Something that’s always true in opera is sometimes true in musicals: certain roles are written for certain voice types. The director of a revival that ignores this risks ruining something built into the show. Of course I’m thinking about Shuler Hensely’s distinctly un-operatic sound in The Most Happy Fella the other week at Encores. But so much else was wonderful about that evening, I realize I’m picking a nit. As I said the night it opened, there could be no better example of How To Write a Musical than seeing that glorious show. Hensely’s acting was excellent; he’s great in other things. I once rode a city bus with him, and that was a great ride. But Encores has now miscast him twice. Last year’s Fiorello used him as the ultimate New York pol. Hensely’s many things on many occasions: a New Yorker he’s not.
Frank Loesser spent five years writing The Most Happy Fella, a period which included a stop in Hollywood to write the songs for Hans Christian Andersen. He learned Italian in order to make the Italian and bilingual characters sound authentic. (Two numbers are in Italian, but one gets translated, and even the act of translation carries a great deal of subtext and smoldering attraction.) Loesser never called it an opera, even though he utilizes leitmotifs, but he thought long and hard about what type of voice he wanted in each role. The Italian characters, hailing from the land of opera, are supposed to have an operatic sound. Siblings Tony and Marie were originally cast with stars from the Met. In contrast, Loesser got Art Lund, a crooner with Big Band experience, for the role of Joe. Some have noted that, at Encores, Cheyenne Jackson’s honeyed tones seemed to occupy a different musical world. Exactly as Loesser intended. (He also has to be so handsome you’d sleep with him within minutes of meeting him – I hear no arguments there.)
Another thing that got me thinking about all this was finding out that Giorgio Tozzi – the first Tony I experienced – had been in the cast of A Doll’s Life but was replaced before it opened. I imagine that was quite an upheaval: was a role designed for an operatic baritone suddenly switched to a Broadway bari? How must have the composer felt? When Tozzi essayed Tony, the passion he expressed through his powerful dynamics was a major component in making The Most Happy Fella a stirring emotional experience. “And I feel so young; and I feel such joy!” Tears poured out of me like a fire hydrant in summer.
I recently talked with Stephen Schwartz, who’s always open to new and different ideas about staging his old shows. So I’m reminded of the York mounting of The Baker’s Wife with comedic character actor Jack Weston. One of my favorite Schwartz songs, Any Day Now Day fell a little flat because Weston lacked the vocal power to convey the inherent desperation and false bravado. Speaking of The Baker’s Wife, did you ever notice how it ha very similar characters and story arc to The Most Happy Fella? Can you imagine Rosabella getting a six-minute fairy tale allegory to justify her straying at the act break? Now you know why The Baker’s Wife never made it to Broadway while The Most Happy Fella has been to the Main Stem three times.
Knowing the voice teachers I know, the more I speak of singing, the more I feel I’m out of my league (and into theirs). But you know we’re not talking vocal ranges per se here: it’s more about vocal quality. Alfred Drake, everyone seems to agree, was the greatest baritone Broadway’s ever known. A revival some years ago of one of Drake’s great vehicles, Kiss Me Kate, had Brian Stokes Mitchell filling his shoes. And I thought, Yes, of contemporary musical theatre stars, Mitchell’s good casting. He has the right type of voice, a tough guy’s power, with deep sonorities that boom and bellow. A year or so after I saw it, the same director mounted a revival in London starring Brent Barrett. And I thought, I love Brent Barrett but he’s abundantly wrong for this. He’s more of a light tenor, with admirable prettiness in contemporary roles. But that’s completely inappropriate for Kiss Me Kate.
Must admit an original cast album, played over and over again, can leave quite an impression. And there’s a problem with that. If what was caught that one day in a recording studio is so splendid, it can be hard to accept a different vocal take, no matter how valid. People I know who thought Shuler Hensley was wonderful in The Most Happy Fella, nine times out of ten, were wholly unfamiliar with Robert Weede’s sound on the original cast recording. And sometimes I’ve experienced an odd reversal: I saw My Fair Lady with a leading man sang way too well compared with the original Rex Harrison. What was the poor guy to do?