You might call it kismet.
Lyric Stage presented a staged concert version of the musical Kismet in January 2012, and in the audience was Jo Sullivan Loesser, widow of legendary musical theater composer and lyricist Frank Loesser. Jo Sullivan, a soprano and former triple-threat Broadway star, was invited to see it because Lyric's producer, Steven Jones, had already booked two of her late husband's shows—the not-revived-enough The Most Happy Fella and the far rarer Pleasures and Palaces—for the group's 20th season, which begins this weekend.
The idea was for Jo Sullivan to get a sense of the quality at Lyric Stage, which has been in the habit of reviving classic musicals with full orchestras and original orchestrations for six years now.
Kismet was all the proof she needed.
"The orchestra sounded fabulous and I happen to love Kismet," she says. "I'm a great friend of Bob [Robert] Wright who wrote it, and Frank admired [him] so much. … When I saw Kismet, I said 'they can do Most Happy Fella because they really know what to do.' "
She'll find out when she sees The Most Happy Fella on opening night, Saturday, Sept. 8.
As the head of the Loesser estate, Jo Sullivan, who was Frank's second wife, from 1959 until he died in 1969, has seen a fair share of Most Happy Fellas over the years. It might be a personal favorite, considering that she met Frank when she was cast as Rosabella in the original Broadway production in 1956.
"I thought he was incredibly attractive, and it just happened; it was just one of those things," she says. "Two years after I left the show we got married. I gave him an ultimatum. He didn't want me to work anymore, and I said 'I've got to work or we've got to get married, because I ain't making any money here, kid.' "
At that point, Frank was famous for his Broadway hit Guys and Dolls (1950), and as a Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood songwriter. In the five years that he worked on The Most Happy Fella (which is based on Sidney Howard’s 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning play They Knew What They Wanted) he also composed music for the film Hans Christian Andersen (1952). They would all set the stage for his Pulitzer Prize-winning How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which Jo Sullivan says Frank wrote the music for in six weeks.
"He did not want to write How to Succeed, because that was not in his idea of where he wanted to go with his career," she says. "But he was a great friend of [book co-writer] Abe Burrows and [producer] Cy Feuer, and they talked him into it; and it's a damn good thing they did because it's a great score."
Loesser's final musical was Pleasures and Palaces (1965), which closed in out-of-town tryouts. It has scarcely been seen since, but it will also get the full-orchestra treatment by Lyric, in a staged concert version in January 2013.
But when you talk to hardcore musical lovers about Loesser's work, The Most Happy Fella is the one that often comes up as a favorite, with its lush music and operatic arias.
It had always been a favorite of Steven Jones, who first presented the show at Lyric Stage in 1997, in the two-piano version.
"I wanted to revisit The Most Happy Fella with a full orchestra," Jones says. "Frank Loesser's glorious score deserves to be heard as he intended for it to be. The two-piano version we did in 1997 was the first Lyric Stage show to sell out."
With this Lyric version, musical director and conductor Jay Dias has restored the original orchestrations by Don Walker, and it features a 38-piece orchestra. He's also added in some material that was cut before it went to Broadway the first time, including Marie's aria "You Look at Me with the Eyes of a Stranger."
While a number of the original songs were cut because of the show's three-hour running time, that aria was cut precisely because the work, which is mostly through-composed, sounded too much like an opera. Previously, operas like Porgy and Bess, Regina and Street Scene didn't have profitable runs on Broadway.
Fella is now one of those crossover musical-operas, like Sweeney Todd or Candide, that sometimes show up on opera company seasons. (The Tulsa Opera is doing Most Happy Fella in 2013.)
"He did not want anyone to call it an opera, because he didn't think anyone would go if it was called an opera," Jo Sullivan says. "He wanted to call it a musical."
But to Jo Sullivan, the opera label was fine. Before appearing in Fella, she played Polly Peachum in the Marc Blitztein translation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, with Lotte Lenya and Bea Arthur (Jo replaced Charlotte Rae in that role). That's when the Fella producers came scouting for a performer who could sing the role of Rosabella.
"They came down to see it because in those days, all of the ingénues were small blondes," she says. "It was Barbara Cook, Florence Henderson and me, we were the small blondes that did all the shows. They came down to see the show and I had to audition 15-20 times. It was a big part, a big acting and singing part. We knew our entire score before rehearsals began. We had to, because it was too hard [not to learn it early]."
After studying music and theory at Columbia University and working as a file clerk at Lord & Taylor, Jo Sullivan's career on Broadway began as a chorus girl toward the end of the run of the original Oklahoma! Between that and Threepenny, her Broadway roles included Julie Jordan in a 1954 revival of Carousel, and Juliet in the Marc Blitzstein-directed flop Let's Make An Opera (1956). Of the latter experience, she laughs, critic Walter Kerr wrote "let's not."
In Lyric's revival, directed by Cheryl Denson and with choreography by Len Pfluger, Broadway vet Bill Nolte plays Tony. The rest of the cast is filled out with locals: Amber Nicole Guest as Rosabella, Catherine Carpenter Cox as Cleo, Alex Organ as Herman, Doug Carpenter as Joe and Jodi C. Wright as Marie.
Having originated the part of Rosabella, Jo Sullivan has an idea of how she thinks the role should be handled.
"I like to see that she can sing it first of all," she says, "and I like to see someone act. She has to be a little tough, but very appealing. It's hard, but it's an interesting role because she slowly comes to love him and everything he does. I like to see her slowly change."
Now that's change we can believe in.
Here's a video preview of Lyric Stage's The Most Happy Fella: