ReDISCoveries: The Most Happy Fella
(2000 Studio Recording, Disc Two)
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 continue with a three-part series on the 2000 complete studio recording of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella. (Catch up with Part One HERE.)
This unique musical has often been described as operatic, and indeed many productions in recent decades have been undertaken by opera companies rather than theater groups. It’s certainly operatic in scale, requiring a large orchestra and chorus and some legitimate vocal chops for the romantic leads. It’s also operatic in texture, with wall-to-wall songs punctuated by only a few brief dialogue scenes. Substantial orchestral passages can be found not only at the start of each act, but sprinkled generously throughout the entire score.
However, I think it is the perspicacious use of several different musical styles that makes this show such a unique achievement. Some of the show’s most famous songs are in a quite traditional Broadway style, perhaps even a little “retro” for a musical that premiered in 1956. Most of the music for the comic supporting duo, Cleo and Herman, falls into this category, from the hilarious waitress’s lament “Ooh! My Feet,” to the classic “Standing on a Corner,” to their explosive duet in “Big D.” Far from being operatic, these songs wouldn’t sound out of place in a vaudeville show.
Another recurring musical style is the pseudo-Italianate vibe in songs like “Abbondanza,” written for Tony’s household staff, and the title song itself. Though this music is somewhat cliché, it quickly establishes both character and setting early in the show. Yet another style is assigned to Joe, whose music in “Joey, Joey, Joey” and “Don’t Cry” is full of restless longing and an erotic tension that will prove dangerous.
Of course, the central story of the developing love between Tony and Rosabella is told through songs that really can be called operatic, with their lush arrangements, late-Romantic dissonant touches, and oversized emotions. Songs like “Rosabella,” “How Beautiful the Days,” and, most especially, “My Heart Is So Full Of You” chronicle the pair’s growing affection for each other in grand style.
The show’s second act, discussed below, is all about this blossoming romance, which seems to be thriving despite the machinations of Tony’s sister, Marie. Unfortunately, at the end of the act, Rosabella discovers that she will not be able to leave her one-night affair with Joe in the past, as she had hoped to.
THE SONGS: DISC TWO
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.
Prelude to Act II: The second act begins where the first left off, with an insistent and portentous rising bass figure, reflecting the confusion that has led Rosabella (Emily Loesser) into the arms of Joe (Richard Muenz). It gives way to a grand but rather cold statement of the “I Don’t Know Nothing About You” theme that started the romance between her and Tony (Louis Quilico). Overall, this one-minute prelude is a succinct musical reminder of where things stand at the top of the act.
Fresno Beauties/Cold and Dead: The vineyard workers sing about coming home to the titular beauties in this energetic, Latin-tinged choral number. In probably the most jarring instance of the show’s repeated theatrical conceit - an abrupt, mid-phrase halt in the action so that central characters can sing what they’re feeling - Rosabella and Joe separately conclude that their interlude is now “cold and dead, dead and buried,” in a tense and strange duet that is really a double monologue.
Love and Kindness: Tony’s doctor (William Burden), who will play a significant role in the show’s climax, gets his own gentle solo here, suggesting that Tony enjoy his convalescence with his new bride rather than rushing his recovery from the first-act car accident.
Happy to Make Your Acquaintance: In the first of a pair of matched songs, Rosabella helps Tony learn some useful English phrases. The song is fun, the lyrics clever, and - most importantly - we sense that the clouds and confusion are starting to lift, and the new husband and wife are starting to like each other. Even better, Tony has sent for Rosabella’s waitress friend Cleo (Karen Ziemba) to keep her company.
I Don't Like This Dame: Tony’s sister Marie (Nancy Shade) tries to enlist Cleo’s support in opposing his union with Rosabella. Cleo, in another scene-stopping moment, tells us rather than her: “I don’t like this dame! I’m getting pains in my head. But since I’m company right now I guess I can’t suggest her dropping….”
Big D: In another of the show’s “hit songs,” Cleo and Herman (Don Stephenson) discover they have a hometown in common. With this traditional Tin Pan Alley-sounding song, a duet that develops into a full-on production number, the romantic future of our comic leads is secured.
*How Beautiful the Days: In one of the score’s loveliest and tenderest songs, Tony repays Rosabella for her English lesson (in “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance”) by teaching her how to say the days of the week in Italian. Unlike many musicals, which take for granted that the romantic leads are perfect for each other, this show is about two strangers gradually falling in love despite many obstacles. These two “teaching” songs are particularly vivid illustrations of their growing affection. The duet grows into a trio, and then a quartet, as Marie complains that “those two make me feel so lonely and sad,” while Joe decides to leave, singing “ya never been to New Mexico.” The vocal writing is gorgeous here.
Young People: The young people are dancing, and Marie is still spreading her poison: “Young people gotta dance, dance, dance… why should they bother with you and me?” Tony is trying not to take the bait: “Because they like us,” he replies, but Marie continues her attempts to undermine his relationship with Rosabella.
Warm All Over: Hoping to counter Marie’s toxicity, Rosabella assures Tony that she feels “warm all over, with a tender love for you,” in this short and seductive aria.
Old People: Nonetheless, sitting in his wheelchair but surrounded by young people dancing and celebrating, Tony thinks Marie is right: “Young people gotta live, live, live; old people gotta sit there and die.”
(There follows a book scene where Herman teaches Cleo how to paste labels to jars, her new job at the vineyard. This is the only scene that was cut from the Original Broadway Cast Recording, but it’s included on this set. I have to say that it’s a weird experience to listen to it without the accompanying visual gags, and without an audience to laugh at the vague innuendo.)
I Like Everybody: After Herman fails to stand up to bullying from a coworker, Cleo complains about his passivity, but he insists that nothing upsets him; he doesn’t care that he “strikes everybody as chump number one.”
I Love Him: Tony’s reluctance to treat Rosabella as a wife, a result of his sister’s sabotage, has begun to weigh on her. She complains about it to her friend Cleo, who urges her to talk to Tony: “Don’t tell me kid, tell him. Tell him exactly how! And like they say in a musical comedy, here he comes now!”
Like a Woman Loves a Man: Rosabella seizes on Cleo’s advice and, in this increasingly breathless transitional song, tells Tony that she wants to hold him “not like a child, but like a woman holds a man.”
**My Heart Is So Full of You: Rosabella’s successful pleadings lead directly to this duet, the ecstatic high-point of the “romantic/operatic” part of this epic score. “My wife, she’s a-love me now,” Tony sings joyfully, as Rosabella asks, “What other wish could I wish? What other plan could I plan?” For once, things seem perfect for our central couple.
Hoedown: The townspeople have gathered again to celebrate Tony and Rosabella’s union, now that he has recovered from his car accident and they are truly a married couple. Unfortunately, Rosabella has almost fainted from the activity; Tony’s doctor tells her she is pregnant, and she realizes that the baby must be Joe’s. She confides in Cleo who, for once, has nothing helpful to say.
*Mamma, Mamma: In this poignant prayer of a song, Tony expresses to his mother in heaven his happiness and pride in finding Rosabella: “How you like your dumb, funny-looking boy? He was wait-a so long. He’s a-find such joy.” Of course we know what Tony does not, that this state of joy won’t last long, another masterful use of dramatic irony. Both of the first two acts end on this kind of emotional cliffhanger, an excellent way to keep an audience invested in a sprawling show like this one.
Next time I will continue with the final CD of this three-disc recording, which includes the show’s final act and several cut songs.