The Greater of Two Loessers
Among connoisseurs of popular song, Frank Loesser is universally regarded as a master. Not only did he write the scores for two major Broadway musicals, Guys and Dolls (1950) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), but he also wrote or co-wrote numerous songs that became standards after being introduced in Hollywood films, including “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” and “On a Slow Boat to China.” In addition, Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying were both turned into hit movies, and How to Succeed won a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Yet Loesser is less well known to the public at large than any of his peers, and even at the peak of his success, he was obscure by comparison with such popular-music celebrities as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter. Nor has he attracted the attention of scholars of American popular song. No full-scale biography of Loesser has been written, and it was only last year that the first monograph devoted to his life and work, Thomas L. Riis’s Frank Loesser, was published.1
Why is Loesser’s personal profile so low? One reason is that even the best Hollywood songwriters (except for Irving Berlin, who was already famous when he began writing for films) were treated as craftsmen, not stars, and were billed accordingly. Because Loesser came late to the stage and wrote only two musicals that continue to be revived with any regularity—and because he spent most of his Hollywood years working on second-rate pictures that are no longer remembered save for the songs he contributed to them—he failed to establish himself as a songwriter whose name alone could sell music. Moreover, he was and is best known for his comic songs, whereas the popular reputations of the other great songwriters of the pre-rock era were based mainly on their romantic ballads.
Even so, Loesser’s standing as a giant of American popular song would be secure even if he had written nothing but Guys and Dolls, one of a handful of postwar musicals to have received three Broadway revivals, the second of which ran almost as long as the original production. It is the quintessential Broadway show, a vade mecum of theatrical craft—and the long road that led Loesser to its opening night is in some ways as interesting as the show itself.
Born in Manhattan in 1910, Frank Loesser was the child of cultivated and fully assimilated middle-class German Jews with serious musical interests, and he spent his adult life rebelling against their starchy influence. His father was a piano teacher and accompanist, and Arthur Loesser, his older half-brother, became a concert pianist, music critic, and cultural historian whose best-known book, Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History (1954), continues to be read. But Frank, whose musical gifts were no less obvious than his sibling’s, refused to study piano or acquire any formal knowledge of music.
Instead of interesting himself in classical music, Frank became a Tin Pan Alley lyricist, explaining in a letter to Arthur that his new line of work was a “trade” rather than an art: “It is all contact, salesmanship, handshaking, etc.—not a bit different from cloaks and suits or any other industry.” By 1937 he had moved to Hollywood to work for Paramount Pictures, and a year later he produced his first hit songs with Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote the music for “Heart and Soul” and “Two Sleepy People.”
In addition to rejecting his parents’ milieu, Loesser simultaneously immersed himself in a different kind of Jewish culture. As Thomas Riis explains:
For Loesser, embracing the milieu of New York popular music also meant embracing the world of working-class, Yiddish-speaking Lower East Side Jews, who figured prominently in the entertainment business. . . . They were swing dancers, fans of Tin Pan Alley and burlesque who had little use for high art, cultivated sensibilities, or the classical legacy valued by Loesser’s family.
More than any of the other Jewish songwriters who shaped American popular song in the 20s and 30s, Loesser incorporated the sound of Yiddish-flavored English into his lyrics. On occasion he did so explicitly, as in “Sue Me,” sung in Guys and Dolls by a Jewish gambler: “Alright already, I’m just a nogoodnik / Alright already, it’s true, so nu?” In addition, he filled his songs with virtuoso wordplay and rhymes of the utmost intricacy: “When you find a doll with her diamond in hock / Rest assured that the rock has gone to restock /Some gentleman jock.” Yet he also had an uncanny sense of verbal economy, as well as an understanding of how the best song lyrics function as miniature dramas. In the 60s he served as a mentor to Dave Frishberg, a jazz pianist and aspiring songwriter who set down his elder’s artistic credo: “Loesser’s objective in writing a lyric was to make the words work throughout so that the end provides a payoff rather than a repetition of what comes before.”
Starting in 1939, Loesser began writing music for some of his own lyrics, and it soon became evident that he was as gifted a tunesmith as he was a wordsmith. The uniqueness of this achievement is not sufficiently appreciated: except for Stephen Sondheim, he is the only songwriter to have established himself as a first-tier composer after having won fame as a lyricist. “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” (1944), the best of his pre-Broadway songs, is an atypically melancholy ballad with an expansive melody whose long leaps suggest a deeper knowledge of classical music than he cared to admit.
Loesser spent World War II working on a series of musical revues designed to be performed by overseas servicemen, an experience that introduced him to the special problems of writing theatrical songs. After the war, he went back to Paramount, but in 1948 he returned to New York to write his first Broadway score, Where’s Charley? Though this musical version of Brandon Thomas’s 1892 farce has not become part of the theatrical repertory, it was commercially successful as a starring vehicle for Ray Bolger. Not long after it opened, Loesser agreed to collaborate with Abe Burrows, a radio comedy writer, on a musical based on “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” a short story by Damon Runyon, a newspaperman whose half-comic, half-sentimental tales of the gangsters and gamblers of Broadway were wildly popular in the 30s.
Guys and Dolls was put together in an unorthodox fashion. In the modern “integrated” Broadway musical pioneered by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II with Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), the songs are all derived from the book of the show and usually (though not always) serve to advance the action. To facilitate this integration of story and song, the book of such a musical is drafted before the musical numbers are written. But several of the best-known songs in Guys and Dolls, including “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” were written before Burrows went to work on the book, while the others were composed by Loesser after the show was sketched but before the dialogue was written. “Loesser’s songs,” Burrows explained, “were the guideposts for the libretto.”
Under normal circumstances, this would have resulted in a dramatically static musical with untheatrical, action-stopping songs. But Burrows—undoubtedly guided by George S. Kaufman, the veteran playwright-director who staged the first production of Guys and Dolls—took special care to ensure that his book would carry the action of the show, thus freeing Loesser to write songs that illuminated the personalities of the various characters rather than moved the plot forward.
The result was a pop-culture masterwork, a raffishly nostalgic evocation of a never-never land of crapshooting sharpies in snap-brimmed hats who prowl Times Square in search of action. Brooks Atkinson put it best in his New York Times review of the original production when he called Guys and Dolls “a perfectly-composed and swiftly-paced work of art.” It is, in fact, one of the greatest pieces of musical theater, irrespective of genre, to be created by an American. Even when staged ineptly, as were Samuel Goldwyn’s 1955 film version and Des McAnuff’s 2009 Broadway revival, Guys and Dolls remains irresistible.
Loesser’s score in particular is a miracle of consistency, an unbroken succession of immaculately crafted songs, nearly all of them comic, in which words and music function in flawless tandem. From the thrusting syncopations of “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York” to the tipsy ecstasy of “If I Were a Bell” (“Pal, if I were a salad / I know I’d be splashing my dressing”), Loesser makes the personality of each character stand out in high relief. He even finds room for a bit of vernacular lyricism that rises to the level of poetry: “My time of day is the dark time: / A couple of deals before dawn.”
For all his genius at writing songs of character, Loesser had only a limited grasp of what makes a musical-comedy book work, and he proved it with his next show, The Most Happy Fella (1956), a musical version of They Knew What They Wanted, Sidney Howard’s 1924 play about a middle-aged Italian immigrant who falls in love with a young waitress. Loesser wrote the book himself, following the advice of the screenwriter Samuel Taylor: “Any time you have doubts about what you’re doing, write a song.” The result was an opera-length musical that contained many more songs and much less spoken dialogue than Guys and Dolls.
While The Most Happy Fella was not a mere succès d’estime—the original Broadway production ran for 676 performances—its revival life has been limited, partly because the show is too long to produce economically and partly because it feels more like an opera than a musical.2 To be sure, Loesser insisted that The Most Happy Fella was not an opera, preferring to call it “a musical with a lot of music.” In fact, it is an awkward cross between a musical and an evening-long song cycle in which the dramatic action is carried by the songs rather than the fragmentary dialogue. Therein lies its flaw: popular-song form, with its closed circles of repeating choruses, lacks the musical momentum necessary to propel a large-scale dramatic structure. As a result, The Most Happy Fella, despite the kaleidoscopic variety of its musical numbers, is slow-paced, unlike Guys and Dolls, in which Abe Burrows’s dialogue keeps the action flowing briskly from song to song.
It is unlikely that Loesser could have written a full-fledged opera had he wished to. Like Duke Ellington, he had the natural talent but not the grasp of large-scale musical form that can be obtained only from close study of the classics. Yet the failure of his next show, Greenwillow (1960), a pastoral fantasy that closed on Broadway after 97 performances and has never been successfully revived, proved that he was no more able to write a conventional musical without a collaborator who knew how to make the best use of his talents.
Loesser found that collaborator when he rejoined with Abe Burrows to write How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a satirical portrait of corporate America in the age of Mad Men. Unlike Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed is a fully “integrated” musical whose songs are so deeply rooted in Burrows’s book (which was written first) that only one of them, “I Believe in You,” can be sung effectively outside the context of the show. It is for this reason that How to Succeed has proved to be less popular than Guys and Dolls and that Loesser himself claimed not to like the show as much as its predecessor. But if How to Succeed lacks the immediate appeal of Guys and Dolls, it is no less sharp-witted and well-crafted, and the 1967 film version (which preserves the performances of Robert Morse and Rudy Vallée, the stars of the Broadway production) is one of the few movies based on a Broadway musical that does more than merely hint at the impact of the original show.
By 1967, Loesser found his career at a standstill. He never succeeded in opening another musical on Broadway, and by the time of his death in 1969, he had given up songwriting entirely. His disillusion stemmed from the fact that he, like the vast majority of his songwriting contemporaries, believed—not altogether without reason—that rock was an amateurish idiom unworthy of the old-style professional tradition that had dominated American popular song into the 50s and beyond. Unwilling to acknowledge the possibility that rock might offer a serious alternative to the professional songwriting tradition, he came to the understandable conclusion that his time had come and gone.
In one sense, of course, it had. Loesser was (with Jule Styne, another of his collaborators) the last of the great songwriters of the pre-rock era, and when his career came to an end, the era ended with it. Though individual songs of high quality continue to be written by tradition-oriented songwriters like Dave Frishberg, there is no reason to suppose that the professional tradition, at least as Loesser knew it, will ever be -revived.
On the other hand, there is also no reason to suppose that Guys and Dolls will disappear from the musical-comedy pantheon any time soon. To the contrary, it now appears to be of permanent interest, and its enduring popularity is a tribute to a craftsman of genius who believed in and understood the expressive potential of American popular song. It may even be that the creator of Guys and Dolls will someday come to be seen as an exemplary figure of American art—a man who, like so many other Americans, took up a trade to earn a living and ended up becoming an artist in spite of himself.
1 Yale University Press, 332 pages, $40. In addition to Riis’s book, Susan Loesser, Frank Loesser’s daughter, wrote a sympathetic but candid memoir of her father, A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life (1993).
2 According to Riis, there were eight -authorized revivals of The Most Happy Fella in the U.S. in 2005, 158 of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and 515 of Guys and Dolls.