ON THE RECORD: A Most Happy Happy Fella and Fynsworth's New Sondheim

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: A Most Happy Happy Fella and Fynsworth's New Sondheim THE MOST HAPPY FELLA (Jay CDJAY3 1306)

THE MOST HAPPY FELLA (Jay CDJAY3 1306)

I tend to avoid discussions of "best" musicals, as it makes little sense to comparatively grade one thing that is perfect (or nearly so) with another of the same quality. However, three not dissimilar shows share a special place in my regard: Carousel, the original cast album of which has just been happily remastered; She Loves Me; and The Most Happy Fella. The "First Complete Recording" of Frank Loesser's "Musical Musical" has now been issued in a three-CD set by Jay Records.

It can be tricky going into a studio with a thrown-together group of actors -- even those who have appeared in various productions of the piece -- and expect to surpass one of Broadway's all-time best original cast albums. Columbia Record producer Goddard Lieberson saw fit to treat the 1956 Most Happy Fella like an opera, recording the entire show (on three LPs) instead of restricting the score to forty-five minutes worth of selections. The show was recorded in monaural -- Columbia didn't start recording in stereo until a few months later -- but it remains a gem of a recording.

If the Most Happy original cast -- and the original cast album -- are unsurpassable, this new recording is very much in the same league. There is, inevitably, a (very) slight falling off in the cast, but Jay makes up for it in some very important ways. Opera singer Louis Quilico, who died this summer, makes a more than adequate Tony. He's hard to judge, in that Robert Weede's Americanized Italian is so ingrained in my ears that I'm thrown by a real Italian accent. Quilico hits all his notes, though, and seems effective. The true challenge of this score is in the casting of Rosabella, and I was a bit concerned that the part went -- somewhat understandably -- to Emily Loesser. Emily is a fine performer in her own right, but could she handle this difficult role? And how could she hope to overshadow Jo Sullivan's performance in the original?

In the first draft of what Loesser called "Project Three," he described his heroine: "She is as pretty a girl as Equity has to offer. She may even be beautiful." I don't suppose he imagined that the girl in question was to become the second Mrs. Loesser, and he would no doubt have been even more surprised -- but delighted -- to find a child of his singing Rosabella's songs of yearning. (The first Mrs. Loesser, who coproduced Fella, found Jo Sullivan -- just then playing the ingenue in the off Broadway Threepenny Opera -- and cast her in the role.) Jo's Rosabella was a girl who had been around, world weary enough to settle for a mail-order marriage. (This is also how Pauline Lord played the role in Sidney Howard's 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, They Knew What They Wanted). Emily's Rosabella is something else, again; a tender and shy girl who wants to be wanted, needs to be needed. Hers is a more nurturing Rosabella. Jo's liaison with the ranch-hand Joey was unavoidable from the moment they meet, and seems to be mutual; Emily's seems more of an outright seduction. Jo, in the second act, was surprised to find herself wanting her much older, half-illiterate husband "like a woman wants a man." Emily seems shocked -- and almost embarrassed -- by the strength of her passion. By changing her character's underlying motivations, Emily Loesser has managed to give us a very different but equally viable Rosabella. A lovely performance. She is not competing with her mother, nor is she altering her father's material; she is giving her own performance and simultaneously adding luster to the family jewel. Guys and Dolls is the meal-ticket, but Fella is Frank at his finest. Richard Muenz makes a first-rate Joey. As much as crooner Art Lund sparked the original with his "Hit Parade" voice, Muenz not only sings but acts, and thus gets the edge. Emily's husband Don Stephenson is on hand as Herman, the patsy from Dallas. This is a role that he is not entirely suited for. Compounding concern is that he shares the "Standing on the Corner" scene with Guy Stroman -- a fine Herman in the Goodspeed production, who has an authentic, ten-gallon Texas accent; thus, you're not sure which speaker is the principal. Stephenson recovers in his next scene, though, and ends up doing quite nicely in the role. Where this recording is lacking is in the absence of Susan Johnson, the original Cleo. Karen Ziemba plays the role -- she was in the 1991 New York City Opera production, with Quilico -- and her performance is certainly more than adequate, with equal parts of humor and frustration. But Susan Johnson was what you might call superhuman in the role, and how do you compete with that? (The clarion-voiced Johnson -- the quintessential Meg Brockie in Brigadoon -- followed Most Happy Fella with leading roles in four consecutive flops, then vanished from Broadway altogether in 1961. Gone, but thanks to a handful of old cast albums never to be forgotten.)

Another surprise is Nancy Shade as Tony's jealous sister Marie. The liner notes explain that Marie is so much more noticeable here than previously due to the restoration of her cut material in the addendum on the third disc. I disagree; I was already impressed with Shade in Act Two, before I heard the deletions. This is the first human, three-dimensional Marie I've ever come across, and she gives the other performers something to work against.

Conductor John Owen Edwards, producer John Yap, and music coordinator Larry Moore had the full Columbia recording to use as their guide and appear to have consciously adhered to every decision made in 1956 by Loesser, orchestrator Don Walker, and musical director/vocal arranger Herbie Greene. This might seem the obvious course to take, but it is all too rare. So the score is performed pretty much like it was on the original recording -- except that modern technology has allowed exceptional sound quality. You can now really submerge yourself in Walker's lushly emotional tapestry, featuring achingly yearning strings and those muted French horns evocative of the Napa Valley (Broadway-style). Walker -- one of Broadway's unsung craftsmen -- is the common denominator between Fella, Carousel, and She Loves Me. The sound also makes a measurable difference on the two important contrapuntal pieces. I never had more than a passing interest in "How Beautiful the Days," but it becomes a highlight of the score now that you can hear it. The quartet section, which previously sounded pretty muddy, is fascinatingly rich. ("How beautiful the days could be -- without her around the place," sings Marie.) Similarly, the trio section of "Tony's Thoughts (She's Gonna Come Home Wid Me)" intricately weaves Tony, Marie and Cleo with the wonderful orchestra. (Did Frank pattern this after the trio section of George and Ira Gershwin's "Oh, Bess, Oh Where's My Bess?," which performs a similar function in a similar spot?)

Devoted fans of the score might well have marvelled over some richly exquisite strands of melody that Loesser seemed to waste in his extended musical scenes. Marie's "Nobody's Ever Gonna Love You Like I Love You," for example, or the piningly beautiful strains heard in the strings while Rosabella sings during "Please Let Me Tell You I Love You." We now discover that these are full numbers in their own right, cut prior to the Broadway opening. Jay gives us six bonus tracks, which fans of the show are definitely going to want to hear. They make for fascinating listening, and are instructive in demonstrating how an existing scene can be cut and whittled during the tryout -- in this case leaving those orphaned bits of melody. The additions add a half an hour onto the playing time of the 1956 version. This is not, technically, a "complete recording" of Loesser's score. In the first scene alone, the Cashier had a pickup song ("How's About Tonight?") and Rosabella had a number -- with a trio of waitresses named Myrna, Meri, and Martha -- pondering which customer might have left her the love letter. ("He might be the tongue and spinach/or he might be the Friday Special.") However, I have no complaints; I am thrilled by the inclusion of what seem to be the key deletions. Jo Sullivan Loesser herself sings the final track -- "Wanting to Be Wanted," a precursor to "Somebody, Somewhere" -- forty-six years after first creating the role. She's pretty good, too, although it's to Emily's credit that Jo's Rosabella does not haunt this recording. And Frank's credit, too.

Jay Records has produced about twenty of these "complete" musicals, with varying results. This Happy Fella -- like last year's 110 in the Shade, also with Ziemba and Muenz -- is most welcome. If you love this score, you'll want this new recording for the sound and the cut material, which makes Loesser's vision whole. If you've never heard this score -- or, worse, if you are only familiar with the denuded two-piano version -- then you owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it.

THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM ALBUM (Fynsworth Alley FA-2101-SE)

Record producer Bruce Kimmel started a small label named Bay Cities in 1989, quickly attracting serious musical theatre enthusiasts by issuing CDs of neglected musicals like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Celebration, Golden Boy, and Chicago. This was an important step; Capitol Records, which licensed the first three, immediately thereafter changed their minds and decided to transfer their entire cast album catalogue to CD. Kimmel's license agreements expired, and so did Bay Cities. He moved to Varese Sarabande, a label specializing in soundtracks, and over six years turned out almost one hundred theatre-related albums. Varese recently decided to move away from theatre, leaving Kimmel to start a new label of his own. Fynsworth Alley it is called, and their premiere release has just arrived.

Most of Kimmel's albums fell into distinct categories: solo albums by theatre personalities; composer anthology albums, featuring multiple theatre personalities; and cast albums of (usually) smaller musicals. At least eight of his Varese albums featured the work of Stephen Sondheim, so it seems fitting that he has started Fynsworth with yet another Sondheim album, called The Stephen Sondheim Album. But what, possibly can he still find to record?

Plenty, it turns out. Kimmel cannily starts off with Brent Barrett doing a smashing job on "Make the Most of Your Music," which makes you immediately forget that this is yet another songwriter anthology album. This song is presumably unfamiliar to most listeners; it was heard only in Mike Okrent's London production of Follies (where it served as Ben's final number, in place of "Life, Laugh, Love"). There follow two familiar but well-performed songs from Anyone Can Whistle -- sung by Jane Krakowski and Liz Callaway -- and the album is off to a great start. Most of the songs are well known to Sondheim fans in their original cast performances, but Kimmel carefully matches the material to members of his stock company of singers. There are enough enjoyable tracks that I won't mention them all. Standing out, though, are Michele Pawk's "It Wasn't Meant to Happen," a stunning beauty cut from Follies; an energetic "Giants in the Sky" by Brian D'Arcy James; an arresting "Children Will Listen" from Ruthie Henshall; and a medley of "With So Little to Be Sure Of" and "Who Could Be Blue?" by Norm Lewis. There's some truly beautiful Sondheim here, folks.

Todd Ellison does a fine job conducting. Orchestrator David Siegel is not so fortunate, working under an immense handicap: Most of us have Jonathan Tunick's originals drilled into our memory, so we miss all those colorful Tunick touches (like the trumpets punctuating "Another Hundred People" with bits of "Bobby, Baby"). Siegel's work is all right, mostly; it's just that our ears hear what's not there. The best arrangements are the ones that stray from the originals, like the "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow"/"Not a Day Goes By" medley (well sung by Christiane Noll). Lea DeLaria takes a whole new approach to "Broadway Baby," with surprisingly effective results (orchestrated by Brad Ellis).

The one truly jarring note comes from Dame Edna, who contributed an amusing "Ladies Who Lunch" to the 1999 London benefit Sondheim Tonight. That's all well and good, but applying the same treatment to "Losing My Mind" -- among Sondheim's most tenderly heart-breaking songs -- seems to be the wrong direction to take. Certainly, it ain't pretty and it ain't especially funny. Perhaps the Australian megastar -- an original cast member of Lionel Bart's Oliver! and Maggie May -- should turn to Bart's songbook; rumor has it that the pair were old drinking buddies. "As Long As He Needs Me," "Where Is Love?," "When Does the Ravishing Begin?" -- these seem more up Dame Edna's alley (or Fynsworth's Alley). I'm afraid that her assault on "Losing My Mind" stands out negatively, but I suppose it was worth a try. Kimmel is selling this album, initially, online only (at www.fynsworthalley.com). It will eventually reach the stores, but website customers get a bonus track of "I Must Be Dreaming," heralded as the first recorded performance of one of Sondheim's earliest songs. It is that, coming from the 1949 Williams College musical All That Glitters. I find the song of marginal note, although the adventurous bridge informs us that this is no ordinary teenaged composer. (My favorite early Sondheim song was written when he was eighteen, "How Do I Know?" from the 1948 Phinney's Rainbow. It remains unrecorded, so far as I know, but I imagine someday someone will get around to it.) There is also a "hidden" track, a nightmarish sixties' sister-group version of Company's "I'm Not Getting Married" (also arranged by Ellis). This one is so bad that it's good; deliriously funny, in fact. Unlike Kimmel's previous "hidden tracks," this one is clearly among the album's highlights.

Checking out the Fynesworth website, you'll find that Kimmel has brought over most of his Varese catalogue. If you join the no-commitment, no cost Fynesworth club, it seems that you can buy any of them -- the old discs, not the new issues like the Sondheim Album -- for a ridiculously low price. This includes the Lost in Boston albums, the Unsung Sondheim and Unsung Berlin, and all those personality albums. It also includes some little-known but intriguing cast albums which you might not have, like Flaherty & Ahrens's Lucky Stiff, Schmidt and Jones's Colette Collage, and Doug Cohen's No Way to Treat a Lady, as well as the studio recording of Drat, the Cat. So you might want to take a look.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com