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.
Further Reading on Frank Loesser
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.