June 29, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
With my last two columns focusing on Guys and Dolls, today felt like a good time to write about another show from its master composer-lyricist, Frank Loesser. Born 108 years ago today, Loesser sadly left this world way too young (fifty-nine), and it’s hard to imagine how much richer the American songbook might be today if he had lived longer. A chronic smoker, he played Russian roulette with his health, evident by nearly every photo of him. You will almost always see a cigarette either in his hand or between his lips, such as the one below, where an ashtray lies on his chest.
The scores Loesser composed for Broadway included Where’s Charley?, Guys and Dolls, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Most Happy Fella — extraordinary benchmarks set for anyone with serious ambitions of writing for the theatre. When The Most Happy Fella premiered on Broadway in 1956, Loesser’s attempt at near-opera added his name to the few who had previously tried, such as Virgil Thompson (Four Saints in Three Acts), George Gershwin (Porgy and Bess) and Marc Blizstein (Regina). The form, which became overwhelmingly popular via Andrew Lloyd Weber and others of his ilk in the 1970s and 80s, was unique when Loesser was writing his opus in the 1950s. Told by his friends and advisors that what he was trying to do was impossible, Loesser never wavered. If it meant he would have his first failure in the commercial theatre, so be it.
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 knew he had something distinctive with Fella, based on Sidney Howard’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize winning play They Knew What They Wanted. Both tell the story of a mail order bride and the hard-working immigrant who lures her to the winery he owns in northern California, tricking her by using a photograph of his foreman, a much younger and handsomer 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 touching plot complications.
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 on an unconventional 3-record set, encompassing dialogue and instrumental bridges. What kind of musical was this? 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.”
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 in March, 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.
Loesser’s follow-up to Fella, turned out to be his one-and-only produced Broadway failure, the 1960 musical Greenwillow, which has never been much of a candidate for reevaluation or resurrection. But Loesser’s next show, with the aid of Abe Burrows, the writer and director who helped make Guys and Dolls his biggest hit to date, resulted in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the longest running show 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). Burrows having once been called in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in Washington D.C., then in charge of sussing out suspected communists, 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.
The Most Happy Fella continues to thrive in revivals over the years, 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.” Loesser’s bountiful score, encompassing comedy specialties, lyrical ballads and full-blown production numbers, has only grown in stature over time. Loesser remains one of the only composers to solely (and successfully) turn out the book and score of a musical on Broadway: Meredith Willson (The Music Man), Jonathan Larsen (Rent) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) are some others in this most 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) and go for a long drive and a listen. 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 at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.