HEART AND SOUL [Masterworks Broadway]
Frank Loesser, who died of lung cancer on July 28, 1969, would have turned 100 on June 29. Various centennial offerings include "Heart and Soul: Celebrating the Unforgettable Songs of Frank Loesser." And they are indeed unforgettable, although only a fraction of his work is represented in the 19 tracks included in this album from Masterworks Broadway (available as a digital download, or as a disc-on-demand from Arkivmusic.com).
After a brief stop on Broadway, the one-time process server decamped to Hollywood in 1936 — where already-established composers discovered that this fella could write lyrics that would make their music sing. People like Hoagy Carmichael, Jule Styne, Burton Lane and Arthur Schwartz. Styne used to tell how Loesser was furious, and on the verge of fisticuffs, when Styne arranged for him to be loaned from high-flying Paramount to the skid row studio Republic. When Frank grudgingly allowed Styne to play a tune, he whispered "Don't play that here! Don't play that for anyone else! We'll write that song at Paramount!" The song became a hit, all right: "I Don't Want to Walk without You," it was called. But it makes more than an amusing anecdote; the point is, Loesser was a canny tune-picker. Which is why he wrote a dozen gilt-edged songs over a decade as a Hollywood lyricist, and why he went on to a lucrative career as a music publisher. After five years of this, Loesser went to war — where he discovered, somewhat out of necessity, that he could write the music himself. And how!
"I Don't Want to Walk Without You" leads off the "Heart and Soul" album, with Helen O'Connell backed by Harry James and His Orchestra. And this song, in itself, demonstrates Loesser's magic. "I don't want to walk without you, baby" was a perfect sentiment for its time, with hundreds of thousands of sweethearts separated by World War II. And how does Loesser end this sweetly sentimental song, to Jule's gently yearning melody? "Cause I don't want to walk without you, no siree." No siree??? That's not a proper phrase, at least not something that might be found in Mr. Webster's dictionary, circa 1941. But "no siree" is magic, and it makes the song, and that's Frank.
We needn't walk through all the included songs, most of which come from Loesser's Hollywood catalogue. There are six show tunes, plus a (so-so) medley from Frank's first stage musical, Where's Charley? The screen songs are highlighted by the aforementioned Styne hit; "Heart and Soul," for which Hoagy wrote a tune the main phrase of which every non-piano player in the nation who can play anything seems to be able to pound out; Hoagy's "Two Sleepy People," from Della Reese; and two self-composed hits, "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year" (from Sarah Vaughan) and the 1950 Oscar-winner "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (from Pearl Bailey and Hot Lips Page). Other performers include Dinah Shore, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Michele Lee (singing "I Believe in You") and even Barry Manilow (singing "Luck Be a Lady"). While compilation CDs often seem utilitarian, "Heart and Soul" gives us a fine taste of Loesser's work in the days when the goal was inserting songs in movies that could be readily transplanted to the Hit Parade. Broadway, of course, was glad to get Loesser; his second of five musicals to hit town, Guys and Dolls, was a whirlwind of song when it blew into the 46th Street in 1950. Broadway had South Pacific and Kiss Me, Kate, sure, but songs like "Luck Be a Lady" and "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat" were from a newer, moderner world. Cole Porter was the top, yes; but he never wrote anything like "I got the horse right here." (Loesser grew up during World War I, while Berlin, Porter, Hammerstein and Ira Gershwin were from the 1880s and 90s.)
Seeing as how we're here to celebrate, let us stop to briefly mention Loesser's Broadway cast albums. Where's Charley?, with which Loesser made his Broadway debut, did not make a recording due to the musician's strike of 1948. The 1958 West End version, starring Norman Wisdom, was indeed recorded; it is better than nothing, yes, but doesn't quite represent the spirit of the score. We get a better idea from the hard-to-find soundtrack of the 1952 motion picture, featuring original cast members Ray Bolger, Allyn McLerie (Amy) and Horace Cooper (Spettigue). With Charley en route to Encores! just now, we'll finally get the chance to hear it as it is meant to sound. Hopefully, we will one way or another wind up with a suitable recording of this marvelously inventive score.
Guys and Dolls has plenty of recordings. The original cast album, starring Sam Levene, Vivian Blaine, Robert Alda and Isabel Bigley, is the best of the lot, although the recording shows its age (even though the most recent remastering [Decca Broadway 012 159 112] sounds relatively good). The finest of the Loesser Broadway cast albums, for me, is The Most Happy Fella [Sony Broadway S2K 48010]. Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records decided to record the full score of this bounteously musical musical, which took up three full LPs when it was released in 1956. It was rereleased in 1991 as a two-CD set, and it remains one of the finest recordings of one of the finest Golden Age musicals. Readers who don't know it might want to treat themselves, for Frank's 100th; the pleasure will be entirely yours. But make sure you get the 1956 cast album; the 1992 revival, with a two-piano reduction, offers a pale reflection of the score, while the 1960 London production and the 2000 studio cast are adequate but do not have the irreplaceable Robert Weede, Jo Sullivan and Susan Johnson.
Greenwillow [DRG 19006], Frank's pastoral 1959 opus, is well worth your acquaintance too. Not a brilliant show, and one that understandably failed (due in part to disappointed expectations as a presumed successor to the then-current, Loesser-produced blockbuster The Music Man). But I listen to Greenwillow, frequently, and with great pleasure. Frank's fifth and final Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying [Masterworks Broadway 88697 65727], brought forth another sterling cast album. This remains one of the most breathtakingly funny musicals I have ever seen, and Loesser's score reflects that humor every step of the way. Those who know the show only from the mirthless 1995 revival might wonder what I'm talking about. Get you to the Bobby Morse-Rudy Vallee-Charles Nelson Reilly-Virginia Martin-Sammy Smith original, and quick.
Loesser worked on at least three other musicals. Pleasures and Palaces, a comedic costume operetta about John Paul Jones and Catherine the Great — yes, John Paul Jones and Catherine the Great — made it to the stage in 1965, with Bob Fosse in the director/choreographer chair. The show lumbered through its Detroit tryout, closing none too soon. Loesser found two other efforts — The Dream People (circa 1957, with Garson Kanin) and Senor Discretion, Himself (circa 1967, with Budd Schulberg) — both to be unworkable, and despite a good deal of work was pragmatic enough to leave them unfinished.
Five Broadway musicals over 19 active years is not a lot, at least it wasn't a lot in the days when Loesser was writing. But Loesser seemed to be governed by two self-imposed rules: don't repeat yourself, and don't turn out anything that isn't the best you can do. And now I think I'll go back and listen to The Most Happy Fella again.
FOLLOW THAT GIRL/HOORAY FOR DAISY [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3047]
Must Close Saturday Records — and you've got to admire anyone who calls themselves Must Close Saturday Records — has brought forth Julian Slade's 1960 musical Follow That Girl, which is at once charming but mild. Slade and his collaborator Dorothy Reynolds had taken London by storm, as they say, with the 1954 musical Salad Days. A piece of whimsy so successful that it overtook the 1916 musical Chu Chin Chow — ah, remember Chu Chin Chow? — to become the longest running musical in West End history, at least until superseded by Lionel Bart's Oliver! 2,283 performance it ran, an astounding number at the time; doubly astounding, as I find this trifle about a piano in the park that magically makes people dance so wispy as to be flavorlessly bland. I suppose you had to be there, in London in 1954, to understand the public's fascination with the show. At any rate, Slade and Reynolds followed Salad Days with Free As Air, which opened in 1957 midway through Salad Days's extended run. Free As Air was issued on CD several years back, and I find the thing as charming and melodically bright as Salad Days isn't. Free As Air does seem to fall apart midway through, but what care I?
At any rate, Salad Days finally closed at the Vaudeville in 1960, and the proprietor asked the authors for a replacement attraction. In came Follow That Girl, the score for which I would place somewhere above Salad Days but several paces below Free As Air. It turns out, as Adrian Wright of Must Close Saturday explains in his liner notes, that composer Slade and co-lyricist/co-librettist Reynolds did not come up with a new musical for the occasion; they went back to a 1952 effort, Christmas in King Street, written as a holiday attraction for the Bristol Old Vic.
Follow That Girl — a light-hearted musical comedy in which the heroine jumps off a London bridge, or some such nonsense — is blessed with a jolly good title tune that bounces along cheerily; a second enjoyable tune, "Song and Dance," sung by the policeman who falls in love with her; and a rather zany entry called "Waiting for Our Daughter" in which a 30-year-old actress playing the heroine's mother gives a performance so arresting that you want to find out just who this actress, who sings like a tipsy Swiss bell-ringer slipping on her Alp, might be. Turns out it's Patricia Routledge, and no wonder. The leading lady proper is Susan Hampshire, who in the early 1970s won three Emmy Awards for best actress (but not for musical comedy work).
So that's three reasons to investigate Follow That Girl. Must Close Saturday fills out the running time with the EP — extended play 45, that is, capable of carrying up to 15 minutes — of the 1959 Slade-Reynolds Bristol Old Vic Christmas offering, Hooray for Daisy! Always glad to hear a new, old musical, but this is not one that I expect to replay. The title character is a cow, by the way, of the dancing variety. "Daisy is the cow for me," they sing, but not for me; I'll take Caroline — that moo-sical moo cow who likes to moo in the moonlight — any day.
Speaking of Adrian Wright, let us point out that he has recently written a book on the post-war British musical called "A Tanner's Worth of Tune" (Boydell Press). I have not yet seen this tome, but if it is anything like Mr. Wright's British Musical Theatre website (www.musical-theatre.net), I expect it will be filled with information we can't easily find elsewhere. (Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
Visit PlaybillStore.com to view theatre-related recordings for sale.