THE MOST HAPPY FELLA MEETS THE RICARDOS AND MERTZES By Peter Filichia
Sixty years ago this week, most of TV Nation heard these words:
Lucy to Little Ricky: Mommy and Daddy are going to see a show with Uncle Fred and Aunt Ethel.
Little Ricky: What show? Ricky: It’s called The Most Happy Fella.
Little Ricky: Can I see it sometime?
Lucy: You can see it when you grow up, honey. At the rate they’re selling tickets, it’ll still be playing.
Wellll, not quite. The musical about a May-December romance originally opened in May (3, 1956) and closed in December – albeit not in the same year, but on Dec. 14, 1957. That meant 676 performances, enough to make it one of the twenty longest-running book musicals up to that time.
But not long enough for Little Ricky to be mature enough to appreciate the charms of the 1955-56 season’s second-biggest hit.
The biggest hit was, of course, My Fair Lady. So why didn’t I Love Lucy’s writers have the foursome see the Lady instead of the Fella? After all, the former was already much better known even to Lucy viewers who lived far from Broadway. Lady’s original cast album reached number one on the charts and stayed there for fifteen weeks en route to becoming the best-selling album of all time.
(Not just in the cast album category, mind you; it was the best-selling record in all genres.)
Happy Fella could “only” make it to number eleven. The reason quotation marks must be put around “only” is because this was a damn fine showing for a three-record set that offered virtually all of Frank Loesser’s book, music and lyrics.
At first glance, the decision made by Goddard Lieberson, then president of Columbia Records, to record the second-biggest hit in its near-entirety rather than the biggest one may seem odd. But Loesser’s score for Happy Fella offered no fewer than forty-one songs (to Fair Lady’s sweet sixteen) and while the three-and-a-half dozen probably would have fit neatly on two LPs, Lieberson decided to splurge.
Fine – but here’s the answer to why the four writers of “Lucy’s Night in Town” chose Loesser’s show (six Tony nominations, no wins) rather than Lerner and Loewe’s (ten Tony nominations, six wins, including Best Musical): Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz – the real-life Ricardos – had invested in The Most Happy Fella.
(Charity indeed begins at home – even in the sumptuous homes of North Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills.)
Those millions of Americans who tuned in on that Saturday, March 25th saw yet another of those only-Lucy-could-do-it mistakes. Although she had sent for tickets long in advance, only on the night they were to attend did she notice during a pre-show dinner that their tickets had been for that afternoon’s already-finished matinee.
In hopes of getting some unsold seats, the Ricardos and Mertzes rushed to the Imperial Theatre whose actual marquee was shown – the good one before it was remodeled to look more like Main Street in Disneyland.
Ricky was able to get last-minute cancellations, but only two tickets in a front loge. A compromise was reached: Lucy and Ethel would see the first act and Ricky and Fred would catch the second.
As the women entered the Imperial, Ricky mused, “I wonder what the story’s all about.” Fred’s response was, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. The guy is not married.” When Ricky asked why, Fred drolly said, “Look at the title,” as the camera panned to the mounted three-sheet that proclaimed The Most Happy Fella.
“Oh, that Frank Loesser music is great!” Ethel gushed as soon as Act One ended with “Standing on the Corner” (at least in this episode; in the actual show, it comes midway through the first act). Lucy then noticed that the two seats behind them had been unoccupied all act long and thus proposed a standard Lucy-like plan that she imparted to Ethel: “After intermission, we’ll just stroll back in with the crowd. We still have our programs in our hands; nobody will stop us.”
After this episode aired and Lucy had put the idea of “second-acting” into viewers’ heads, Lord only knows how many actual Broadway and regional productions found their theaters a little fuller for Act Two. Many a freeloader walked into a theater just before the second act began and would be unbothered by uncaring ushers.
In fact, Mary Flynn in Merrily We Roll Along mentions the practice when Frank and Charley finally have their surefire, genuine, walkaway blockbuster, lines-down-to-Broadway, boffola, sensational, box-office lollapalooza gargantuan hit: “No more sneaking in at intermission to the plays you wish you could afford.”
Since 9/11 when security got tighter, second-acting has been near impossible to achieve. But in rather peaceful 1957, Lucy and Ethel got away with it. In the middle of “Joey, Joey, Joey,” they strolled in and made Ricky aghast; Fred wasn’t, for he felt that they had legitimately paid for four tickets.
Lucy filled them in on the plot. “This guy here?” she said. “He isn’t married.” Deadpanned Fred, “What did I tell you?”
All was well until the opening bars of “Don’t Cry,” when the latecomers entered. That displaced Lucy and Ethel and greatly impaired their enjoying “Big D” and the rest of the show.
Investments aside, would the four have liked My Fair Lady if they’d seen it instead? Over the years, when I’ve asked people about their favorite musicals, I’ve heard Happy Fella mentioned even more than Fair Lady. People have placed their hands over their hearts when mentioning one of the most beautiful songs in the entire Broadway canon: “I Don’t Know (Nothin’ about You).”
It’s sung by Tony, the aforementioned bachelor who’s an aging but successful vintner who (sorry, Fred) feels lonely and would love to marry. Loesser and orchestrator Don Walker must have felt strongly about this song, for they made it the main theme of the overture.
Not far behind in overture representation was the title tune. This served as a nice warm-up for what audiences would soon hear, after young Amy, a waitress who’d once served Tony, later accepted by mail his proposal of marriage. That’s what makes him “the most happy fella in the whole Napa Valley.”
The emphasis on these two songs in the overture was all the more remarkable when one considers that the show had three songs that would soon be much-recorded hits. That they were the ones heard in the Lucy episode was not so coincidental: “Standing on the Corner,” sung by Tony’s lusty vineyard employees; “Joey, Joey, Joey,” in which Tony’s handsome foreman expressed his wanderlust; and “Big D (little A, double-L, A-S)” which celebrated the town from which Tony’s employee Herman and Amy’s friend Cleo both hailed. Did Loesser fear that he’d put his audience in too much of a musical comedy mood if he included these three in the overture? He did have a rather serious musical play in mind (which is why it might have been over Little Ricky’s head – or bored him).
Too bad Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred didn’t get to see all of it. Here’s hoping that they at least caught the lovely 1992 revival – with Not-So-Little Ricky in tow, too.
You may e-mail Peter at [email protected] Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at www.amazon.com.