Too late for happiness

I’m telling you to hustle over to City Center to see The Most Happy Fella this week because musical theatre writing doesn’t get any better than this. (Productions of The Most Happy Fella certainly get better than this – more on that later.) You want to understand how a show can be the most emotional and cathartic experience possible; it’s best to view that paradigm, with full 38-piece orchestra, plus another 38 performers on stage (and they cut the kids!). We can talk about what makes a musical great (as we do here). We can play through every note of the entire three-act score (book, music and lyrics all by Frank Loesser) as I’ve done countless times. We can read it. We can listen to the original Broadway cast in its entirety, as Columbia Records released it on three long-playing albums. (There was a slight skip in mine, and I’m so used to it I was thrown when, live, the moment passed smoothly.)  But none of that comes close to the experience of seeing it in a theatre. So go. And if you’ve seen it before, see it again. You’re going to learn as much about crafting a masterpiece as you will seeing any other show, in addition to having a wonderful time, enjoying it.

The Most Happy Fella is a simple and serious admirably-adult romance, liberally peppered with comic songs and characters. One thing that struck me was how frequently the tone switches from poignant drama to frothy daffiness. A vastly inferior behemoth like Les Misérables is content to wallow in abject solemnity for forty minutes at a time. Many much more moving things happen in The Most Happy Fella, but they’re soon leavened with wit and dancing. As a result, one never gets tired of the emotions. And I’m reminded of another contrast between The Most Happy Fella and contemporary musicals: the shortness of the songs. There’s certainly a lot of them – the lack of dialogue misleads some into calling it an opera – but they make their point and then we move on. In some cases, Loesser lets the music convey the subtexts which lesser writers (there’s that inevitable pun; sorry) would have spelled out in words.

In a key scene that shocks the audience and closes the first act, a man sings what is, essentially, a brief lullaby:

Don’t weep, don’t weep
Come on back in the house, little sheep
Come on back in the house for a smile of welcome and go to sleep.

That stanza and its tune shouldn’t work at all: they’re simplistic in the extreme. But, in-between the lines, Loesser repeats a stormy leitmotif. Its contrasting harsh harmonies and unusual intervals tell us something is going on. We watch this and are unsettled by, at first, a sense of foreboding: Why is this sweet bit of comfort being interrupted in this way? We come to understand that there are lustful feelings flinging back and forth like lightning bolts. If these characters give in to the passion, everything we’ve come to love will be destroyed. Before the cadence, the character being coaxed to bed breaks it off with piquant dialogue. This is accompanied by physicality, and then the man speaks, truthfully, of his admiration for the title character. When the original Don’t Cry song returns, the accompaniment conveys a sense of water bursting through a damn. We’re all rushing to a very dark place and the curtain comes down, giving us a ten minute intermission to mull over the implications.

Encores cut the second intermission: Act Two ends with a song about the joy of being in love with a wonderful woman. It involves looking to the skies and addressing a late mother:

Mamma, mamma, up in the heaven: How you like my sweetheart?

And, if performed in three acts, we get another ten minutes to consider that irony. I can remember seeing a production and crying through every minute of that interval.

Now, should I talk about leitmotifs or talk about sex? O.K., counting hands, I see an overwhelming majority would prefer the latter. This is a musical that opened in 1956. (Other musicals that opened that banner year: My Fair Lady, Candide, Mr. Wonderful, Bells Are Ringing and Li’l Abner – no wonder nobody remembers there was also an Ethel Merman show.) I think, all these years later, we have a false impression that heroines in Broadway musicals tended to be virginal. Sex wasn’t often a plot component, although some of your lower comedies (and I guess I’ll count Li’l Abner and Candide) would refer to it in a joke. In the first scene, the heroine chats with a friend and casually mentions that she’s “helped a few fellers prove they was fellers.” This isn’t followed by recriminations or surprise; it’s just a fact, in place at rise. As a non-virgin, in that time and place, she’s lost out on the chance to marry one of the many men who prefer an inexperienced bride. Later, married to a man “old enough to be your papa” she declares her sexual desire baldly:

I’m no baby. I know what I want. I want holding you very close to me, just as close to me as I possibly can, not like a child: But like a woman holds a man.

Her old man hasn’t touched her – that way – for several good reasons. We know he wants to have children, but, with his inadequate self-regard, he has not been, to this point, quite sure his young wife loves him – that way. Now, as we all understand the conventions of musical theatre, where characters might, in real life, be having sex, on stage we hear them sing a glorious and passionate love duet. And this two-language beauty includes the lines,

My wife, she’s-a love me now! My wife, she’s-a fall in love with me!

Casey Nicholaw’s staging at Encores! starts weak but gets better and better and before the halfway-mark it’s irresistible. Cheyenne Jackson and Heidi Blickenstaff, the second leads, are extraordinary, the former gets to be appropriately croony and swoony and never smarmy. Laura Benanti didn’t wow me in the opening scene, and is more than a decade too old for her role. But, once in Napa, she captivated. It’s hard to imagine anyone working today who could bring better acting values and emotion to material in such an amazingly high tessitura (by musical theatre standards). Shuler Hensley, unfortunately, lacks the vocal power to bring the larger-than-life verve to the main character. Loesser’s gorgeous score is conceived for a strong operatic baritone. Every time the piece needed power from its lead, we got a somewhat soft, merely serviceable note. But, as Loesser’s widow Jo Sullivan (the show’s original leading lady) reminded us in a pre-show seminar, the acting is far more important than the voice, and Hensley had that in spades.

And hearts. “Now my young new heart ain’t got no more room for anything more.

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