For people who hate opera

I LOVE LUCY featuring THE MOST HAPPY FELLA
The trouble with introductory collections like “Opera for People Who Hate Opera” is of course that it’s still OPERA. I’m inclined to believe the gateway acquired-taste for American pop music ears is –why not– American Musical Theater. But before I get to the particular show I have in mind THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, for a teaser, get thee to Tevye’s dream of Fiddler On The Roof. Find the original Broadway stage recording (These girls found it: The Dream) where Zero Mostel pretends to be visited by two ghosts, blending three melodies –with dances– to a whirlwind intensity. Discordant, shrill, phenomenal, pure opera.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF: THE DREAM
Really, you cannot but love the energy and drama of that piece. And it meets the lower brow halfway: it’s in English, mostly, it’s sung in the registers to which we are more accustomed today, and the cacophony is corralled at a driving dervish pace, also most contemporary.

A Broadway convention of the golden age of musicals was the Dream Ballet scene. In Fiddler it was an opera and a ballet, but instead of a dream or a character’s hallucination, this was Tevye’s pretense of a nightmare, conjured to convince his wife to assent to let their oldest daughter marry the boy she loved, instead of the old man to whom she was promised.

The Dream features three motifs: Grandma Tzeitel represented by the Mazel Tov refrain, with the rejoinder of Tevye and his wife Golde, overtaken by the crescendo of the butcher’s deceased wife Fruma-Sarah, clearly borrowing the menace of the Wicked Witch of Oz.

That’s it — you can like opera! Don’t think yourself less sophisticated because lyrics in a foreign language bore you, or because sopranos or tenors strain your ears. You probably wouldn’t favor centuries-ago gruel either.

THE MOST HAPPY FELLA
Just as maturing musical taste builds inevitably toward Jazz, I have a theory that Broadway fans eventually seek for melodies a little less pat. After not so long, the tunes you can easily whistle up the aisle begin to sound the same. Fresh ones don’t solve anything. Trust me, the unsung Broadway shows which didn’t recoup their production costs don’t sound any better now. Great as were all the Rogers & Hammerstein hits, you have heard only half their shows and yet you’ve heard them all. Ironically, R&H tried their hand at an opera-like show, called ALLEGRO, I don’t favor it, and neither did anyone else.

What I do know is that I love THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, a comparatively obscure musical which had the misfortune of opening in the shadow of MY FAIR LADY, you remember that one in your sleep. TMHF is the acknowledged masterpiece of Frank Loesser, who had no need to prove himself after composing GUYS AND DOLLS. Great as it is, how many times can you listen to Luck Be a Lady?

Being labeled an opera has meant ruin for Broadway musicals which stray from the basic musical review format. Musical Theater traditionally meant catchy tunes strung together with comedy. Wartime brought OKLAHOMA and CAROUSEL which introduced more complicated drama, but librettos entirely sung, weaving the collected songs together, didn’t catch on until the pop operas of the seventies, commercial formulas like PHANTOM OF THE– that were neither operatic, nor terribly musical either.

Out-and-out American operas such as PORGY AND BESS have always lost money in production. Like the argument I make here, to entice American audiences, you have to pretend opera is not opera. Even liner notes written today about 1956’s THE MOST HAPPY FELLA have to avoid coming down one way or another on whether it’s an opera. Yes much of the dialog is sung, but critics reassure us that parts are spoken too. There are numbers too popular to be highbrow, you know one of them, Standing on the Corner [Watching All the Girls Go By].

A 1957 episode of I LOVE LUCY featured a visit to a Broadway performance, in probably an early example of the entertainment industry giving itself a lift. Lucy and company are shown watching from a box seat, but we hear only the more palatable popular ballads Don’t Cry and the Texas dance number Big “D”.

To settle the opera matter, I look at a couple obvious giveaways. One, the leading character Tony was sung by the opera star Robert Weebe, a colleague of Maria Callas. And two, the matinee show traditional of Broadway, was sung by Weebe’s understudy, because two shows a day is neither traditional nor possible for opera.

There’s also the comfortable coincidence that the plot centers around an Italian immigrant, thus much of the dialog is Italian-accented. And he runs a farm in Napa Valley manned by other Italians, who sing in outright Italian, the lingua franca of opera. So the Happy Fella Broadway disguise was never very earnest.

What marks Happy Fella most distinctly are the depth and height of emotional expression. Plenty of musicals have plumbed despair, but in contrast I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a happier fella than Tony Esposito. Witness tenors trumpet Abbondanza! (Abundance), then Benvenuta! (Welcome), and then Spozalizio! (Wedding), which are actually in English, punctuated with self-translatable Italian. Another high-spirited refrain is about “Coming Home” with the proceeds of the strawberry harvest, titled Fresno Beauties.

And then where honestly have you heard a love song more overwhelmed with feeling than My Heart is So Full of You? It begins with exclamation, answers as duet, then envelopes the inner reflections of two peripheral characters.

There’s also the deliriously contented duet which begins “Lunedi, Martedi” (How Beautiful the Days).

The peerless Soliloquy from Carousel gets a run for its money in Mamma, Mamma [Up in Heav’n, How you lika my sweet girl?], as near an operatic aria as you can get.

And while I’m inventorying the happy overload, I don’t want to leave out the beautiful Somebody, Somewhere and Warm all over. The charmer Happy to Make Your Acquaintance is also a standard Broadway showstopper with reprise.

While I’m digressing, I’d like to credit the Big “D” number, where two Texans supposedly recognize each other by their drawl, while neither in actuality has a drawl. The drawl is sung, the notes slurred to create a most beguiling familiarity. It’s a duet to prick your ears at just the phrasing, my own introduction to the incomparable Susan Johnson.

If I’ve touched on any clarity here, it’s what you already know: The amplified modulation of opera is not about librettos all sung, or voices in full shriek. Singing out expresses emotional intensity, and in Happy Fella you’ll never meet happier.

Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

On sabbatical
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