best Score Tony to Irving Berlin’s CALL ME MADAM.

Eleven years later, history re-embarrassed itself. HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING was the biggest hit of the 1961-62 season, but Loesser lost the Best Score Tony to Richard Rodgers’ NO STRINGS.

For the 11 years in between, there was – believe it or not – no Best Score prize. Those who created the book, music and lyrics would only get a medallion if their show won the Best Musical Tony.

And while both of Loesser’s previous defeats must have stung him, we must wonder if his loss of the 1956-57 Best Musical Tony was even more painful.

True, the show Loesser had in that season’s race – THE MOST HAPPY FELLA – wasn’t, like his two others named above, the biggest hit of the season.

No, Loesser had the unhappy experience of being eclipsed by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. They’d delivered MY FAIR LADY to Broadway only 49 days earlier than FELLA.

FAIR LADY opened to rave (“One of the best musicals of the century” – Atkinson, Times) after rave (“A miraculous musical, wise, witty, and winning” – Kerr, Herald Tribune) after rave (“A triumph!” – Watts, Post).

Not that Loesser’s score fared poorly with the critics:

“The ambitious tunes swell mightily, and the torrid ones explode” – Kerr, Herald Tribune.

“As distinguished as it is delightful” – Chapman, News.

“It is a masterpiece of our era.” – Coleman, Mirror.  

Oh, and Atkinson of the Times? When describing Loesser’s music, he called it “powerful,” “exalting,” “first-rate,” ultimately deciding that it was “musical magnificence.”

But when the Tonys were dispensed, the tally showed FAIR LADY with six wins, including Best Musical, and FELLA with zero.

FAIR LADY closed after amassing 2,717 performances, becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history. By the time it shuttered on September 29, 1962, THE MOST HAPPY FELLA had been gone for almost five years, after its 676th final performance. It could only brag that it reached 19th place in the list of long-running book musicals.

When it came to hit songs, FAIR LADY had “On the Street Where You Live,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.” The last-named was so ubiquitous that SAY, DARLING – a pièce à clef about the evolution of THE PAJAMA GAME – had one female auditioner after another come in and sing it.

But wait! FELLA didn’t do so poorly in the hits department. “Standing on the Corner,” sung by Herman and some other of Tony’s employees, reached as high as third place on the Top 100. (“On the Street Where You Live” could only make it to fourth place.) And “Big D,” in which Cleo and Herman bonded over their hometown – Dallas – was a big hit on variety shows of the era.

So, thus far, FELLA falls to FAIR LADY. But which of these two heavyweights is really the more impressive?

Many thought that Loesser’s work was so grand that it deserved to be called grand opera. But Loesser preferred to label it “a musical with a lotta music.”

That was Loesser, neither grand nor grandiose, with work that always maintained the common touch. Here, we met Tony, the aging and less-than-attractive bachelor-businessman; Amy (a/k/a Rosabella, as Tony prefers to call her), the young waitress who’s the object of his love; Cleo, her waitress pal; and Joe, Tony’s handsome farmhand who’ll impregnate one of these women.

Loesser took four years to write it, the greatest length of time he ever devoted to the creation of a Broadway musical. A look at the song list answers any questions on why it took so long to finish.

Let’s put it this way: FAIR LADY’s musical director Franz Allers at each performance struck up the band for 20 songs, four of which were short reprises.

FELLA had 20 songs in the first act alone.

None were reprises.

FELLA’s Act Two offered 16 more songs.

None were reprises.

But wait! There’s more!

FELLA even had an Act Three. Yes, this time Loesser did offer reprises – two, in fact – but don’t accuse him of taking it easy. He gave seven new songs to this third act.

Granted, at first glance, we’re putting quantity ahead of quality. But be fair: FELLA was the most ambitious musical to reach Broadway since PORGY AND BESS more than a quarter-century earlier.

Tony’s “I Don’t Know (Nothin’ about You)” to “Rosabella” is one of the most glorious bolt-of-lightning ballads ever heard in a musical.

“Joey, Joey, Joey” proved once again that no one could write for butch men like Loesser could. Witness “My Time of Day” in GUYS AND DOLLS and – some have said, including John Raitt – “A New Town Is a Blue Town” when Adler and Ross couldn’t find the right musical language for Sid in THE PAJAMA GAME. And in that butch vein, “When I’ve had all I want from the ladies in the neighborhood.”

“Happy to Make Your Acquaintance” – in which Tony and “Rosabella” declare a truce after a false start – is as charming a charm song as you’ll ever hear.

“My Heart Is So Full of You” is Exhibit A of why some consider this an opera. It’s an aria’s worth of grand opera.

There was more – so much more that Columbia Records original cast album guru Goddard Lieberson would have had to issue the score on two discs. Instead, he ordered a three-record set that included much of the dialogue.

Not even FAIR LADY got that.

Oh, there was a “Highlights” album with 18 songs, but true musical theater aficionados weren’t settling for that.

(That version has never been transferred to compact disc; the full three-record set has, to our continued and continual delight.)

So, although FAIR LADY would eventually be commemorated on a U.S. stamp (in which Eliza and Henry were shown at the Ascot races) and FELLA was not, we still can’t minimize Loesser’s accomplishments.

After all, Lerner had Loewe to compose music.

Loewe had Lerner to write the book and lyrics.

And Loesser’s bookwriter?

Was it George Abbott, who did that work for Loesser’s WHERE’S CHARLEY?


Was it Abe Burrows, who did the same for GUYS AND DOLLS?


Loesser’s librettist on THE MOST HAPPY FELLA was Loesser himself. Although the reviews for his libretto weren’t commensurate with his score, read the play that he adapted; THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED. You’ll soon see that he skillfully eliminated a great deal of the – let’s be frank – boring political and religious didacticism.

Oh, well. Timing is everything. Had FELLA opened a season earlier, it definitely would have emerged victorious over DAMN YANKEES (by Loesser’s proteges Adler and Ross). But had it opened early in the previous year, Loesser might not have had the time he needed to perfect it. It probably still would have been an excellent show, but it may not have been nearly as good as what you’ll hear on what is now on two compact discs.

Broadway saw a new production in 1980, which didn’t get a Best Revival nomination. But in 1992, there was a fascinating small-scale revival that was done with only two pianos. Loesser himself had supervised the two-piano arrangement of the orchestral score, and the resulting cast album is a particular delight late at night when THE MUSIC MAN (or even the original THE MOST HAPPY FELLA) would be much too loud when you want to chill out.

And how did this 1992 production do in the Tony race? It was nominated for Best Revival but lost.

And wouldn’t you know that it succumbed to that season’s revival of GUYS AND DOLLS?

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.