ReDISCoveries: The Most Happy Fella
(2000 Studio Recording, Disc Three)
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 conclude a three-part series on the 2000 complete studio recording of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella.
The Most Happy Fella also boasts one of the most emotionally complex and thematically coherent plots of any musical I’m aware of. Comical Italian accents aside, the show somehow just rings true, with a love story fully grounded in reality - something which is not true of many musicals, even objectively great ones. And though there are plenty of things about the show that could be called old-fashioned (probably even for 1956), the plot and the characters feel very modern, reacting to joy and heartache in familiar ways. Maybe “timeless” is a better word for it than “modern.”
In the third act, discussed below, Tony learns that Rosabella is pregnant with Joe’s child, conceived on their wedding night, but he comes to understand her mistake and therefore to forgive it. Nonetheless, this would seem to be a very unstable way to start a life together - can Tony really trust her, and can she ever really shake off the suspicion that he still resents her for what happened? The show deals with this question head-on by emphasizing the symmetry between Rosabella’s mistake and a series of early mistakes that Tony made, setting the stage for her one-night stand. As he himself points out, he sowed confusion and desperation by sending her Joe’s picture instead of his own; before that, he didn’t even have the courage to talk to her when he first saw her in the restaurant. Together they address these lapses by replaying what should have been their first meeting; we finally learn that Rosabella is really Amy, and the show leaves us confident that their marriage will be a successful one.
The recording concludes with six songs which were cut at various stages of the show’s development (some were later restored for certain productions). Although all were cut for a reason, it’s not due to lack of quality: with maybe one exception, all are as good as the rest of the songs in the show. Three of them focus on Tony’s sister Marie, and their inclusion would have turned her into a fully fleshed-out character rather than the cookie-cutter semi-villain we see in the existing show. But in a musical that’s already about three hours long, I suppose something had to give!
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 / Abbondanza (reprise): The act begins with a brisk recapitulation of the music that began the first act (which is, incidentally, not part of any song in the score), followed by a return of Tony’s Italian staff preparing for a “real” celebration of the marriage of Tony (Louis Quilico) and Rosabella (Emily Loesser). The following book scene includes some very beautiful and dramatic underscoring.
I Like Everybody: Cleo’s (Karen Ziemba) impatience with Herman’s (Don Stephenson) passivity reaches an inflection point here. This isn’t my favorite song in the score, but the recitative leading up to it is nice, and this version incorporates some clever counterpoint between the two.
*Song of a Summer Night: Tony’s doctor (William Burden) knows that Tony and Rosabella need to talk, so he leads Tony’s staff for a walk into town. The doctor may be a tertiary character, but Loesser manages to give him two very gentle, lovely songs, counting the first verse of this one, which then develops into a gorgeous choral number that wouldn’t be out of place in a church. “It’s a kind of lovers’ music,” as they all aptly sing, though we know that their friends’ love is about to be tested.
**Please Let Me Tell You: Tony has thrown Rosabella out after she admits to carrying Joe’s child, but first she offers her apologies in this extraordinary melodramatic aria. Her short phrases are repeatedly interrupted by fortissimo orchestral outbursts that express her anguish more effectively than any words ever could. I don’t think anything quite like it has been heard on stage before or since.
In the scene that follows, Joe is preparing to leave town; he bids farewell with an affecting mixture of dialogue and his unique style of music.
She Gonna Come Home Wit’ Me: The drama reaches a climax here as Rosabella also arrives at the bus station to head back to San Francisco; Tony comes in thinking she is leaving to be with Joe, who he intends to kill; but seeing that she’s leaving on her own, pregnant and with nowhere to go, he of course decides to forgive. The underscoring is again very beautiful and effective in this crucial scene, which continues to drift between spoken dialogue and brief sung segments in the style of the bench scene from Carousel.
I Made a Fist: This brief song happily concludes the Cleo/Herman storyline as he impresses her by finally standing up for himself.
I Canno’ Leave You Money:Tony will raise the child as his own, but Rosabella - who we now find out is really Amy - fears he will always resent her. He assures her this is not the case by taking his own share of the blame, and together they decide to begin again by re-enacting a better version of their meeting in San Francisco.
Finale: The long-delayed celebration of our central couple’s love is finally taking place, and in this brisk finale we’re treated to a lovely recapitulation of “My Heart is So Full of You” and the title song.
Exit Music: I could listen all day to this suite of all the big numbers from this singular score. This was back when the exit music really did last long enough for the audience to leave the theater!
House and Garden: This pretty little introspective song for Rosabella, in which she tells Cleo about her domestic dreams à la “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” certainly matches the rest of her music in the show. Clearly from the first scene of the show set in San Francisco, apparently it’s been cut and put back in and cut again over the decades. My feeling is that its inclusion probably would delay the real start of the drama too significantly to be worthwhile.
Tony and Marie Duet / Nobody’s Gonna Love You Like I Love You: This is a greatly extended version of a scene from the first act of the show between Tony and his sister Marie (Nancy Shade), before he decides to send Joe’s photo to Rosabella. We certainly get a fuller picture of Marie’s personality, and her love and concern for her brother, rather than the jealousy and bitterness that comes across in the show in its final form. With so much else going on in the show, I can see why Loesser decided not to spend so much time developing another character.
Eyes Like a Stranger: This matching aria for Marie from later in the first act would have further helped flesh out her character, and these songs certainly give the singer some elaborate and challenging music to sing. It’s not surprising to learn that this material has been included in some opera-house versions of the show.
Is it Fair?: This is yet another passage centered on Marie, this time showing off her more familiar resentment as she encourages Tony to get his marriage annulled. Apparently this scene was cut early on and never seen on stage.
I’ll Buy Everybody a Beer: This Act Three song for the doctor was replaced by “Song of a Summer Night.” In this case, I have no qualms saying Loesser made the right decision, because the moment calls for the serene beauty of that song rather than this more boisterous one.
*Wanting to Be Wanted: This beautiful aria for Rosabella was replaced by “Somebody Somewhere,” which is thematically similar but much warmer in tone. Sung here by Jo Sullivan Loesser (above center) - the original Rosabella and the composer’s widow, still in fine voice here - this song foreshadows the dramatic musical landscape of “Please Let Me Tell You.”