Susan Johnson, of Broadway's Most Happy Fella, Dead at 74

Obituaries   Susan Johnson, of Broadway's Most Happy Fella, Dead at 74
Susan Johnson, the big-voiced Broadway soubrette show tune fans know from the original cast album of The Most Happy Fella, on which she sang "Big D," died Feb. 24, according to friends on the West Coast.
Susan Johnson in The Most Happy Fella.
Susan Johnson in The Most Happy Fella.

In recent years, Ms. Johnson, who was 74, had suffered from emphysema in the last decade. She had retired in the 1980s to Sacramento, CA, but occasionally made stage appearances, including singing "Who's That Woman?" in a Long Beach Civic Opera production of Follies, and playing a singing nun in the 1992 film "Sister Act."

In Sacramento, the retired actress-singer — who hasn't had a Broadway presence since 1961's musical comedy, Donnybrook! — got involved in the local theatre community, acting at the non-Equity Garbeau's Dinner Theatre, playing Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the mother in Barefoot in the Park in the 1980s.

She died in Sacramento, according to friends who were informed by Ms. Johnson's daughter, Corianne Dann, of Las Vegas. She had sung in AIDS benefits about 10 years ago but in recent years had been on oxygen for her lung disease. Ms. Johnson was a widow. She counted as her pals Bea Arthur and the late Ruth Kobart.

"She was bigger than life, funny as hell and had a mouth like a sailor, but in a wonderful way," said Martha Kight, a Sacramento actress who got to know Ms. Johnson 20 years ago. "She was a gracious, kind friend, an hilarious firebrand — as well as a grand star — to the end of her life."

At Sacramento's California Music Circus several years ago, she was introduced on the opening night of its revival of The Most Happy Fella. It was a proud moment for her. As Cleo, the tough-talking waitress who sings "Ooh, My Feet," "I Don't Like This Dame," "I Know How It Is" and "Big D" in the Frank Loesser musical, Ms. Johnson made an impact on Broadway, and on fans of the cast album (re-released in recent years on two CDs). She won a Theatre World Award for her performance. Earlier on Broadway, she was a chorus girl and then replacement in the original Broadway Brigadoon, playing blowsy Meg Brockie, who sings "My Mother's Wedding Day" and "The Love of My Life" (she repeated her the role in a City Center revival in 1950 and on a studio cast recording). Other Broadway roles include Terry Patterson in a musical called Buttrio Square (1952), Mae in Oh, Captain! (1958), Glenda Swenson in Whoop-Up (1958) and Kathy Carey in Donnybrook! (1961). She also appeared in the pre-Broadway tryout of Wright and Forrest's The Carefree Heart (apparently based on Moliere) at the Cass Theatre in Detroit and the Hanna in Cleveland, where it closed in 1957.

According to theatre historian and show tune expert Steven Suskin, Ms. Johnson fractured her skull in a serious traffic accident while touring in stock in the summer of 1963. She never returned to Broadway.

Ms. Johnson was a Columbus, OH, native, born Marilyn Jeanne Johnson. She attended Ohio State University.

Playbill On-Line show tune columnist Steven Suskin recently noted that rare recordings of Johnson have surfaced on CD with "Legendary Performers: Susan Johnson," on the Harbinger label.

"This is an unusual collection of live performances, presumably recorded in the early '60s," Suskin wrote in his December 2002 column. "Some are from nightclubs, others — with full orchestra — are apparently from network TV. It is unclear why and how this collection came about; Ms. Johnson was apparently amazed (but pleased) when she learned that these recordings existed."

Suskin added: "The CD includes 26 songs, and let me warn you — many are abbreviated versions, one time through with no repeats. The songs have been arranged into supposed medleys of songs by five composers: Berlin, Loesser, Porter, Rodgers and Johnny Burke (of Donnybrook!). The medleys are separated by tinny applause, as if we were sitting in a supper club (although the accompaniment varies from song to song). Despite the severe abridgement, Johnson's remarkable instrument shines through. Loud and clear, with every note given full value and every word perfectly expressed. No wonder Frank Loesser liked her. Clarion-like and crystal clear, Johnson can be tender or raucous; like Merman, she has a built in siren's wail available on command. It's a friendly voice with character, warm and knowing."

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