HAPPY TO MAKE THE MOST HAPPY FELLA’S REACQUAINTANCE
So have you heard the plot of Edward Sakamoto’s FISHING FOR WIVES which The Pan Asian Repertory Theatre opens on April 5?
The press release says “Nishi, tired of life as a single fisherman, sends for a picture bride from his native Japan but includes a photo of his handsome friend in his place. The bride arrives and falls in love with the wrong bachelor.”
Can’t wait to hear such songs as “Big T (little O, little K-Y-O),” “Joey-san, Joey-san, Joey-san,” “Bowing in the Corner (bowing as the girls go by)” and, of course, “The Most Happy and Honorable Fella.”
No, we won’t hear those, for FISHING FOR WIVES isn’t a musical. Neither was Sidney Howard’s THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED, his 1924 play (and 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winner) that got to this plot first.
But Frank Loesser, between his opening GUYS AND DOLLS in 1950 and debuting THE MOST HAPPY FELLA in 1956, created the book, music and lyrics for a musical version – unless you consider this 41-song extravaganza an opera.
Loesser didn’t. As he famously said, “It’s a musical with a lotta music.” Indeed: Tony – the original Nishi who’s a California vintner -- has six solos and appears in nine other numbers. Rosabella (née Amy), the lass whom he dupes with a more attractive photo of his foreman Joe, has six solos too and sings in five other songs. But the reason that many regard the show as a genuine opera is that the music often reaches lofty heights. We’ll hear it all at Encores! from April 2-6.
Too bad Ricky, Lucy, Ethel and Fred still aren’t around to get to City Center, for back on March 25, 1957 they weren’t able to see the entire THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. Oh, Lucy had long in advance sent for tickets, but when the big day came, she noticed during dinner that the four tickets in her hand were for that afternoon’s already-finished matinee.
The four rushed to the Imperial (whose actual marquee was shown for a couple of seconds). There they found that they could get two last minute cancellations and be seated in a box. “The girls” would see the first act, and “the boys” the second. “I wonder what the story’s all about,” Ricky mused, to which Fred said, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. The guy is not married.” When Ricky asked why, Fred drolly said, “Look at the title,” as the camera panned to the mounted three-sheet.
Atop that title was the then-influential Walter Winchell’s quotation “A most happy smash!” It was, although it had the misfortune to open a mere 51 days after a bigger smash: MY FAIR LADY. Everything else took a back seat to “the musical of the century.” THE MOST HAPPY FELLA got six Tony nominations and won nary a one.
That didn’t stop Ethel from cooing, “Oh, that Frank Loesser music is great!” as she and Lucy swooned after the first act ended with “Standing on the Corner” (at least in this episode; in the actual show, it comes midway through Act One). Lucy then noticed that the two seats behind them were empty and hatched a quintessentially Lucy-like plan: “We’ll just stroll back in with the crowd,” she told Ethel. “We still have our programs in our hands; nobody will stop us.”
And so, the American public learned about the time-honored practice of “second-acting.” In the middle of “Joey, Joey, Joey,” Lucy and Ethel indeed strolled in and sat behind Ricky and Fred. The former was aghast at the ruse, while the latter felt that they had after all paid for four tickets.
Lucy filled them in on the plot. “This guy here?” she said, presumably pointing to Tony. “He isn’t married.” Deadpanned Fred, “What did I tell you?”
All was well until the opening bars of “Don’t Cry,” when the latecomers entered. That displaced Lucy and Ethel and greatly impaired their enjoying “Big D” and the rest of the show.
And why didn’t The Ricardos and the Mertzes choose MY FAIR LADY instead? Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had actually invested in THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. Charity begins at home and in the Napa Valley.
But in its own way, Loesser’s show is as spectacular as Lerner and Loewe’s. We all have our values when we name the most beautiful songs in Broadway musicals, but mine has long been “I Don’t Know (Nothin’ about You),” Tony’s musing about his loneliness and need to marry. Loesser and orchestrator Don Walker must have felt similarly, for they made it the main theme of the overture.
Not far behind in representation was the title tune. This served as a nice warm-up for what audiences soon heard, after Amy had responded to Tony’s note. His vineyard workers were all on hand when the mailman arrived with her letter -- as well as missives for Farnsworth, Van Pelt, Sullivan and Herbie Greene. Of the last-named, the mailman freely asked, “Say, who’s Pearl?” thanks to a forthright postcard. These were inside jokes, for all the names were associated with the production: Ralph Farnsworth (Cook; Bus Driver), Lois Van Pelt (Neighbor Lady), Jo Sullivan (Rosabella) and Herbie Greene (musical director), who at the time was actually dating a woman named Pearl.
The emphasis on these two songs in the overture was all the more remarkable when one considers that the show had three songs that would soon be much-recorded hits: “Standing on the Corner,” sung by Tony’s lusty vineyard employees; “Joey, Joey, Joey,” in which Tony’s handsome foreman mused about himself in the third person and expressed his wanderlust to leave the vineyard (which is why Tony sent the stud’s picture instead of his own); and the song in which Tony’s employee Herman and Amy’s friend Cleo discovered they had a granfalloon because they both hailed from “Big D (little A, double-L, A-S).”
Yes, many an overture has neglected to included songs that would eventually become hits: BYE BYE BIRDIE missed “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” while “Together Wherever We Go” isn’t in GYPSY’S overture – although I suspect nobody’s going to complain about the way that overture turned out. Still, Loesser may have been afraid that he’d put his audience in too much of a musical comedy mood if he included these three, for a rather serious musical play was about to follow (which is another reason why some consider the show an opera – and others a musical soap opera).
Thanks to Loesser’s pruning, listening to the dialogue is a much easier experience than it was in Howard’s play. Howard had included an inordinate number of speeches about labor vs. management, as a 1976 Broadway revival showed. In that production, playing Joe to Louis Zorich’s Tony and Lois Nettleton’s Rosabella was Barry Bostwick in what might well have been his first job after playing Denton native Brad Majors in you-know-what.
Isn’t it interesting that a musical about a May-December romance originally opened in May and closed in December? Not that same year, nicely enough. THE MOST HAPPY FELLA opened on May 3, 1956 and didn’t close until Dec. 14, 1957. That meant 676 performances, enough to make it one of the 20 longest-running book musicals up to that time.
What’s really remarkable is that Columbia Record producer Goddard Lieberson waxed THE MOST HAPPY FELLA on three long-playing records, and included most every note of music and virtually all the dialogue. True, the sheer amount of music and number of songs would have required more than one disc. But Lieberson could have opted to put the songs alone on two records. His recording the show virtually word-for-word was the greatest compliment that a musical could get – especially one that had lost more Tonys than any musical had up to that time.
Here at Encores! we’ll have two Tony-winners. Laura (GYPSY) Benanti will play Rosebella to Shuler (OKLAHOMA!) Hensley’s Tony. Two-time Drama Desk nominee and Theatre World Award winner Cheyenne Jackson will portray Joey and Heidi Blickenstaff is readying her Cleo. Won’t we all be happy re-acquaint ourselves with them and this Loesser masterpiece?
— Peter Filichia