In the musical "The Most Happy Fella," an older, far-from-handsome man — an Italian immigrant who owns a Napa Valley vineyard — falls in love with a much younger and beautiful woman named Rosabella, a San Francisco waitress.
The theme of May-December romance is one that has resonance both on stage and off for the woman who originated the role as well as the one who is playing the character in the revival, now in previews at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. (The show opens Wednedsay, Oct. 9 and runs through Dec. 1.)
In 1956, the show's leading lady on Broadway was Jo Sullivan Loesser, then in her 20s, who eventually fell in love and married the composer, Frank Loesser, who was more than two decades her senior.
"He was so full of energy, funny and just so adorable," says Jo Loesser from the midtown Manhattan office where she oversees her late husband's properties. "He would write notes on yellow paper all the time and send them to me across the room like paper airplane. How could you not love that?"
They wed several years later and were married until the composer's death in 1969 at the age of 59.
In the Goodspeed show, Mamie Parris plays Rosabella, and in a recent intervew at the theater she recalled a romance she had with an older Italian man.
"When I was 25 I fell in love with a man named Cataldo who was 20 years older, too," says Parris who was in Broadway productions of "Ragtime," "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "110 in the Shade."
"I was working in a ship as a performer and he was one of the officers, second in command. It's similar to ['The Most Happy Fella'] story in so many ways. He wasn't the most conventionally tall, dark and handsome man but I just fell in love with him. He was charismatic, smart and we were so compatible. Part of it was because he was so incredibly romantic, virile and he treated me like a million bucks. Part of it was the Italian language which is one of the most beautiful in the world. There are moments in the show in which I very much connect with and are very personal to me."
Beyond the similarity in the romances, Parris says she relates to the characters in the show because of their complexity and their emotional honesty. "These are not your typical characters in musicals," she says. "These feel like real people."
Forgiveness And Healing
The Goodspeed production, directed by Rob Ruggiero ("Show Boat," "Carousel," "1776," "Camelot") also stars Bill Nolte who was in Goodspeed's "Man of La Mancha" and "Sweeney Todd." On Broadway he was in "The Producers," "La Cage Aux Folles," "The Secret Garden" and "Cats," among other musicals.)
Nolte may not have any May-December romance stories to share but he does relate to the role, which he played last year in a production at Lyric Stage outside Dallas.
"It's all about forgiveness and broken people who at points in their lives make decisions, who are healing so they can go on with their lives," he says.
The leading role is one he's waited his career to play, one that fully utilizes his operatic training that began when he was a student at he University of Cincinnati.
"I've been very patient," says Nolte of his long musical career on Broadway and around the country, "slugging it out playing featured roles or understudying major ones. Now I have a role that is able to show other sides of me, where I am able to play a fully developed, rich leading character on stage who really gets to sing fully — and show their heart, too. Plus, I get the girl."
The nearly sung-though score — some of the songs soar to near operatic levels of emotion — reflects a grand and yet complex sense of this bittersweet romance.
It was the most lush, haunting and versatile scores by Loesser, who also wrote the musicals "Guys and Dolls," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Where's Charley?" and songs for the beloved film musical "Hans Christian Andersen." (Loesser says she hopes that a stage adaptation of the 1952 film starring Danny Kaye could be developed some day. An attempt in 2000 by choreographer Martha Clarke was a disappointment.)
But as classic a show as "Guys and Dolls" is —- and it's one of the most frequently produced shows of Broadway's "Golden Age" period —- many feel that "The Most Happy Fella" is the composer's musical masterpiece.
"He took five years to write this piece and it's so wonderful and solid," says Jo Loesser.
Such songs as "Somebody, Somewhere" and "My Heart Is So Full of You" hit the high notes but there's Italian style tunes such as "Abbondanza" and "Sposalizio" and some Tin Pan Alley numbers, too, like "Standing on the Corner," and "Big `D." Other familiar and melodic songs are "Joey, Joey, Joey," "Warm All Over" and "Happy To Make Your Acquaintance."
The songs, under the music direction of Goodspeed's Michael O'Flaherty, will have a bigger sound than the last time the theater produced the show more than two decades ago.
In 1991, the theater produced an unusual — and daring — version of the show, utilizing a two-piano arrangement by Robert Page that the composer commissioned after it ends its 676-performance run on Broadway in order to create a more intimate production, (The original version had an orchestra of 36. In 1991, there were just two Steinways in the pit. The current Goodspeed version will have seven musicians, playing multiple instruments.)
That first production, which starred Spiro Malas and Sophie Hayden, was such a hit here, that it eventually went to Broadway — following a run in Los Angeles. Once again, the show received glowing notices and ran for 229 performances. It also received four Tony Award nominations, including outstanding actress, featured actress and revival and won the outstanding featured actor award for Scott Waara.
Besides the current Goodspeed production, the musical will be in the spotlight in New York next spring when the "Encore!" series presents the show in a staged concert version with Laura Benanti, Cheyenne Jackson and Tony Award-winner Shuler Hensley. Tony winner Casey Nicholaw ("The Book or Mormon") will direct.
THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, now in previews, opens Wednesday, Oct. 9, and funs through Dec. 1. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Thanksgiving week's shows are 2 and 7;30 p.m. on Nov. 25, 2 and 8 p.m. on Nov. 29; 3 and 8 p.m. on Nov. 30 and 2 and 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 31. Tickets are $28 to $76.50. Information: 960-873-8668.