By Peter Filichia —
There was a good deal of talk last week about the change in cigarette packaging. Terribly graphic images are now to be put on the labels.
Why couldn’t this have happened decades ago? We might have got a great many more shows from Frank Loesser.
All right, we couldn’t expect that Loesser would still be with us in 2011; he was born 101 years ago this week, on June 29, 1910. But he only lived to be 59, at which point lung cancer killed him on July 28, 1969. According to his daughter Susan in her biography of him – A Most Remarkable Fella – Loesser smoked three packs a day. What if he had never taken up the odious habit?
At least we have three great shows that he left behind: Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.
Cy Feuer, one of the two producers of Guys and Dolls, was connected with fourteen Broadway productions. But when he wrote his autobiography, he chose to paraphrase a lyric from Guys and Dolls as his title: I Got the Show Right Here, a riff on “I got the horse right here,” the first words sung in Loesser’s masterpiece – and the first words that lead into one of Broadway’s most famous numbers: “Fugue for Tinhorns.” It has us meet the bettors who muse on which horse they should place their money and faith.
Loesser mentioned “Equipoise,” which wasn’t just an arbitrary name that he chose, but actually had been the name of a champion racehorse. Here’s the other irony: Equipoise’s nickname was “The Chocolate Soldier” – the name of another famous musical.
Guys and Dolls won the Tony Award as the Best Musical of 1950-1951. Looking back on it now, however, one has trouble believing that Loesser lost the Best Score Tony. Who could possibly best such songs “If I Were a Bell,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and the title song? How about “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – one of the greatest of all 11 o’clock numbers?
And what about “Adelaide’s Lament,” considered one of the greatest comedy songs of all time? A look at the manuscript for this song at the New York Public Library, however, shows a little Loesser pentimento. You know the lyric, “And furthermore, just from stalling and stalling the wedding trip”? The word “furthermore” was not Loesser’s initial choice; the paper shows that he printed “furthermore” over a dollop of Wite-Out. Wonder what had been under there?
So what was the Best Score Tony winner that season? Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam. Bet the Tonys wish they could have that one back. But on the other hand, the Tonys were only in its fifth year of existence, so Berlin probably won in a “lifetime achievement” capacity. Loesser was still a relative newcomer to Broadway, for Guys and Dolls was only his second show, while Berlin had been writing for Broadway since 1908. But Guys and Dolls is still very much with us, while Call Me Madam rarely surfaces.
One can count on the fingers of one hand the number of hit shows that have had book, music and lyrics by one person – but Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, his 1956 opus, must be among them.
Tony Esposito, the sixtysomething who’s attracted to a young waitress, leaves her his bejeweled tiepin as a tip, and his address so she’ll write. She does, and soon they’re pen-lovers. That Tony calls her Rosabella is one thing; that the script calls her that from the outset is another – for that’s not her real name. Near show’s end, Tony learns that she’s Amy.
One must wonder if Loesser chose that for her because he’d already had a great deal of luck with the name via “Once in Love with Amy,” the first hit he ever had in a Broadway show (Where’s Charley? in 1948). No — Sidney Howard, who wrote the musical’s source, a 1924 play called They Knew What They Wanted – named her Amy from the first stage direction.
Rosabella sings us what Tony wrote: “I Don’t Know Nothin’ About You,” one of musical theater’s most beautiful songs that is both quiet and a bolt of lightning at the same time. After Rosabella writes back, we go to Tony’s vineyard, where everyone’s waiting for the mailman. There’s mail for Johnson, Farnsworth, Van Pelt, Sullivan and Herbie Greene. (“Say, who’s Pearl?” the mailman reads off a postcard.) These were inside jokes, for the first four were the names of actors in the show: Susan Johnson (Cleo), Ralph Farnsworth (Cook; Bus Driver), Lois Van Pelt (Neighbor Lady) and Jo Sullivan (Rosabella) – who later married Loesser. As for Herbie Greene, who provided the show’s orchestra and choral direction, he was at the time dating a woman named Pearl.
The big hit song was “Standing on the Corner,” which a group of townies did in the middle of the first act. The nation may have assumed otherwise when the Ricardos and the Mertzes went to see The Most Happy Fella; the episode known as “Lucy’s Night in Town” put the intermission after the song – which prompted Ethel to say, “Oh, that Frank Loesser music is just great.” Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz apparently thought so, too; they invested in the show, which was why they were inclined to give it a plug on their wildly successful television show.
The episode also featured snippets of “Don’t Cry” and “Big D” taken from the original cast album, but there was plenty more to The Most Happy Fella. As Loesser said himself (when asked if the show were an opera or a musical), “It’s a musical with a lotta music.” That’s one of the reasons why The Most Happy Fella was the first-ever show to be recorded in full and released on three long-playing records that captured virtually all of the show’s dialogue and songs – from the original 1956 Broadway production. It’s since been transferred to two compact discs. (Those with not as much time on their hands might consider the single disc 1992 Broadway revival cast, which is quieter; two pianos make up the entire orchestra.)
Although Feuer chose I Got the Show Right Here as his book’s title, Guys and Dolls wasn’t his longest-running production. Another Frank Loesser hit was: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. It opened in 1961 and didn’t close until 1,417 performances had passed. It’s one of the few shows to win Tony Awards for the first two leading actors who opened their productions: first Robert Morse, and then Matthew Broderick, for playing uber-ambitious J. Pierrepont Finch. (A current revival was unable to do the same for its leading man, who wasn’t even given a nomination.)
Finch and company boss J.B. Biggley are characters in Shepherd Mead’s original mock how-to book, but Finch’s nemesis Bud Frump isn’t. Did Loesser invent that name to rhyme with “The Comp-any Way?”
Not that Loesser needed help on writing lyrics; he showed that he could be both sharp and topical in “A Secretary Is Not a Toy, in which he wrote, “Her pad is to write in / And not spend the night in.”
Loesser’s score didn’t provide as many hits – mainstream taste was sadly moving away from Broadway – but “I Believe in You” is still heard here and there. Ace orchestrator Robert “Red” Ginzler’s certainly helped the song in the show, in which executives are seen shaving with electric razors; he had his musicians toot on kazoos to ape the sound of their Norelcos.
But what of Loesser the man? He had one of the greatest reputations as someone who helped those just starting out. He gave office space to Meredith Willson for years, because he believed that his show The Music Man could amount to something. (It did.)
A young Jerry Herman got his first vote of confidence from Loesser. As Herman once told me, “When I was design student, my mother got me an audition with Frank Loesser. I was amazed he was willing to see me, but he spent time with me and told me I should leave design school because I had the talent to write songs.”
Peter Stone once told me that once he signed the contract to write his first musical book (Kean), “I then realized, ‘Now what?’ So I went to Frank, and asked, ‘How do you do this?’ He was articulate, knew everything about it, and what he told me is still used regularly today.” Stone went on to write 1776 — which was produced by another Loesser protégé, Stuart Ostrow. He’d worked on Happy Fella and How to Succeed, but when he wanted to produce, Loesser was the first to offer him money ($10,000) for his first show.
As Betty Comden once told me, “Frank was the one who said ‘In romantic songs, get all the book information about the characters in the verse; that allows you to put the romantic lyrics in the rest of the song so that any pop singer could sing it.’ Adolph (Green, her lifelong collaborator) and I remembered that when we were writing ‘The Party’s Over’ in Bells Are Ringing. Our verse had Judy Holliday as Ella Peterson admit that she’d been pretending to be someone else with her man. So we wrote the verse, ‘He’s in love with Melisande Scott, a girl who doesn’t exist; he’s in love with someone you’re not, and so, remember, it was never you he kissed.’ Once that was out of the way, we could go on to ‘The party’s over; it’s time to call it a day,’ which, I’m happy to say, many singers did record – without the verse.”
The upshot? Frank Loesser – and we — would have been luckier had he not been smoking those Luckies.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.