A Most Happy 60th Anniversary, Fella by Peter Filichia
One musical from the 1955-56 season was recorded virtually word-for-word and note-for-note.
In an era when an original cast album held about forty-five minutes of music, this one weighed in at a shade under two-and-a-quarter hours. It required three long-playing records that were packaged handsomely in a box fit for a genuine opera or full-length play.
Considering that the big smash hit of that 1955-56 season was My Fair Lady, this had to be that blockbuster, no?
No: Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, which opened sixty years ago this week (on May 3, 1956, at the Imperial), was the musical to get this atypically lavish treatment.
It’s since become a two-CD set that’s also available for downloading.
Why Fella and not Fair Lady? For in the Tony® race, My Fair Lady was nominated for ten awards and won six, including Best Musical – the same prize it received from the New York Drama Critics Circle, too.
Fella got six Tony® nominations, and in head-to-head competition with Fair Lady, it lost five of them. Not that it won that sixth time: Michael Kidd’s choreography for Li’l Abner beat both Hanya Holm’s Lady dances and Dania Krupska’s footwork for Fella.
Well, as Andrea Martin sings in My Favorite Year, “Timing.” If Loesser could have followed his Best Musical Tony win for Guys and Dolls in 1951 with a speedier delivery of Fella, he might not have beaten The King and I in 1952, but he certainly would have bested the four next Best Musical Tony®-winners: Wonderful Town, Kismet, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees.
But Fella had the bad luck to open forty-nine days after Fair Lady and wound up running less than a quarter as long (676 performances to Fair Lady’s 2,717). And yet, you can find musical theater aficionados who consider Fella the greater achievement because of its greater reach.
Loesser wrote the book, too, taking it from Sidney Howard’s 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning They Knew What They Wanted. The plot, which we’ll soon discuss, had a ton of political talk about labor vs. management which Loesser deftly and wisely discarded.
Still, a mammoth story was left, so Loesser set a high bar for himself by filling it with the music and lyrics for thirty songs. Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe — splitting their songwriting duties – only needed half as many for My Fair Lady. Of course, they wrote more songs before settling on those fifteen, but we know that Loesser wrote plenty more, too.
Considering the breadth of the Fella score with its many genuine recitatives and arias – and its quality — the question that went around Broadway at the time was “Is it a musical or an opera?” Loesser said it best: “It’s a musical with a lotta music.”
It yielded three hit songs: “Standing on the Corner,” “Big D” and “Joey, Joey, Joey.” And yet for my money, the standout is one of the most beautiful songs ever written for a Broadway musical: “I Don’t Know.”
The title is misleading. The man who sings it – successful vintner Tony Esposito — does indeed know what he wants: “I want to get married.” Tony also wants to have a son who’ll inherit his successful business and vast holdings in the Napa Valley.
The trouble is that Tony is no kid; this is 1927, and he was born before The Civil War started. As his number of years has increased to his sixties, his waist nearly has, too. Tony doesn’t have that much hair left, either, and, Italian immigrant that he is, he speaks in broken English that is so hard to understand that it could more accurately be called shattered English.
No wonder that Tony doesn’t have the nerve to ask his waitress for a date when he’s dining in a San Francisco restaurant. Instead, he leaves her his diamond tiepin as a tip — and his address. Will she write?
Amy probably wouldn’t if she could see Tony, but at this point, she has nothing to lose. Soon the two are more in love than Amalia Balash and Georg Novack. Besides, by this point, Tony’s sent her a picture, so she knows what he looks like.
She thinks she knows what he looks like. The picture Tony sent was actually one from his handsome and rugged foreman Joe. For after Joe tells his boss that he’ll soon be moving on, Tony says he’d like a picture of Joe so he’ll always remember him.
Sending another’s picture is a stupid thing to do, yes, because The Day of Reckoning will eventually come. But let’s give some praise to Robert Ardrey who helped the plot become a little more believable in his 1940 screenplay for the film version of They Knew What They Wanted.
Here, after Amy asks for a picture, Tony is reluctant to go to the photographer, so Joe tags along for moral support. When Tony is so camera-shy (and even scared of an explosion from those cloak-over-the-head cameras), Joe takes his place on the chair to show him that there’s nothing to fear. As the photographer takes Joe’s picture and seats Tony for his, the idea is planted in Tony’s head to send Joe’s picture instead of his. This makes the ruse far less pre-meditated.
Needless to say, Amy is terribly disappointed when she arrives and finds that Joe isn’t the man she planned to marry. Worse, Tony’s been in an accident, so she’s saying “I do” to a man who’s flat on his back on a stretcher. It doesn’t make for a good wedding night for Tony, who can’t consummate the marriage.
Joe does it for him.
That results in the worst thing that can happen in any ‘20s drama — and, for that matter, ’50s musical: Amy becomes pregnant and must break the news to her newlywed husband.
Those who know that Loesser had a big hit song with “Once in Love with Amy” might assume it comes from this show. No, Loesser wrote it for his first Broadway musical: Where’s Charley? in 1948. Besides, we’re not told Amy’s real name until the end of the show; until then, she’s known as “Rosabella,” Tony’s Term of Endearment for her. Those who might accuse Loesser of choosing “Amy” to remind people of his hit song should be told that Sidney Howard in his play named her Amy.
The reviews weren’t all that far behind My Fair Lady’s. The two most important and respected critics in town were respectively Brooks Atkinson of the Times and Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune. (Why do you think each now has a theater named for him?) “Musical magnificence” said Atkinson; “Loesser has opened his treasure chest and hurled his bountiful prizes,” opined Kerr.
The other five daily critics agreed: “An expressive score, a sound, dramatic book, excellent singing and acting and a forthright style” (Watts, Post); “A superb musical show … distinguished as it is delightful” (Chapman, News); “Charming and powerful” (Hawkins, World Telegram & Sun); “Brilliant and ambitious … a great, great musical” (McClain, Journal American) and, from Robert Coleman in the Mirror: “A timeless musical, a work that will be revived again and again, for it is a masterpiece of our era.”
Coleman was right. In addition to revivals at City Opera (Hey! Maybe it is an opera!), there have been Broadway revivals in 1979 and 1992; the latter was recorded on one songs-only disc of seventy-three minutes, also available through Masterworks Broadway. Here the score is solely accompanied by two pianos – Loesser himself did the arrangements – and makes for ideal late-night listening when you don’t want seventy-six or so trombones and other instruments blaring at you while you sip your sherry.
But long car rides will go by substantially faster if you listen to the original cast on the two-CD set. It’s so good that you might not take it from the CD player but will listen to it over and over –even if you’re driving from Broadway to the whole Napa Valley.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.