Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fellais one of my all-time favorite musicals, but the show has never been tremendously popular with the general public, and I think that's mostly because of bad luck.
The original Broadway production opened in May 1956, less than two months after the opening of My Fair Lady -- with the result that not a whole lot of attention was paid to Happy Fella. (Yes, the show was referenced prominently in an episode of “I Love Lucy,” but even that didn't help it achieve more than a 20-month run.)
A 1979 revival suffered from the miscasting of Giorgio Tozzi as the happy vintner Tony Esposito, and a 1992 revival was unsatisfying in that the "orchestra" was limited to two pianos. No film version of Loesser's operatic musical was ever made, although Luciano Pavarotti was rumored to be interested at one point in his career. (Instead, he made something called “Yes, Giorgio,” and we all know how that worked out for him.)
In 1991, the New York City Opera offered a solid production starring Louis Quilico, Elizabeth Walsh and Karen Ziemba, but when it was revived in 2006, Tony was played by a shockingly unprepared Paul Sorvino (who would have been great in the part if he had bothered to learn the damned music and lyrics.)
At any rate, a well-sung and well-acted production of The Most Happy Fella with a full orchestra can still pack a huge artistic and emotional wallop -- for example, the recent Dicapo Opera Theater staging, which is being revived June 14-July 8, 2012 in the wake of rave reviews. (Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times wrote, "Nothing compares with the joy of hearing this Loesser masterpiece in an intimate, acoustically natural setting. Take that, Broadway!")
I spoke with Michael Capasso, general director of the company, about a production that is truly and honestly returning by popular demand. (For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.dicapo.com.)
MICHAEL PORTANTIERE: The Dicapo Opera Theater usually presents full-fledged operas and operettas, but it seems obvious that Happy Fella was a great choice for the company.
MICHAEL CAPASSO: Yes. We did the show in March as part of our season, four performances on subscription. I love musicals, and I want to more of them. I think we're going to do one a year from now on; we're planning Kismet for next year. Alfred Drake and people like that really had voices, and so many wonderful roles were written for them. These are musicals we can do with a big orchestra and legitimate voices -- and we can also find belters who can sing without a microphone.
MP: How did you hit upon Happy Fella in particular?
CAPASSO: I've been very anxious to do this show all my life, and now we had the people to cast it properly. We went about it in such a way as to let the piece speak for itself, and we were able to secure an unbelievable review in the Times. Mr. Tommasini really understood what we were trying to do.
MP: Please say a few words about the cast.
CAPASSO: We got really lucky, because the four principals -- Michael Corvino as Tony, Molly Mustonen as Rosabella, Lauren Hoffmeier as Cleo, and Brance Cornelius as Herman -- turned out to have incredible chemistry. You can't make that happen; you can try to look for it when you're casting, but you never know what's going to happen when four people who have never met before get together in rehearsal.
MP: I've seen only one of your productions, Street Scene, but as I recall, your theater is wonderfully intimate.
CAPASSO: It's a 204-seat theater that's part of the Church of St. Jean Baptiste at 76th and Lexington. We've been there for 20 years. It does have an intimate feel, but the stage itself is quite large. The orchestra is usually in the pit, but for this show we have a 29-piece orchestra onstage, at the rear. The pit is covered, and we use it as downstage playing space.
MP: Does having the orchestra onstage create any problems in terms of the singers being heard clearly without amplification?
CAPASSO: No, the theater has very good acoustics. The voices project beautifully. It just works. We got a wonderful review of our production in “Opera News,” and they raved about our Cleo and what a pleasure it was to hear someone belt without a microphone.
MP: I've always loved Happy Fella, and I'm glad you do, too.
CAPASSO: I think it's Frank Loesser's great work. As brilliant as Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed are, with Happy Fella, he really managed to capture something in terms of the outpouring of melody -- also in the contrast between Tony and Rosabella, who sing operatically, and the musical-theater couple, Cleo and Herman. It's extraordinary. Loesser was really on a roll when he wrote this. And the orchestrations are beautiful.
MP: Especially when played by a 29-piece orchestra.
CAPASSO: There's no substitute for that. It's not the same when you have 12 or 15 players and a bunch of synthesizers. For a more contemporary score that was written in part for electronic instruments, that's fine, but a piece like this was written to be heard with a full acoustic orchestra and to be sung without heavy amplification of the voices. As I said, we perform all of our shows with no microphones at all, and people are amazed. In fact, some people tell me they don't believe we have no mics.
MP: Well, I very much look forward to seeing the show on opening night of the return engagement.
CAPASSO: It's going to be a lot of fun that night, because Mo Rocca will be singing the part of Pasquale in that one performance. He came to the show and loved it. Then he was going to perform in a benefit for us, but he got violently sick and he had to cancel. He felt really bad about it, and he asked me, "What can I do to make it up to you?" So I said, "Why don't we put you into Happy Fella?"
MP: Was it difficult to arrange for the whole cast to come back, most importantly the leads?
CAPASSO: No, they all couldn't wait to come back. I will say there are a couple of companies that are really mad at me right now; as a matter of fact, our Rosabella was supposed to go somewhere and do Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls. But when we decided to do a reprise of Happy Fella, everyone wanted to be part of it again, and they moved heaven and earth to make themselves available.