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Most Happy Fella – The New Broadway Cast Recording 1992

Most Happy Fella – The New Broadway Cast Recording 1992

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Synopsis

Time has at last caught up with the The Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser’s vibrant musical version of Sidney Howard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and, at the time (1924), shocking play They Knew What They Wanted. It has, thanks to the merging of musical comedy and opera over the past 20 years, come into its own as a trailblazing “musical musical” that stands firmly alongside Loesser’s two other musical comedy classics, Guys And Dolls and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. They Knew What They Wanted told the story of a wealthy sixty-year-old Napa Valley vintner who, on a visit to San Francisco, falls in love (from afar) with a waitress. He successfully woos her by mail in his own words but with a picture of his handsome foreman. When she arrives for the wedding she discovers the deception. At the same time, the vintner is seriously hurt in an automobile accident. Having left her home and job, she proceeds with the ceremony, but in a moment of anger and passion she decides to spend the night with the foreman. Two months later, she has fallen in love with the vintner but discovers she is pregnant by the foreman. Ashamed, she packs her bags. As she is leaving, she tells the vintner the truth. At first he is angry, but he soon decides that his love for her is greater than his anger. He asks her to stay and together they will raise the child as their own. At the time Howard’s play was written, its story of love, need, forgiveness and compromise, as well as its crude language, jolted the audience and reflected the changing mores of what was to become “the roaring twenties.” Thirty years later little of that shock value was left. (Although during The Most Happy Fella’s pre-Broadway run, the Boston censors demanded that “Son-of-a-Bitch” in the “Ooh My Feet” number be changed to “Son-of-a-Gun.”) The play had been given to Loesser by playwright Samuel (Sabrina Fair) Taylor. At first Loesser didn’t like what he read but soon realized “Take out all this political talk, the labor talk, the religious talk. Get rid of all that stuff and you got a good love story.” More than four years later what emerged was quite a different play, overflowing with music. Loesser added some subplots (Cleo and Herman), and colorful characters (Giuseppe, Ciccio and Pasquale), and a score which depicted all different types of love and devotion – physical, spiritual, fraternal and maternal, in forty musical numbers that burst through the libretto. This eclectic score, consisting of pop love songs, quasi-operatic arias, Tin Pan Alley novelty songs, ballets and choral music, is what made The Most Happy Fella so difficult to characterize for so many years. While other musicals have also succeeded in bringing operatic ambitions into the Broadway theatre, they have done so with tragedy and grandeur. One of Loesser’s achievements was to keep the show on a human scale. Because of this, Loesser was able to place opera and honest-to-God musical comedy side by side. Whether or not critics and audiences were ready for it is another story. The show was Loesser’s follow-up to Guys And Dolls, and he was careful not to repeat himself. The first announcement of the show came in a gossip column in April of 1953: “Frank Loesser at work on the book, music and lyrics of an untitled musical comedy. He’s been at it for three months and expects to finish it in four more.” Three years later, under the auspices of Kermit Bloomgarten and (then Mrs.) Lyn Loesser, with direction by Joseph Anthony and orchestrations by Don Walker, the show began its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston, where Elliot Norton of the Boston Post began his review, “The first act of The Most Happy Fella is too long, too loud and too somber. But the rest of this new show at the Shubert Theatre is touched with magnificence and wonder in the writing, the acting, the singing and the dancing.” The other reviews were similarly enthusiastic. With severe cuts in the first act and the replacement of operatic baritone Morley Meredith (in the role of Joe the Foreman) with nightclub singer Art Lund, the show moved to Philadelphia. There, Henry Murdock of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “Without trying to draw comparisons between The Most Happy Fella and the last show which wrung us with rapture – they differ in form and texture; they’re alike in ultimate quality – let us say that when we linked My Fair Lady among the top dozen or so shows in three decades of reviewing, we should have had foresight enough to reserve a place for Frank Loesser’s magnificent entertainment which made its pre-Broadway bow last night.” Finally, on May 5, 1956, the show, starring Metropolitan Opera star Robert Weede, Jo Sullivan (later Mrs. Loesser), the aforementioned Mr. Lund, Susan Johnson and Shorty Long, opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre. The show was a hit, and although it lost the Tony Award® to My Fair Lady, it did win the Drama Critics Award for Best Musical the following year. The Broadway run lasted for 676 performances and then the show embarked on an extended national tour. The London production received glowing reviews and was a success. The show was revived twice in New York in the mid-sixties at City Center and became a staple of the summer circuit. In 1979 a major Broadway revival starring Giorgio Tozzi and Sharon Daniels was produced. Partially funded by PBS, it was broadcast in March of 1980 during a PBS pledge week. In the following decade, Sweeney Todd, the Lloyd Webber invasion and Les Misérables made the operatic musical comedy not only acceptable but, for many, the norm of what musical comedy should be. It was only a matter of time before there was renewed interest in The Most Happy Fella. On April 26, 1991, at the historic Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, a new, more intimate production of The Most Happy Fella had its premiere under the inspired direction of Gerald Gutierrez. The critics praised this two-piano re-thinking of the show (“It makes you want to stand up and cheer. ” – Kevin Kelly, Boston Globe) and a transfer to New York was inevitable – but not without some minor problems. The first was that New York City Opera would be premiering its own production (with a full orchestra) in August of that year. Was there room in New York City for two productions of the show at the same time? And who would produce the Goodspeed production in New York, and how would they maintain its intimacy? The solutions came in the form of a unique co-production of the Goodspeed Opera House, the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater and the Shubert Organization, Japan Satellite Broadcasting/Stagevision and Suntory International Corp. The show would close at Goodspeed and re-open four months later in Los Angeles as part of the Center Theatre Group’s subscription season, then it would travel eastward to Broadway where it would begin performances at the intimate Booth Theatre on January 24th, with an opening night on February 13th, 1992. By that time, the City Opera production would have come and gone, and would have given interested audiences the chance to compare the qualities that different productions have to offer. There was one more glitch in the production plans, however: Sophie Hayden, the production’s incandescent Rosabella, was pregnant. Ms. Hayden needed some time off to have her baby. Consequently, her part was played in Los Angeles by Mary Gordon Murray. Ms. Hayden gave birth to a daughter, Hallie, on November 3, 1991, and rejoined the show in time for its first preview in New York. When the show re-opened on Broadway the reviews were even more enthusiastic than they had been the previous spring. Frank Rich in the New York Times felt that “as directed by Gerald Gutierrez and performed by a cast led by Spiro Malas and Sophie Hayden this work can hold its own with Carousel and The Music Man on the hit parade of Broadway classics of the golden Rodgers and Hammerstein era.” David Richards (also in the Times) cheered, “Enchantment pours off the stage. The most deliriously musical of musicals – packed with snappy Broadway tunes, exquisite love songs, passionate arias, exuberant trios. A little show that’s so full to the brim it’s bursting.” David Ansen writing in Newsweek stated that “the show now has a soul as stirring as its sound. The voices are great but this time you can hear the heartbeat too.” Howard Kissel in the Daily News hailed it as “a rhapsodic piece of theater. Director Gerald Gutierrez has rethought Fella with great sensitivity and intelligence.” The show’s performances also earned high praise: Rich in the Times felt that “Spiro Malas delivers a deeply touching performance. Leading lady Sophie Hayden is his ideal match. Comic leads Liz Larsen and Scott Waara are so sexy and funny and real,” and he concluded, “When I came home after seeing it, I found myself hungering for the performances I’d just seen and determined to go back to the Booth Theatre again. And just maybe again after that.” Having had, in the space of one year, an unprecedented resurgence of interest in his “musical musical” with an opera house production and this sparkling new Broadway production of The Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser, who died in 1969 at the age of fifty-nine, would be a most happy man indeed. – Bill Rosenfield

Credits

Cashier: Tad Ingram Cleo: Liz Larsen Rosabella: Sophie Hayden Postman: Tad Ingram Tony: Spiro Malas Herman: Scott Waara Clem: Bob Freschi Jake: John Soroka Al: Ed Romanoff Marie: Claudia Catania Max: Bill Badolato Joe: Charles Pistone Pasquale: Mark Lotito Ciccio: Buddy Crutchfield Giuseppe: Bill Nabel Priest: Bill Badolato Doctor: Tad Ingram The folks of San Francisco and the Napa Valley: Anne Allgood, Bill Badolato, Molly Brown, Kyle Craig, Jack Dabdoub, Mary Helen Fisher, Bob Freschi, Ramon Galindo, T. Doyle Leverett, Ken Nagy, Gail Pennington, Ed Romanoff, Jane Smulyan, John Soroka, Laura Streets, Thomas Titone, Melanie Vaughan Pianists: Tim Stella & Michael Rafter “Song of a Summer Night” guitar and “Sposalizio” concertina: Ed Romanoff “Sposalizio” accordion: Bob Freschi