"Warm All Over": The Most Happy Fella Composer Frank Loesser's Musical Achievement

By Rob Berman
30 Mar 2014

Frank Loesser
Frank Loesser

Rob Berman, the music director of Encores!, provides a background of the musical The Most Happy Fella, which begins performances at City Center April 2.

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"Passionate." "Melodious." "Operatic." "Rich." "Ambitious." "Torrid." "Inventive." "Gorgeous." "Overwhelming."

These are some of the words critics have used to describe Frank Loesser's impressive and demanding score for The Most Happy Fella, a score which has inspired Encores! to present one of our largest productions to date, featuring a 38-piece orchestra as well as a 38-member cast. Since the show's debut in 1956, much has been written about the score's heterogeneous nature: Musical comedy songs coexist with soaring, romantic arias. A grand hybrid of a show, it draws on traditions as diverse as opera and Tin Pan Alley and has provoked much debate about how exactly it should be categorized.



After his monumental success with Guys and Dolls in 1950, Loesser chose to adapt the 1924 Sidney Howard play They Knew What They Wanted, and this time he would write the libretto as well as music and lyrics. It is an imaginative adaptation; he significantly expanded the action, the locations and most notably the cast of characters, inventing Marie, the possessive sister of Tony, as well as Cleo and Herman, the lovable musical comedy secondary couple.

For the score, there's no doubt that Loesser set out to write something more than a standard musical. For starters, there is about twice as much music as you would find in a typical Broadway musical of the time. More than 25 songs are woven together with stretches of evocative underscoring, lively dance music and sung recitative. His use of recitative is a technique borrowed from the opera tradition, as is his use of trios and quartets such as "How Beautiful The Days." In his compositional style and harmonic language, he does not shy away from dissonance to serve the drama.

 

We know we are in for a sophisticated musical evening from the outset of the overture, which is really more of an orchestral prelude than a traditional Broadway overture. It begins with an exuberant statement of a dance melody which surprises with some irregular rhythms. Quickly this buoyant mood is interrupted by a choir of French horns playing a distant echo of what will be Tony's proclamation, "I'm-a The Most Happy Fella!" From that point this orchestral introduction unfolds as a musical collage made of various themes and motifs from the score, each one interrupting and crashing into the next in a musical tug-of-war and eventually climaxing in a grand statement of one of the musical's most repeated musical themes: Tony's plea of "I want to get married!" In fact, all of the musical material heard in the overture comes from songs sung by Tony.

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