New York City Opera is making a liar out of Frank Loesser. When the great composer-lyricist's The Most Happy Fella opened in 1956, audiences heard more than 30 musical selections, including many genuine recitatives and arias. Was it musical or opera? Loesser said, "It's a musical with a lotta music."

That hasn't stopped City Opera from reviving it yet again, this time in honor of the show's golden anniversary. This time, Paul Sorvino plays Tony Esposito, the sixtysomething vintner who's so attracted to a waitress that he leaves her his bejeweled tiepin as a tip, plus his address so she'll write him. She does, and soon they fall in love via mail. That Tony calls her Rosabella is one thing; that the script calls her that from the outset is another, for it's not her real name. At show's end, Tony learns that she's really Amy. Did Loesser choose the name because he'd already had a great deal of luck with the name in "Once in Love with Amy," his hit song from Where's Charley? (1948)? Nope; the musical's source, Sidney Howard's 1924 play They Knew What They Wanted, calls the character Amy from the first stage direction.

Rosabella sings for us what Tony wrote: "I Don't Know Nothin' about You" -- one of musical theater's most beautiful songs, quiet and a bolt-of-lighting at the same time. After she writes back, the scene shifts to Tony's vineyard, where everyone's expecting the postman. He has mail for Farnsworth, Van Pelt, Sullivan -- and Herbie Greene. ("Say, who's Pearl?" he reads off a postcard.) These were inside jokes, the names of people involved in the production: Ralph Farnsworth (Cook, Bus Driver), Lois Van Pelt (Neighbor Lady), Jo Sullivan (Rosabella), and Herbie Greene (musical director), who actually was dating a woman named Pearl.

Tony reads that Rosabella wants a picture. He also learns that his handsome foreman, Joe, has wanderlust and will soon leave his employ, so Tony asks for a "pitch" of the young man (read: picture; he speaks an immigrant's broken English). He says he wants the photo as a memento of Joe, but he actually plans to send it to Rosabella instead of his own, figuring it won't matter because Joe will soon be gone. But on the day that Rosabella is to arrive and be married to Tony, Joe's still there. Tony is agitated when he goes to fetch Rosabella at the station. Then we see the postman dropping her off at the vineyard; she's upset that no one met her at the station but melts upon meeting the attractive Joe, her "fiancé." When she calls him "Tony," Joe guesses what the "foxy grandpa" Tony did. Rosabella is aghast. Then Tony is carried onstage in very bad shape, having gotten into an accident en route to the station. Rosabella feels tremendous pressure from his friends and neighbors, so she marries him before a pain-killer renders him unconscious. She's left with Joe, with whom she did expect to sleep that night -- and she does just that!

This is the end of Act I -- but many people in the 1950s thought that the act concluded with "Standing on the Corner," a song that Tony's employees actually perform earlier. Why the misimpression? Because when Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz went to see The Most Happy Fella in an episode of I Love Lucy titled "Lucy's Night in Town," that's where the intermission came.

Have you seen this? The Ricardos and the Mertzes have ordered tickets to the show but Little Ricky says he'd like to go, too. "You can see it when you grow up," says Lucy. "At the rate they're selling tickets, it'll still be playing." (This was wishful thinking from Lucy and Desi Arnaz, who invested in The Most Happy Fella; the episode ran on March 25, 1957, when the musical had fewer than nine months left in its eventual 17-month run). The Ricardos have four center orchestra seats, but Lucy notices at dinner that their tickets were actually for the matinee. They head over to the Imperial, where we see the marquee ("Frank Loesser's musical The Most Happy Fella, with Robert Weede"), but Ricky can only snag two tickets, so "the girls" will see the first act and "the boys" will see the second. We hear the first couple of bars of the overture before the doors close. "Wonder what the story's all about?" asks Ricky, to which Fred answers, "I can tell you one thing: The guy's not married." When Ricky asks why, Fred quips, "Look at the title." The camera pans to the show's three-sheet, which features the quote "A Most Happy Smash!" -- Walter Winchell.

How powerful a columnist Winchell once was! Other critics' remarks about the show included "A timeless musical (Coleman, Mirror); "A great, great musical" (McClain, Journal-American); "As distinguished as it is delightful" (Chapman, News); "Charming and powerful" (Hawkins, World-Telegram & Sun); "Loesser has opened his treasure chest and hurled his bountiful prizes" (Kerr, Herald-Tribune); and last but hardly least, "Musical magnificence" (Atkinson, Times). But the management believed that Winchell's praise would help most.

Lucy and Ethel are seated in the loge, and after the faux act-break ("Oh, that Frank Loesser music is just great," sighs Ethel), the ladies notice two empty seats behind them, so they give their husbands their stubs -- and this is how the nation became aware of the time-honored-practice of second-acting. Lucy fills the guys in on the plot. Unfortunately, the actual seat holders soon arrive, having been delayed by a speeding ticket. Lucy and Ethel scrunch onto Ricky and Fred's seats (not long before we hear "Big D"), but Lucy knocks Ethel's purse down into the orchestra, and this leads to a fracas that brings everyone into the lobby. When things are straightened out, the house manager overhears them say that they're sitting in two seats and demands they pay for the extra two. Money changes hands just as the doors open. Lucy goes into her trademark cry and moans, "Oh, it's over!"

Actually, Lucy, it wasn't. Happy Fella is a three-act musical. Too bad you and your pals didn't go in for the third act! Better still, would that all of you were still around; you'd be happy to once again make the show's acquaintance at City Opera.

********************

[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]