Lyric Stage’s monumental project to mount classic Broadway musicals with original orchestrations wouldn’t be possible without Jay Dias, the man behind the baton
GREGORY SULLIVAN ISAACS | Contributing Music Writer
Technically, The Most Happy Fella is a 1956 musical with a book, music, and lyrics by Frank Loesser. However, it really is a work that crosses genres in that it has also played in opera houses. So, what is it?
“That depends on where it is produced,” says Jay Dias, echoing Stephen Sondheim’s quote when asked about Sweeney Todd. Sondheim said that when it plays in an opera house, it’s an opera; and when it plays in a theater, it’s a musical.
All North Texas audience need to know is this: It will be their latest opportunity to experience something spectacular: A seldom-produced Broadway show recreated just as gloriously as it was intended more than a half-century ago.
Dias has gained an international reputation for himself and for Irving’s Lyric Stage in researching and restoring a slate of musicals to their original glory — and we don’t just mean a forgotten song or two … though there is that, as well. (More on that later.) It’s also about the full force of an orchestra. You won’t find the pit sparsely populated with a couple of synthesizers, a few brass players and a drummer. Nope.
For The Most Happy Fella, audiences will hear the original 38-piece symphony orchestrations and most all of the cut music restored. Working with Jo Sullivan Loesser, the show’s original star and widow of the composer, Dias was given access to the archives, including the original scores.
It hasn’t been just on this show. Dias’ baton has led 30-plus orchestras for most of Lyric’s recent revivals, including Carousel, My Fair Lady, Gypsy, Rags and Kismet. On those, as here, Dias has refused to cut any corners. Even the part composed for celesta is played on a real celesta; the accordion on a real accordion. Synthesizers are all but verboten.
“[Lyric founder] Steve [Jones] and I are united in our dedication to honor the original intentions of the composer,” Dias explains. “Loesser and orchestrator Don Walker knew what they were doing, and audiences for Lyric Stage’s production will experience to the full scope of the score, including the original orchestration and all the missing music for the character Marie.”
Loesser was forced to remove the operatic songs of that character and replace them with dialogue, even though “he felt her arias were important for the depth of the storytelling,” Dias says. Companies in the past have used some of the Marie material, but this is the first time that all of that material will be heard. (Walker felt that Marie’s cut aria entitled “Eyes Like A Stranger,” was one of the most marvelous things Loesser ever wrote.)
“I believe Marie’s cut material is important not only for the story, but also for how the composer had planned to unify the score with the use of leitmotifs,” says Dias, referring to a term coined by Wagner for a tune associated with a specific character or dramatic situation. While this technique was used before Wagner, he was the first to use it so extensively.
Loesser used it throughout The Most Happy Fella, especially for Marie, “and with the restored cut music, Marie is now a more fully developed character who is in balance with the other principals of the story,” says Dias.
“When Jo Sullivan Loesser came to see our staged concert production of Kismet, she was thrilled with how her husband’s protégés’ work was presented, and was especially pleased with the score,” says Dias. That emboldened her to entrust Dias with her husband’s most “musical musical.” That’s a term Loesser used to describe the show’s almost non-stop music. “Loesser took what might normally be dialogue in a scene, and set it to music as recitative or arioso.”
Once this is done, all the materials — including Dias’ tweaks to the master score — will be boxed up, and sent to Frank Loesser Enterprises for a published “critical edition.”
“The goal for the Loesser estate includes both versions of the show. I would think most likely opera companies will opt to produce the full version,” says Dias.
Even more than Sweeney Todd, Fella was composed to be sung operatically — something that led the original producer, Kermit Bloomgarten, to go into a panic, and forced Loesser into making many cuts. Neither Dias nor Jones were intimidated by restoring that operatic sweep to this production.
“We are fortunate in the area to have so many brilliant singing actors, and part of Lyric Stage’s philosophy is to hire local talent,” says Dias.
Another pleasure this production is giving Dias is the ability to work with his spouse of 28 years, Len Pfluger, who directed and/or choreographer Lyric’s productions of Kismet, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and others. For this production, Pfluger is creating both the musical staging and choreography.
“We always love having an opportunity to work with each other,” says Dias. “This doesn’t take away the joy of working with other people; it’s just that we’ve developed a sort of short hand with each other. And it’s really nice to be in the same place at the same time.”
Working with Pfluger is one reason why Dias, now retired, dusts off his tux to come to Irving several times a year to engage in the Herculean tasks of mounting such massive shows. But the main draw remains not just getting to discover the full scope and power of an original score by Loesser or Styne or Loewe; it’s to share that discovery with a small corner of the world.
“I want people to leave the performance saying, ‘Wow, what a great piece of music theater,’” he says.
The Most Happy Fella, opens at the Irving Arts Center’s Carpenter Hall, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd., Irving, Sept. 15. For more information, visit LyricStage.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 24, 2012.