On May 3, 1956, Frank Loesser’s musical The Most Happy Fella opened at the Imperial Theatre. That year was an impressive one for musicals; Loesser’s show opened against such now legendary shows as My Fair Lady, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. Despite the competition, The Most Happy Fella was a hit, and one which defies easy categorization. Though it is not entirely sung-through, it contains an enormous amount of music, and is on a scale beyond many musicals of its time. Many were tempted to call it an opera. Loesser himself said “It’s not a play with music; it’s not an opera, and let no one mention folk opera! It’s a musical--with a lot of music.”
Set in California’s Napa Valley in 1927 and based on Sidney Howard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play They Knew What They Wanted, The Most Happy Fella tells the story of a middle-aged Italian immigrant’s wooing (via mail) of a waitress, and of the difficulties that ensue when they actually marry. Loesser focused his show on two love stories. One is the love triangle featuring Tony, his wife Rosabella, and Joe, Tony’s employee, with whom Rosabella has a brief affair. The other love story is a comic sub-plot involving Rosabella’s friend Cleo and her too-easygoing boyfriend Herman. The Most Happy Fella deals most seriously with the issues of betrayal and forgiveness.
The Most Happy Fella contains several songs which became popular hits, including “Big D” and “Standin’ on the Corner” (which, along with "Ooh, My Feet," was actually cut from Guys and Dolls.) Loesser’s music demonstrates his remarkable range. “Standin’ on the Corner” has a kind of barbershop quartet feel to it, while there is an undeniable operatic quality to the quartet in the exquisite “How Beautiful the Days.”
Though the original Broadway cast album was lauded as the first to be recorded almost in its entirety, we are now presented with a studio recording which is more than complete, since it contains several songs which were cut on the road.
Regrettably, the performers on this cd almost uniformly pale in comparison to the original cast. Coming off the best is Karen Ziemba as Cleo. Her voice is strong and though she does not play the role in quite as world-weary a way as one might have hoped, she has charm and spunk to carry her through. She shines on “Big D.”
In an interesting move, Emily Loesser sings the role of Rosabella. She is the daughter of Frank Loesser and his wife Jo Sullivan Loesser (who played the role originally). Her voice, however, lacks the warmth that her mother’s had. She strains in her upper register and the overall effect is rather thin. Familiar as I am with her mother’s portrayal, I miss her mother’s delivery of certain lines.
Louis Quilico may be an impressive opera singer, but in many of his songs he suffers from what my mother calls “the Cowardly Lion Syndrome”: too much vibrato. His notes are often imprecise, particularly in the title song, and in “How Beautiful the Days.” The latter is one of my favorite songs in the show, but it depends on razor sharp chord changes which were sloppy. Perhaps this was due to poor mixing, but the song is actually painful to listen to on this cd. On a positive note, Quilico and Emily Loesser sound wonderful together on “My Heart is So Full of You.”
Richard Muenz has a lovely, rich voice which is shown to its advantage in “Joey, Joey, Joey” but Don Stephenson all but kills “Standin’ on the Corner” with an overdone southern accent. It completely detracts from the song’s lyrics and harmony, which are such fun. Kristin Chenoweth is barely noticeable in her very small part. She hardly gets to sing at all.
Overall, the new recording disappoints. For curiosity's sake, it is interesting to hear Jo Sullivan Loesser sing “Wanting to Be Wanted,” which was never used in the show, but her voice sounds strained. The orchestra sounds best when it plays alone, especially during the overture, and this may be due to the mixing, which often seems unbalanced. Obviously, those making a studio recording have the opportunity to use only the finest voices and technology available, but this does not seem to have been the case. Though the additional material restored in this recording (which fills three CDs to the original’s two) may be of interest to scholars or admirers of Loesser and the show, for pure listening enjoyment, I'd stick with the original Broadway cast album.