Until a couple of weeks ago, I took the great American songwriter Frank Loesser for granted. I knew the name, and if I pressed my own brain might have remembered that he wrote the words and music to Guys and Dolls and How To Success in Business Without Really Trying, but would not have known that he was the author of "Slow Boat To China" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside." I would not have known that he was responsible for the 1940's novelty hit "Murder, He Says," which I have on my iPod in the Gene Krupa-Anita O'Day version, and play occasionally for a smile and trip down to bobby-soxer memory lane. (No, I wasn't a bobby-soxer; I was a little kid who thought bobby-soxers were fascinating in a hilarious way.)
Clever lyrics and a seamless way of integrating song with the action of a story were hallmarks of Loesser's genius. If you don't think "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is witty, listen to it once more. If you miss the significance of a song like "I Believe in You," listen to the cast album (or rent the movie--this one does capture the show). It's sung by the young hustler (Robert Morse played the role to perfection), as he looks at his own image in the corporate men's room mirror--surrounded by his competition, all taking an extra shave with their kazoo electric razors as they chant in desperate counterpoint, "Gotta stop that man, cold, or he'll stop me...")
Last week was a banner one for Frank Loesser and me. To begin with, the excellent production of Guys and Dolls at Hoboken High, just around the corner from my apartment, transported me to that odd corner of Damon Runyon's New York through the music and words of Loesser at his best. The production offered a fresh approach to the show, too long occupied in memory by the lackluster film dragged down by a lost-looking Marlon Brando. An unquestionably great actor, Brando showed no connection with music or with the milieu of Times Square crapshooters. At Hoboken High, the students worked their tails off dancing and singing, and approached their characters innocently with both the great courage and gusto of teenagers. I was brought back to the original intent of the material and the clever juxtaposition of romance with gritty street-smarts. Who but Frank Loesser could have captured the color of Runyan's Broadway? Who else could have written, "Da Biltmore garage wants a grand/But we ain't got a grand on hand/And dey now got a lock on the da door/Of da gym at P.S. 84"? And conclude with the delicious syntax of "If we only had a lousy little grand we could be a millionaire!" to say nothing of the beautiful love songs and hilarious novelty numbers I described in the review you'll find if you scroll down to the post before last.
I was lucky enough also to attend a Loesser evening at the New-York Historical Society Museum a week ago, moderated by journalist Pete Hamill, who was clearly relishing every song, particularly those from Guys and Dolls. There were interpolations of "Adelaide, Adelaide, Ever-Lovin' Adelaide," and "A Woman in Love," both of which were in the lamentable film but not in the stage play.
Loesser's widow, the extraordinary Jo Sullivan, who played the original Rosabella in The Most Happy Fella, graced the evening with her favorite of his songs, "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year," which, as she noted, was introduced by Deanna Durbin in the 1944 movie Christmas Holiday. Sullivan still sings like an angel; she also performed a duet with her beautiful daughter Emily Loesser which was wonderful to hear.
The benefit gala was staged as a fund-raiser for the Museum's American Musicals Project, which uses the study of American musicals to provide a context for teaching social studies to New York City schools, and a worthy project it is. The gala itself introduced us to excerpts from some of Loesser's letters to friends including Bob Fosse. It left me wanting to know more about Frank Loesser. If you want to do the same, there is a wonderful website that will get you started.