Let’s Take It Outside: The Expansive Musical World of ‘The Most Happy Fella’ by David Rohde
You can set a musical just about anywhere, and Frank Loesser certainly did that. In Guys and Dolls, Nathan Detroit fails to secure a spot for the craps game, and the gamblers head down to the New York City sewers for “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.” In How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the executives of World Wide Wicket take their electric shavers into the men’s washroom while Finch gazes into the mirror and sings a love song to himself, “I Believe In You.”
It’s in Loesser’s musical magnum opus that the doors instead fly open to the great outdoors on the other side of the country. The Most Happy Fella is a pastoral celebration of California’s Napa Valley, set in a world with neither subterranean grime nor high-rise office politics. It’s replete with food and fresh air and any excuse for a party, with much the same atmosphere as My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
To present this world, Loesser composed his largest score, a semi-operatic mélange of Puccini-esque duets and trios, gently comedic waltzes and tarantellas, and plot-heavy song segments that foreshadow today’s through-composed musicals, all interspersed with classic verse-and-refrain Broadway ballads and pure showbiz production numbers.
If The Most Happy Fella, which I have the honor of conducting for The Arlington Players this April, is a little difficult to place at first, that’s probably due to the contradictions in Frank Loesser’s life and work. Loesser only wrote five Broadway shows, but that’s largely because he spent the first half of his career in Hollywood, where he was primarily a lyricist for other composers, and he died early at age 59 of lung cancer.
Loesser’s musical upbringing probably helped determine this path from the outset. Loesser’s father was a noted classical piano teacher and his older half-brother, Arthur Loesser, was a famous concert pianist of the time. But Frank gravitated to popular music and Tin Pan Alley, and he never took piano lessons from his father or anyone else. Instead he simply absorbed the classical background from his surroundings until it was time to employ it for The Most Happy Fella a few decades later.
The result may have been a truncated Broadway career, but it also produced lyrics for more than 100 movies and a rash of songs that could lead other songwriters to say in later Loesser retrospectives, “Oh, he wrote that too?” Among them were “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” “The Moon of Manakoora,” and “Two Sleepy People.” Loesser was even responsible for the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s impossible-to-forget (and now perpetually annoying) piano-practice anthem “Heart and Soul.” That also fooled Loesser’s daughter Susan Loesser when she went to write her father’s biography, A Most Remarkable Fella. “I never knew my father wrote “Heart and Soul,” she quipped in the book. “I thought whoever wrote Chopsticks wrote it.”
That same shock of recognition is bound to come for audiences in The Most Happy Fella, one of the biggest of the I-Didn’t-Know-That-Song-Came-From-This Show shows. “Standing on the Corner” became a staple of barbershop quartets and “guy groups” after the show’s initial Broadway run. “Joey, Joey, Joey” and “Don’t Cry” became standards for Johnny Mathis and other crooners. “Somebody Somewhere” went straight into the soprano ballad songbook. Song titles like “Big D,” “How Beautiful the Days,” and “My Heart Is So Full of You” may only ring a distant bell until you hear them in the theater and the melodies pour out.
Running throughout the songs in The Most Happy Fella is the arc of the agricultural year, with the story’s protagonist being a successful vineyard owner. The characters sing of Oregon cherries, Texas avocados, a variety of grape called Fresno Beauties, and a wine called Malaga Red. An Italian trio joyously brings out supplies for a wedding party and announces their arrival as frutti (fruits), fiori (flowers), and formaggio (cheeses), while the townspeople happily report “the smell of mozzarella in the air.” These folks sing of themselves as “all the neighbors, and all the neighbors’ neighbors,” which may be a sly nod by Loesser to Gilbert & Sullivan and the H.M.S. Pinafore chorus of “his sisters and his cousins and his aunts.” The lengthening days of the growing season and the earlier night onset of the harvest contribute to the tension of the story, taken from a play by Sidney Howard called They Knew What They Wanted.
Of course The Most Happy Fella is a musical, and as in so many musicals, the 10-word description of the plot – “a mail-order bride is duped into marrying the wrong guy” – begs for more context. But in that way it’s no different than the last musical on which I collaborated with my dear friend, the director Gloria DuGan, when the thumbnail description of the plot was “a woman has one too many children so she sells one to her boss,” belying the overall impact of the former Elden Street Players’ 2006 production of Blood Brothers.
Here in the original play, a San Francisco waitress accepts a mail-order marriage proposal to go to Napa, but the resulting complications are a foil for an extended discussion about labor and management in agriculture and industry. In Loesser’s reworking of They Knew What They Wanted, a waitress whose real name we never know until the end of the show (because she plays along with the vineyard owner’s fantasy that her name is “Rosabella”) becomes a much greater focus of the story after traveling to Napa, and the emotional developments result in the classic “main couple plus comic couple” formula for Broadway musicals. Is there a happy ending? Maybe the title The Most Happy Fella gives you a clue, although 10 minutes from the end of the show you might have reason to doubt it.
In recent years, The Most Happy Fella has become identified with the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, whose 1991 production became the Broadway revival and whose recent fall 2013 production exuded tremendous energy and positivity even from characters whose lines read as hard-edged on the page. In a touching portion of Susan Loesser’s biography of her father, she relates how after his death in 1969 his name faded from popular consciousness until suddenly in the early 1990s – around the time of the Goodspeed revival and a restaging of Guys and Dolls on Broadway – it popped back to prominence. She knew it for sure when the receptionist at her optometrist’s office asked if her name was pronounced the same as Frank Loesser’s.
With our upcoming 2014 production, Gloria and I and the team at TAP are thrilled to help further the legacy of Frank Loesser and bring the zest of The Most Happy Fella back to the D.C. metro area. We look forward to seeing you there!
David Rohde has conducted numerous musicals in the Washington area, including Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. David enjoys vocal and instrumental arranging, piano accompaniment for singers, keyboard work in orchestra pits, and watching actors and musicians he’s worked with “make it” when they pursue a performing arts career. David is a six-time nominee and two-time recipient of the WATCH Award for Outstanding Musical Direction.