Jeff has kindly invited me to revisit and review some of the older cast recordings in my collection. Every other week or so, I’ll write about a new CD, offering some general impressions followed by my thoughts about each individual song. This week I begin a three-part series on the 2000 complete studio recording of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella.
Having fallen in love with The Most Happy Fella decades ago through its recordings, I finally had the good fortune of seeing a well-performed, if bare-bones, production at the now defunct Dicapo Opera in New York in 2012. Two years later, we had the extreme pleasure of witnessing an absolutely sublime version of the show as part of New York City Center’s Encores! series. Although this musical is of course best appreciated on stage with a huge orchestra and ensemble, the preponderance of singing and music over spoken dialogue makes for a very satisfying listening experience.
Fortunately, although The Most Happy Fella isn’t performed particularly often, it is extraordinarily well-documented through two vivid recordings, each shepherded by legendary producers. The Original Broadway Cast Recording, from 1956, was produced by Goddard Lieberson, who insisted on preserving virtually the entire show, including dialogue - as rare an event then as it is now. Unfortunately for my 21st-century ears, it’s a mono recording. The newer set discussed here is the studio edition produced by John Yap, well known for his complete versions of classic musicals (I’ll get around to his Anyone Can Whistle sooner or later). This one is absolutely complete, including some cut songs as a bonus, and boasts music performed by the National Symphony Orchestra. (There’s also a truncated recording of the 1992 two-piano Broadway revival. I’ve listened to it and I know it has its admirers, but it’s just not the real thing for me.)
This week’s post covers Disc One of the recording, which contains the complete first act of the show. Tony, a middle-aged Italian immigrant who owns a Napa vineyard, has been courting a city-dwelling waitress he calls Rosabella; they have never met, only exchanged letters. Borrowing a photo from his attractive foreman Joe, he persuades her to come and marry him. When she arrives and finds that Tony is not who he claimed to be, she marries him anyhow, but her confusion leads her into an unfortunate coupling with Joe.
In the coming weeks I’ll address the remaining two discs in turn, and will offer some further thoughts on this unique show and its masterly score.
THE SONGS: DISC ONE
I use a star (*) to mark the songs I particularly like, and my overall favorite gets two stars (**). This recording includes spoken dialogue, and I’ve combined a few shorter musical segments, so this review doesn’t exactly follow the track listing on the CD.
Overture: The quality and lushness of this recording announce themselves with the first fanfare of this traditional potpourri overture, which deftly combines unusually brief snippets of the show’s major musical themes without sounding too disjointed.
*Ooh! My Feet!: We immediately know that San Francisco waitress Cleo (Karen Ziemba) is in a bad state from the dispiriting string vamps that begin this gem of a comic song. All of us who have worked in food service can commiserate with her as she offers a pointed update to “This Little Piggy.” The loud, discordant orchestral recapitulation after Ziemba’s glorious final note is a nice bonus.
I Know How It Is: Cleo and her best friend (Emily Loesser) - whose name we won’t know for a long time but who will soon go by “Rosabella” - do some further commiserating about their lecherous boss to some desultory recitative, as the latter discovers the amethyst tie-pin that sets the drama into motion.
My Dear Rosabella/I Don’t Know Noting About You: Now we hear the first hint of the Puccini-adjacent operatic style that will characterize the show’s central love story. It’s rather charming that this passage has the words of one of the pair (Tony) sung by the voice of the other (Rosabella), reading a note that he left with the pin. The little sudden orchestral bursts, retreating as quickly as they arise, succinctly evoke the letter-writer’s passion as well as his timidity, which will prove to be a prototypical tragic flaw.
**Maybe He's Kind-a Crazy/Somebody, Somewhere: In the jagged introduction, Rosabella considers replying to the note, to Cleo’s stern objections (“He could be… a small-town Jack the Ripper! To start with, he’s a lunatic of a tipper.”). Rosabella’s reply about “wanting to be wanted, needing to be needed,” set to the first of the show’s many lush, soaring love songs, leaves little doubt that Cleo’s warnings will fall on deaf ears. At this point I should mention one of the great features of this score: most of the songs, like this one, are very concise, making their point in two or three laser-focused minutes and coming to a satisfying end before they have a chance to overstay their welcome.
The Most Happy Fella: The action switches to Napa Valley, where Tony (Louis Quiliico) revels in his ongoing postal romance with Rosabella. I have to admit that these brash Italian-sounding pastiches, like something out of a vintage Olive Garden commercial, aren’t my favorite part of the score, but they quickly establish Tony’s character, and Quilico’s voice is a superb fit.
I Don’t Know Noting About Her: Tony answers his sister Marie’s (Nancy Shade) objection to the long-distance romance with this fuller statement of the sentiment first expressed in his letter to Rosabella. The interplay between Tony’s stratospheric melody and Marie’s earthbound recitative is used to great dramatic effect here.
Standing on the Corner: In this classic of pure musical comedy, Tony’s employees, led by Herman (Don Stephenson), lament that they’re stuck “watching all the girls go by.” The lyrics do most of the work here: I can offer no improvement on the maximally pithy “brother, you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking.”
*Joey, Joey, Joey: Tony’s foreman Joe (Richard Muenz) is ready to move on from the vineyard, as is his way. His languid, longing music is a powerful match for the evocative imagery of the lyrics (“the wind blows in the bunkhouse like a perfumed woman, smellin’ of where she’s been”). You know who this character is and what he wants from life in the first few lines.
Soon You Gonna Leave Me, Joe: This is a bit of a throwaway musically, but it’s necessary for the story: Tony needs to get a picture of the much more handsome Joe for the purpose of deceiving Rosabella so that she’ll come and marry him.
*Rosabella: After a quick prayer of forgiveness to his mother, Tony expresses his fears and his excitement at meeting Rosabella in this brisk, bright waltz. Tony’s actions early in the show must have seemed just as shady to the show’s first audiences as they certainly do now; Loesser’s music and lyrics do the hard work necessary for us to root for him anyhow, and this song is the perfect example of that.
Abbondanza: In another high-energy Italianate number, household staff prepare for the next day’s wedding celebration for Tony and Rosabella, who hasn’t even arrived yet. (It’s unclear whether any Celeste pizzas were served.)
Plenty Bambini: Setting himself up for an impending fall, Tony sees his neighbor’s kids and imagines his own family life with Rosabella. This is another song that helps persuade us to wish the best for him despite his subterfuge.
Sposalizio: “All the neighbors and all the neighbors’ neighbors” join forces for this stirring production number. By this time we’ve learned that Joe - whose likeness Tony has passed off to Rosabella as his own - will be staying for the wedding; this song drips of dramatic irony, as the townspeople joyfully anticipate an event that we (and Tony) know will be a clusterfuck.
I Seen Her at the Station: In this brief, dryly comic number, we learn that no one has met Rosabella at the train station, leaving the postman to bring her to Tony’s vineyard.
Benvenuta: Tony’s staff welcome Rosabella, with Tony inconveniently present to translate their Italian greetings. We don’t hear from Rosabella yet, but her sense of confusion is palpable, signaled especially by a churning two-note motive that will soon return at the end of the act.
Such Friendly Faces: In halting phrases, Rosabella introduces herself to Joe, who she thinks is Tony. The words and music here border dangerously on the seductive (“tell me, aren’t you glad I’m here, you know, here beside you?”), before Joe realizes what’s going on and tells her the truth.
No Home, No Job: To a swirling accompaniment reminiscent of the theme from Vertigo, Rosabella realizes what she’s gotten herself into, forced to marry an “old man” who we now learn has been severely injured in a car accident. This is one of several moments in the show where the action freezes momentarily to allow a character to react to a difficult situation. It’s not exactly a novel theatrical device, but I think it’s used judiciously here.
*Don't Cry: After a quick ceremony, Rosabella is married to the laid-up Tony, but Joe is the only one available to comfort her after a confusing day - which he accomplishes with his characteristically scorching music and lyrics. As the orchestra intones that menacing two-note phrase ever more insistently, Joe leads Rosabella inside the house to the act’s inevitable conclusion.
Next time I will continue with Disc Two of this three-disc recording.