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Music Director helps give 'Most Happy Fella' a new sound in Goodspeed production

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Goodspeed Musicals, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, is revisiting one of its past triumphs this season with its handsome and exhilarating production of Frank Loesser's classic musical "The Most Happy Fella." But as is typical of Goodspeed, this is an entirely new production, reconceived and redesigned under the direction of Rob Ruggiero. As part of this new look, the musical is getting a brand new sound.

According to Michael O'Flaherty, the theater's Resident Musical Director, the previous Goodspeed production, back in 1990, used a new two piano score created especially for that production, which garnered critical acclaim both in East Haddam and in the show's subsequent Broadway engagement. For this 2013 revival, Loesser's operatic, symphonic style score, originally written for a 30-piece orchestra that for cost and space reasons could not be reproduced at Goodspeed, has been adapted and reconfigured for seven musicians.

"We have approached our show as a hybrid," O'Flaherty relates, "creating a synthesis between the acoustic and the piano world. By not being tied to the original orchestrations, we were able to go in our own direction. We wanted to try something different."

O'Flaherty, who has been at Goodspeed for 22 seasons and been associated with 70-plus productions, explains that "The Most Happy Fella" is, in his words, "a very dramatic piece of work, interspersed with show tunes," including several that became pop hits at the time, "Standing on the Corner" and "Big D."

He credits orchestrator Dan DeLange with uncovering and building upon some of the jazz-influenced elements of the score. "The more I've been working with this show," O'Flaherty states, "the more I realized how much of a jazz texture there is to the show. A lot of that makes the show feel fresh, moving the music out of the opera realm and into a more intimate environment."

The new orchestrations also accommodate Ruggiero's vision of setting the musical in the 1950's, rather than in the 1920's time frame of the original production and Sidney Howards' play "They Knew What They Wanted," upon which Loesser based his musical. "The musical feels more integrated into a 1950's California period," O'Flaherty indicates. "The music really lives in that world."

It was O' Flaherty's suggestion to Goodspeed Executive Director Michael Price that the theater remount "The Most Happy Fella" for the theater's 50th anniversary. "Out of all of our shows that have had huge success in New York," he says, "this is the only one that we have not revisited. It is such a glorious show and this serves as our look back." Goodspeed's previous production back in the early 1990's pre-dates O'Flaherty's arrival at the theater, so he was interested in an opportunity to explore the musical, which he had never done before.

As is customary with nearly all of Goodspeed's productions, he continues, "the orchestrations for our revival have been done completely from scratch. We haven't changed any of the vocal arrangements, however, because they have withstood the test of time."

According to O'Flaherty, the production team made judicious cuts to the book and music, so that the show now has a running time of just over two hours, plus one intermission. Jo Loesser, Frank Loesser's widow and the Rosabella of the original Broadway production in 1959, is a good friend of the Goodspeed, he adds, reporting that Ruggiero went to her with his vision and outlined his cuts and refining. Ruggiero also revealed to her that he was restoring a song cut from the score prior to the Broadway opening called "Eyes Like A Stranger," in which the main character's sister agonizes over his growing distance from her.

Jo Loesser, O'Flaherty indicated, "had trusted Goodspeed with her husband's "How to Succeed in Business Without Trying," and trusted us with the two-piano score which she adored. She has liked the show and has even shared some of her experiences working on the original production with the current cast members who were thrilled for the chance to spend some time with her."

In actuality, O'Flaherty revealed, the creative team did not cut a significant amount of music. "In fact, we have 1,000 bars of music more than the original show, as we have incorporated a lot of music underlying the emotion of the book scenes," he says.

O'Flaherty is pleased with the sound the creative team has achieved with the seven-person orchestra. "The size ultimately helps us to keep the music in control. We don't need the full sound of a 30-piece orchestra to carry the emotion because in such an intimate theater we can rely on our actors to do that."

"Musicals today," he finds, "are not as melodramatic as they were in the 1950's. Audiences today are not used to such large orchestras and lush orchestrations. They have come to expect more subtle underlining." He stresses, however, that "our musical decisions are not made lightly. Our concern is how to best cover the needs of the score." As a result, the pit for "The Most Happy Fella" contains two keyboards, reeds, trumpet, percussion, violin and cello.

"This is one of the most challenging shows we have mounted at the Goodspeed," O'Flaherty adds, "and I just love it. This is truly Loesser's masterpiece. It is so fresh and timeless."

Coincidentally, O'Flaherty recently had the chance to get into the mood for the production by enjoying a two-week trip to Italy, his first, before work had begun on "The Most Happy Fella." "It was quite the tour," the self-identified foodie and wine enthusiast admitted, so he must have fond memories when the three Italian chefs in the musical bring out course after course of Italian specialties.

A graduate of the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, O'Flaherty says that he was raised on classical music and had served as a free lance musical director before being hired as a substitute music director at Goodspeed 22 years ago. After his first show at the East Haddam theater, "Babes in Arms," he was invited to stay and has remained ever since.

O'Flaherty is also responsible for creating Goodspeed's Music Director Initiative, which annually hosts 20 music directors from non-profit theaters, college theater departments or community theaters that exposes them, he says, "to a little bit of everything that might come up for them in putting on a musical, from creating dance arrangements for a choreographer to selecting the musicians for the orchestra to conducting the singers during musical numbers."

When not conducting or participating in one of Goodspeed's many educational endeavors, O'Flaherty also finds time to compose. He has provided the music and lyrics for a full-length musical called "Genesius" which has been produced at Goodspeed's Festival of New Works, the Civic Theater of Allentown (PA), and at an Actors' Equity approved showcase in New York.

For tickets and information about "The Most Happy Fella," call the Goodspeed Box Office at 860.873.8668 or visit the Goodspeed website at www.goodspeed.org

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