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

By Rob Berman
March 30, 2014

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.

It was no surprise that the songwriter who gave us "Once In Love With Amy" and "Sit Down You're Rockin' The Boat" would now score so successfully with songs like "Standing On the Corner" or "Big D". But Loesser pushed himself into new territory with the unabashedly full-bodied romance of the love duet "My Heart Is So Full Of You" or with the sumptuous tenderness of "Warm All Over." The music for Tony and Rosabella is lush and demanding and requires singers with real technique and stamina.

In the 1950's, operatic singing on Broadway was in vogue; it was heard in musicals like Kismet and Broadway productions of operas such as Menotti's The Saint of Bleecker Street. Opera stars regularly appeared in musicals — such as Ezio Pinza in Fanny or Helen Traubel in Pipe Dream — but sometimes the results were mixed and the casting incongruous. Loesser took wonderful advantage of this trend by successfully casting the baritone Robert Weede in the role of Tony as well as by lovingly sending up the Italian bel canto style in the songs for the three chefs, "Abbondanza" and "Benvenuta."

But even Loesser himself resisted calling it an opera. He was quoted as saying "It is a musical with a lot of music." Loesser was a dramatist as well as a great tunesmith and for him, the words were as important as the music. What is remarkable in Loesser's score is the consistency with which all the characters use language that makes them sound like regular folks even when the music soars into loftier territory. There is a colloquial naturalism and a seamlessness between spoken words and sung lyrics.

The emphasis on the humanity of each character is at the core of what makes The Most Happy Fella an emotionally satisfying story. It is a story about forgiveness. It is a story about people who learn to let go of old notions, forgive each other, and embrace the circumstances of the lives they lead. We can all recognize the mistakes these characters make and bask in the warmth of the love that develops between them. In The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson wrote, "Broadway is used to heart. It is not accustomed to evocations of the soul."

We return to the question, what is it? An opera? An operetta? A musical comedy? One could call it a Broadway musical with operatic tendencies. However, it may be safest just to say that it defies categorization and that it's the unique show Loesser intended to write: one bursting at the seams with passion, with music, with mirth, with regret, all the things that make up life itself.