I consider myself spoiled -- or maybe privileged is the better word -- to have experienced several performances of Frank Loesser's operatic musical The Most Happy Fella not only with great voices in the cast but also with full orchestra, starting with the 1979 Broadway revival and continuing with a New York City Opera production in 1991. Those were followed by the disappointment of the 1992 Broadway revival, which for budgetary reasons tried to make the case that the score is all the more beautiful as played by instrumental forces limited to two pianos. (Not true.) But it was back to a gloriously large orchestra for the City Opera's 2006 revival. And then, in 2012, I had the pleasure of hearing three full-orchestra performances in Manhattan within the space of two months: two at the DiCapo Opera Theater, the other at NYU's Steinhardt School.
If I'm a happy fella to have so often heard Loesser's magnificent score as played by the number of string, woodwinds, reeds, brass, etc. required by Don Walker's brilliant original orchestrations, then Rob Berman is even happier in that he gets to conduct such a performance. The music director of City Center Encores! will be conducting the series' presentation of The Most Happy Fella later this week, April 2-6, with a stellar cast headed by Shuler Hensley as the Napa Valley vintner Tony Esposito, Laura Benanti as the young waitress with whom he falls in love, Cheyenne Jackson as the randy young farm hand Joe, and Jessica Molaskey as Tony's bitter, jealous sister, Marie. I recently got to chat with Rob about the show, which we both consider one of our all-time favorites. (For more information about the production, or to purchase tickets, click here.)
BROADWAYSTARS: Happy Fella is a big show. Is this the largest orchestra and cast in Encores! history?
ROB BERMAN: Well, I don't know about Encores! history, but certainly in any of the shows I've done here. We have 38 in the orchestra and 38 in the cast. They say Kismet had a bigger orchestra, and we had more people on stage in Lost in the Stars. But the combined forces, orchestra plus cast -- I can't imagine there's been any show bigger than this one.
STARS: I don't suppose there was any need for any work to be done on the orchestrations of Happy Fella since the productions I saw at NYU and the DiCapo Opera.
ROB: No. Around the time when they did the studio recording [that was released in 2000], there was a big clean-up of the orchestra parts back then. But MTI [Music Theatre International, which licenses performances of Happy Fella] put out a new edition much more recently, I think in 2010. Larry Moore was involved in that. So we're playing off these beautiful new parts that have been meticulously checked. When we had our first orchestra play-throughs, there were very few mistakes. It made life easier for us that way.
STARS: The studio recording you mentioned had an appendix with quite a lot of material that was cut from the show during or prior to rehearsals. Have you reinstated any of that for the Encores! performances.
ROB: No, we didn't put anything back in that's not in the published vocal edition of the show.
STARS: Much of that material was reinstated for the NYU performances, and while it was fascinating to hear, I don't think any of it helped the show.
ROB: Generally speaking, my feeling is that things usually get cut from shows for a reason, and I'm not always sure that putting stuff back is doing the authors any favors. It's a case-by-case situation.
STARS: I do think it's fascinating that, originally, Tony's sister Marie was supposed to sing "Nobody's ever gonna love you..." to him in their first scene together, and the version of it that we hear as part of that trio at the end of the show was supposed to be a reprise.
ROB: That came up in rehearsal the other day. We have Jessica Molaskey as Marie, and she's a very smart person. She didn't know about that cut, but she said, "You know, when I sing 'Nobody's ever gonna love you' at the end, it almost sounds like something I would have sung before." And I said, "Well, actually, yes..." I love it when there are these little vestigial melodies left in shows, sometimes in scene change music or little quotations in other songs.
STARS: And there's something to be said for hearing that gorgeous, soaring melody for the first time right at the end of the show, as if Marie has never been able to fully express her feelings for her brother until then.
STARS: I'm sorry no one ever made a movie of Happy Fella.
ROB: There is a movie of They Knew What They Wanted [the play on which Happy Fella is based], with Charles Laughton. I watched a little bit of it on YouTube. And I did read the Sidney Howard play, just to see what Frank Loesser was dealing with and how much he invented for the musical.
STARS: Offhand, I can't think of any musical adaptation that more creative. Loesser thought up so many new characters and situations.
ROB: Yes. In the musical, the first scene in the restaurant is so perfectly written in the way it goes in and out of song and dialogue, and how it gets the plot started so effectively. Loesser invented that whole scene.
STARS: How well did you know the show before you began rehearsals?
ROB: I haven't seen that many productions, but I've listened to the recordings. I knew most of the big hit songs, but there are stretches of the score that I discovered I didn't know very well, so it's been fun to really dig into it and see how it's all put together. The way the second act is structured, the songs just come one after another, and they're kind of brilliantly ordered. There are great changes of mood and a wonderful variety in the score.
STARS: Before I let you go, can you talk about the cast a little bit?
ROB: When Jessica auditioned, she made us cry; she brought so much warmth and sympathy to that character. It's hard to make the audience understand Marie's situation, and why she treats Tony the way she does. The thing I'm really excited about is that everyone in this production is singing great, but also, they're wonderful musical theater actors. They're all on the same page in terms of how they're approaching the material, asking so many great questions. I think that's the way the piece will succeed and will get the audience on board with this wonderfully human, warm, love story about people who make mistakes and forgive each other.
STARS: I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing Happy Fella get the Encores! treatment.
ROB: This is kind of a bucket list show for me, one I've always wanted to do. As long as I've been here, [Encores! artistic director] Jack Viertel and I have been asking each other, "Can we pull it off?" Then the opportunity came up, and we decided to go for it.
Published on Sunday, March 30, 2014
Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at email@example.com
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For an archive of all the Michael Portantiere articles, click here.