When Broadway legend Frank Loesser died in 1969, he left behind a remarkable legacy: five musicals, including Guys and Dolls, and numerous hit songs sung by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars in over 60 motion pictures. Loesser was as talented as he was prolific, many of his songs became standards in the repertoire of singers such as Frank Sinatra. Loesser won multiple Tony awards, an Oscar, and the Pulitzer Prize. The success he enjoyed during his lifetime has endured even after his death. In 1992, a full 23 years after Loesser’s death, Guys and Dolls was revived on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Revival. A glowing review of that revival, in New York magazine, stated “The show has radiantly renewed the New York-Broadway love affair that used to be the symbol of the city’s vitality.”
Loesser grew up in New York surrounded by music. His father was a classical piano teacher and his uncle was both a respected pianist and a music critic. Loesser’s burgeoning love of popular music was not well received by his family. By the time Loesser was in his early teens, he played both the harmonica and the piano. He was largely self-taught and was never to study the classical music loved by his father.
After high school, Loesser attended City College of New York. He abandoned his studies when the Depression hit, and for the next several years he held a variety jobs, among them, newspaper ad salesman and city editor for a New Rochelle, New York newspaper. It was during this stint as an editor that Loesser began writing sketches and radio scripts.
Loesser’s first published song lyrics were “In Love With a Memory of You,” which he co-wrote with the future president of Juilliard School of Music, the noted composer William Schuman. Loesser worked in vaudeville and was involved with the Ziegfield Follies of 1934,
With Louis Hersher, Loesser wrote the lyrics and music for the film Poetic Gems in 1936. Around this time Loesser was doing a nightclub act, singing and playing the piano, in collaboration with the composer Irving Actman. The duo’s contribution to The Illustrators’Show on Broadway in 1936 got the attention of Hollywood. This earned Loesser a contract with Universal Studios. Loesser made the move west and ultimately landed at Paramount.
In 1937, Loesser and Alfred Newman collaborated on the song “The Moon of Mankoora” for the picture Hurricane, That year he also worked on The Mysterious Crossing,
For the Record…
Born June 29, 1910 in New York, NY; died July 26, 1969 in New York, NY; married twice; second wife’s name, Jo Sullivan,
Awards: Tony awards for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Choreographer, Best Book, 1950, for Guys and Dolls.
Three Smart Girls and Turkey Dinner. In 1938 Loesser worked with Hoagy Carmichael, Burton Lane, and Manning Sherwin on the films College Swing, Men with Wings, and Thanks for the Memory. In 1939, Loesser did the Lawrence Welk theme song, “Bubbles In The Wine” with Bob Calame and worked on the movies Beau Geste, Destry Rides Again, Some Like It Hot, and St. Louis Blues.
When war broke out, Loesser found himself for the first time without a partner. Assigned to the Special Services division, Loesser was charged with providing lyrics for military troop shows. During his service, he worked with other composers and now began composing for himself. The result of his first solo effort was a hit, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” (1942), and the start of a long and successful career as both composer and writer. Loesser would soon enough be regarded as “more than just another pop tune writer from Hollywood.”
Loesser continued to write for motion pictures, including Let’s Dance, Neptune’s Daughter, Red, Hot And Blue (Loesser made his only on-screen appearance here as the piano-playing gangster), Hans Christian Anderson, and My Son John. Additionally, in the late 1940s, he formed Frank Music Corp. through which he strove to identify and develop up-and-coming composers and lyricists. Jerry Ross, Richard Adler and Meredith Wilson, successful theater songwriters from the 1950s, are just three of the many talents whose careers were given a boost by Frank Music Corp.
Loesser’s enormously successful career on Broadway commenced after the war when he was persuaded to create the music for Where’s Charley? This musical, produced by Ernest Martin and Cy Feuer, opened on October 11, 1948, and was a smash. Two years later Loesser wrote the score for Guys and Dolls, a musical adaptation of Damon Runyan’s fictional world of card-sharks, cheats, molls, and mobsters. Guys and Dolls opened on November 24, 1950 to critical acclaim. The musical cleaned up at the Tony Awards, winning the Best Musical, Best Score, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Choreographer and Best Book categories.
Loesser’s next project was even more ambitious. He wrote both the score and the book for The Most Happy Fella. During the production, Frank had a sign made reading “Loud is Good” to remind the cast how he wanted the songs done. The play opened May 3, 1956 and ran for the next two years. Fella contained the hits “Standing on the Corner” and “Big D” and Columbia Records released a complete recording of the musical from start to finish. A first. It was during the run of The Most Happy Fella that Loesser fell in love with his leading lady, Jo Sullivan, who was to become his second wife.
Loesser was never content to repeat himself and his third Broadway endeavor was Greenwillow, a kind of “country music fable.” Though it was nominated for several Tony Awards, it was not the success Loesser hoped it to be and it closed in 1960 after 95 shows. Greenwillow did, however, produce a hit some years later, when the song “Never Will I Marry” was covered by Barbra Streisand.
Undaunted by the disappointing reception to Greenwillow, Loesser undertook what was to be his next smash hit. On October 14, 1961, How to Succeed in Business without Really Tryingopene. on Broadway. It was ahuge success and ran for the next four years. The Pulitzer Prize-winning production included the hits “I Believe in You” and “Brotherhood of Man.” The show also took seven Tonys, including Best Musical.
Singers were especially important to Loesser. He worked with some of the best on Broadway and in Hollywood. He was a perfectionist and had a precise idea of how his songs should be sung. He viewed the singers primarily as an “instrument through which he spoke to an audience”. The strength of Loesser’s opinions regarding how his music should be performed led to a falling out with Frank Sinatra, resulting in a lifelong grudge. Loesser’s temper got the better of him on more than one occasion, leading to physical violence and, in one case, to leaving as how for aperiod. In the biography of her father, Susan Loesser has written “Singers had a strong effect on my father. He reviled them or he adored them or he married them.” Both Loesser’s wives were actress/singers.
A constant breakneck pace enabled Loesser to accomplish a phenomenal amount of superior and lasting work in his 59 years. It was a rare occasion that Loesser slept more than four hours at a time. The fruits of this labor are evident in the lasting quality of his work. In addition to the revival of Guys and Dolls, the nineties has seen a revival of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.
Frank Music Corp. is still in business and there have been recent releases of Loesser’s music An Evening with Frank Loesser, a collection of demos from three of his Broadway shows, and Loesser by Loesser, a compilation of pieces sung by Jo Sullivan Loesser and family. Loesser’s daughter Susan has published a biography of her father, A Most Remarkable Fella and as long as standards are played on the radio, Loesser’s music will remain in the public consciousness.
Zeigfield Follies of 1934, 1934.
The Illustrator’s Show, 1950.
Guys and Dolls, 1950.
The Most Happy Fella, 1956.
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, 1961.
Pleasures and Palaces, 1965.
Senior Discretio. (unproduced), 1969.
Poetic Gems, 1934.
The Man I Marry. 1936.
Postal Inspector, 1936.
Blossoms on Broadway, 1937.
The Duck Hunt, 1937.
Everybody Sings, 1937.
The Golfers, 1937.
The Hurricane, 1937.
The Mysterious Crossing, 1937.
Three Smart Girls, 1937.
Turkey Dinner, 1937.
Vogues of 1938, 1937.
Coconut Grove, 1938.
College Swing, 1938.
Fight for Your Lady, 1938.
Freshman Year, 1938.
Give Me a Sailor, 1938.
Men with Wings, 1938.
Sing You Sinners, 1938.
A Song is Born, 1938.
Spawn of the North, 1938.
Stolen Heaven, 1938.
The Texans, 1938.
Thanks for the Memory, 1938.
$1,000 a Touchdown, 1939.
Beau Geste, 1939.
Cafe Society, 1939.
Dance with the Devil, 1939.
Destry Rides Again,
The Gracie Allen Murder Case, 1939.
Hawaiian Nights, 1939.
Heritage of the Desert, 1939.
Invitation to Happiness, 1939.
Island of Lost Men, 1939.
The Llano Kid, 1939.
Man about Town, 1939.
Some Like it Hot, 1939.
St. Louis Blues, 1939.
The Star Maker, 1939.
Adventures in Diamonds, 1940.
All Women Have Secrets, 1940.
At Good Old Siwash, 1940.
Buck Benny Rides Again, 1940.
The Farmer’s Daughter, 1940.
The Great Victor Herbert, 1940.
Dancing for Nickels and Dimes, 1940.
Moon over Burma, 1940.
A Night at Earl Carroll’s, 1940.
Northwest Mounted Police, 1940.
The Quarterback, 1940.
The Road to Singapore, 1940.
Seven Singers, 1940.
Youth Will be Served, 1940.
Aloma of the South Seas, 1941
Arizona Sketches, 1941.
Birth of the Blues, 1941.
Caught in the Draft, 1941.
Dancing on a Dime, 1941.
Glamour Boy, 1941.
Henry for President, 1941.
Hold Back the Dawn, 1941.
Kiss the Boys Goodbye, 1941.
Las Vegas Nights, 1941.
Mr. Bug Goes to Town, 1941.
Sailors on Leave, 1941.
Sis Hopkins, 1941.
There’s Magic in Music, 1941.
World Premiere, 1941.
Beyond the Blue Horizon, 1942.
The Forest Rangers, 1942.
Priorities on Parade, 1942.
Reap the Wild Wind, 1942.
Seven Days Leave, 1942.
Sweater Girl, 1942.
This Gun for Hire, 1942.
Tortilla Flat, 1942.
True to the Army, 1942.
Army Show, 1943.
Riding High, 1943.
Thank Your Lucky Stars, 1943.
About Face, 1944.
And the Angels Sing, 1944.
Christmas Holiday, 1944.
Duffy’s Tavern, 1944.
Heavenly Days, 1944.
Hi, Yank, 1944.
See Here, Private Hargrove, 1944.
The Shining Future, 1944.
The W.A.C. Musical, 1944.
Behind City Lights, 1945.
The Day Before Spring, 1946.
Lady Called Lou, 1946.
Strange Triangle, 1946.
A Miracle Can Happen, 1947.
The Perils of Pauline, 1947.
Variety Girl, 1947.
Lady from Lariat Loop, 1948.
Let’s Dance, 1948.
Neptune’s Daughter, 1948.
Where’s Charley, 1948.
Red, Hot, and Blue, 1949.
Roseanna McCoy, 1949.
The College Bowl, 1951.
Hans Christian Anderson, 1952.
My Son John, 1952.
Guys and Dolls, 1955.
The Trouble with Harry, 1952.
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, 1966.
The Frank Loesser Songbook, Frank Music Corp., DATE? Loesser, Susan, The Most Happy Fella, Penguin Books, 1994.
Frank Loesser (1910-1969) is one on America's major lyricists, having written the lyrics to hundreds of songs for films and army shows. He is most famous for writing the musical comedy scores for Where's Charley?, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Precocious From the Start
Francis Henry Loesser was born on June 29, 1910 in New York, New York. His father Henry was a Prussian piano virtuoso, and his mother Julia was Bohemian. His half-brother Arthur was in his teens by the time Loesser and his sister Grace were born. Arthur was a gifted pianist and was often away on concert tours. Time writer Richard Corliss intimated, "Friends of the family were surprised that Frank, not Arthur, achieved top musical renown; they affectionately called him the 'evil of the two Loessers."'
Loesser was a rebel from an early age, refusing to speak German, the family's language of choice, and he took great pleasure from playing practical jokes. Although raised in a genteel home filled with serious music, he never studied under his parents. He was a natural musician but to restless to settle down for lessons. By age four, he could play any tune he heard and was able to spend a great amount of time at the piano.
A bright student, Loesser was accepted at Townsend Harris, a three-year high school for gifted children. He was expelled, however, because of his practical jokes and he did not graduate. Loesser was 15 when he was accepted at City College of New York, but because he failed every subject except English and gym, Loesser dropped out.
When his father died in 1926, his mother made a living lecturing on contemporary literature and his brother quit touring and accepted a position as the head of the piano department of the Cleveland Institute of Music. Loesser took a series of odd jobs and in this way contributed to the family income. To soothe his creative spirit, he began writing silly couplets. Encouraged by friends, he began writing song lyrics and occasionally, selling a song.
Resolved to Succeed
Loesser was determined to succeed as a lyricist. Often though, he was compelled to accept other employment to supplement his income. He sold classified ads for the Herald Tribune, was the knit-goods editor for Women's Wear, and was editor of the New Rochelle News, a trade publication. As related by his daughter Susan in the biography A Most Remarkable Fella, Loesser was not satisfied at any of those jobs. He confided to his brother in a letter, "And so I have gone back to the song business. Although I have been writing them five years or more, I have never stuck to the trade for more than a year at a time. Not because I got tired of it, but because every once in a while some "money-making" idea comes up which takes me off the track, in the hope that I can make a better living in it than with music."
In the early 1930s, Loesser wrote lyrics for the Leo Feist Music Publishing company. He was under contract for a year at $100 a week for all the songs he could write. He collaborated with composer Joe Brandfon and then with his friend William Schuman. They established an unusual writing pattern that enabled them to work on two songs at the same time. Together they would outline the two songs, then Schuman worked out the tune on one song while Loesser worked on the lyrics for the second. When they were ready to switch, Schuman would take the lyrics Loesser had worked out and put them to music and Loesser drafted lyrics to the tune Schuman composed. Remembering Loesser, Schuman recalled to Corliss for Time that, "He was an intellectual who'd go to the ends of the earth to hide that from anybody." Schuman went on to become a distinguished classical composer and president of the Lincoln Center.
Always pushing to sell his lyrics, Loesser transformed himself to blend with the group in control of Tin Pan Alley. He developed his pendant for local dialect preferring the accent and slang of the street. His daughter recalled, "Early on he cultivated a brassy, New York, blue-collar accent, sprinkled with a little Yiddish for ethnic flavor."
By 1935, Loesser and Irving Actman were collaborating on music and performing their songs nightly in a small New York club. The team was discovered by a movie studio scout and in 1936, Loesser and Actman signed a six-month contract with Universal Studios and moved to Hollywood, California. Loesser was picked up by Paramount when the Universal contract ran out. In 1937 he began writing lyrics with Manning Sherwin. He had done well enough as a lyricist that he signed an individual contract with the studio. As his music became more popular his income grew and Loesser was on his way.
Between 1936 and 1942, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) catalog listed over a hundred songs with lyrics by Loesser. These songs were composed for the movies in collaboration with various music writers and included: Small Fry, Heart and Soul, Jingle, Jangle, Jingle, and Two Sleepy People. Part of the charm of Loesser lyrics was the phrasing. They were written the way people talked. Loesser picked up phrases from all over and incorporated them in songs. His music can be used as a reference to dialect. Wilfrid Sheed pointed out for GQ, "'Murder He Says' (music by McHugh) remains the best guide we have to the slang the kids were using during World War II. And then there's 'I get the neck of the chicken/I get the rumble-seat ride' (McHugh again), which conveys not only the sound of middle-American life but the whole texture of it."
One inspiring phrase came from an army chaplain who had said, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." Loesser knew the phrase was jaunty but not irreverent. As related by Sheed for GQ, the phrase seemed to say, "We're a God-fearing nation, but we're not pantywaists, by golly." Meeting the challenge of 1941 for a patriotic song, Loesser used that phrase and created a tune to help establish the rhythm of the verses as he wrote them. The song was part hymn and part animated folk and it was a success. It gave Loesser another artistic vein to tap and that is all he needed to compose his own music. World War II gave him the inspiration for the verses.
In 1942 Loesser enlisted in the army. Initially he was stationed at a base in Santa Ana, California. He, along with other military people, produced many songs for the Army. He was transferred to the Army's Special Services Unit in New York in 1943. There he wrote scripts and music for the Blueprint Specials. In addition to producing material for the war effort, Loesser was involved in several motion pictures for Hollywood until his discharge from the army in 1945.
Loesser returned to California after his army discharge eager to try new material. In 1948, he agreed to write the score for Where's Charley? the George Abbott adaptation of the Victorian farce Charley's Aunt. The musical was a surprise smash hit. Loesser's daughter recalled, "It ran for two years on Broadway, went on the road with the original cast, was made into a movie by Warner Brothers, and is still performed regularly in stock and amateur productions and revivals all over the world."
Guys and Dolls
Guys and Dollsis a musical masterpiece based on The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown, a story by Damon Runyon. It is full of comedy, romance, gangster dialogue and music. Loesser teamed with Abe Burrows and together they crafted the show. Sheed remarked for GQ about the production, "It is one of the minute number of musicals without a single weak tune. It is also a superb piece of theatrical construction, with a great opening and a dandy close and maybe the best first act curtain in musical history."
Francis Davis writing for the Atlantic commented on Loesser's talent, "Musical comedy is a stylized art form that reached its peak in Frank Loesser's 'Guys and Dolls. "' The original show opened in 1950, and ran for 1, 200 performances on Broadway. Loesser won a New York Drama Critics Award and an Antoinette Perry Award (Tony Award) for the score. Guys and Dolls was made into a movie in 1955, produced by Samuel Goldwyn and starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. The musical celebrated a Broadway revival in 1992 and ran for 1, 143 performances. The 1992 performance was awarded four Antoinette Perry Awards, including Best Revival, and won a Grammy Award for the cast recording (revival cast).
The Most Happy Fella
In 1951 while working on music for Goldwyn's Hans Christian Andersen, Loesser began looking for his next challenge. He found it in The Most Happy Fella. The new musical was based on Sidney Howard's play They Knew What They Wanted. Loesser actually adapted the play, writing the script, the music and the lyrics. According to Time writer Corliss, The Most Happy Fella turned out to be, "A rich and deeply felt pastiche of popular and operatic vocabularies. The show has an emotive force rare on Broadway; the feeling is big enough to fill an opera stage." Loesser was awarded the New York Drama Critics Award for the musical score in 1957.
Loesser's next project was Greenwillow, a musical adaptation of the B.J. Chute novel. For Loesser, this undertaking included writing the show, the music and lyrics, as well as, managing all aspects of the production. In 1960, the production opened in Philadelphia, but received poor reviews. Loesser, despite reservations, took the show to New York where it ran for only 95 performances.
Greenwillow has been rewritten and produced by writers Walter Willison and Douglas Holmes. The revised musical opened in 1997. Jay Handelman reviewer for Variety suggested that, "Fans of the original cast album and of musical theater in general may well rejoice over the job that Douglas Holmes and Walter Willison have done in taking Loesser's beautifully varied score and fitting it into a magical story that is both touching and funny."
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
In 1961, Loesser was approached by old friends Abe Burrows, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin to write the score for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Based on the book by the same name, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was a satire about rising to the corporate top. The original production was the longest running of Loesser's musicals. It earned Loesser and Burrows a Pulitzer Prize in 1962. After 1, 417 performances the show closed in 1965.
A revival production opened the same year. Writing for The New Yorker, John Lahr commented, "The success of 'How to Succeed' comes primarily from the pit, thanks to Loesser's music and lyrics which shrewdly send up the rituals and cliches of office life circa 1961."
Loesser was a chronic overachiever who experienced success in everything he put his mind to. Collaborator Hoagy Carmichael found Loesser to be, "so packed with ideas, he was overloaded." However, Loesser's last years were frustrating. His health was failing and his musical plots would not connect. GQ writer Sheed summarized "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying now figured as the last of the great post-World War II musicals born of depression, war and jazz, and everything since simply has to be called something else." Loesser died of lung cancer in 1969 in New York at the age of 59. His music and lyrics will long survive him.
Contemporary Authors, Volume 112, Gale, 1985.
Loesser, Susan, A Most Remarkable Fella, Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1993.
The Atlantic, March 1993.
GQ-Gentlemen's Quarterly, September 1997.
The New Yorker, April 24, 1995.
Time, September 16, 1991.
Variety, July 21-27, 1997.
LOESSER, FRANK (1910–1969), composer. Born in New York, Loesser wrote songs while at City College and then in the army during World War ii, of which Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition became the best known. He settled in Hollywood and wrote music for films and musicals; the best known are Hans Christian Andersen (film, 1952), and the musicals Guys and Dolls (1950), The Most Happy Fella (1956), and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961). He was three times the recipient of the New York Drama Critics Award for the best musical score. His brother, arthur loesser (1894–1969), was a pianist and writer on music, and the author of Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History (1954).