Happy to Make His Acquaintance

Classic Arts Features   Happy to Make His Acquaintance
On March 26 the New York Philharmonic celebrates the workof Frank Loesser. David Barbour talks with Ted Sperling,the music man presiding over this Spring Gala, aboutthis most happy songwriter.


Broadway musical fans, take note: a feast awaits. On March 26 the New York Philharmonic, aided by a contingent of the Main Stem's best, will delve into the musical abbodanza that is the oeuvre of Frank Loesser. One of the most protean talents of Broadway's Golden Age, Loesser (1910 _69) left behind a freshet of hits that, half a century later, remain very much a part of the musical theater mainstream.

Ted Sperling, who is assembling the Philharmonic tribute : titled Anywhere I Wander: The Frank Loesser Songbook, March 26 : and will serve as the evening's musical director, notes that the time is ripe for another look at Loesser: "With How to Succeed in Business on Broadway and the recent revival of Guys and Dolls, we wanted to give a bigger picture of Loesser's output, including his Hollywood songs and others from some of his lesser-known works. Moreover, we thought it would be exciting to hear his songs performed with the lushness and incisiveness of the New York Philharmonic, particularly those from The Most Happy Fella, which have such beautiful writing for orchestra."

Indeed, any songwriter whose range spans Broadway brass and homegrown opera is a worthy subject for celebration. A New York native, Loesser fled to Hollywood in 1936 after contributing lyrics to a flop Broadway revue. Settling in among the orange groves, he spent the next decade penning lyrics and/or music for one hit after another, including "Two Sleepy People," "On a Slow Boat to China," and "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

In the late 1940s Loesser returned to Broadway in triumph to become one of the era's dominant creative voices. Arguably the fi rst songwriter of the post-Rodgers & Hammerstein generation to embrace the notion that great musical theater could be wrought from the most unusual sources, he became known for the variety and invention of his work. And, as a producer, he gave us a little thing called The Music Man.

Looking at Loesser's shows, one gets the impression of an artist hell-bent on not doing the same old thing. Where's Charley? enlivens the indestructible Victorian farce Charley's Aunt with operetta-tinged ballads and rambunctious vaudeville turns, including everyone's favorite sing-along, "Once in Love with Amy." Short stories by Damon Runyon became Guys and Dolls, a raucous comedy of small-time gamblers and marriage-minded chorines, suffused with the romance of Times Square in the wee hours, its rainy streets glowing with reflected neon. The Most Happy Fella, based on a long-mothballed 1924 drama, is an ambitious, big-hearted romance with a score that blends pop and Puccini to stunning effect. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a gleeful, glittering spoof of corporate climbers in the Mad Men era : it may be the only musical in which the leading man sings a tender ballad to himself.

Among Loesser's legion of admirers, none is more articulate than Stephen Sondheim. In Finishing the Hat, the first volume of his collected lyrics and observations, the famously exacting composer-lyricist writes: "Loesser was one of the very few lyricists who were genuinely funny. The lyrics of Gershwin and Hart received appreciative smiles and sometimes even chuckles, but not the kind of hearty laughter that 'Adelaide's Lament' got." He adds, "The concepts of 'Make a Miracle' from Where's Charley? and 'Fugue for Tinhorns' from Guys and Dolls, among many others, are so strong that the lyrics need not be brilliant in execution: they can ride on their notions alone and bring the house down. Which they did, and still do."

Sondheim's use of the present tense is appropriate, for Loesser's shows never seem to go out of style, especially Guys and Dolls, which has, on average, been revived every ten years since its 1952 debut. About that musical, the former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote that Loesser's "musical setting of phrases like 'I got the horse right here' and 'a person could develop a cold' and 'the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York' are as much a part of our landscape as the Chrysler Building and Radio City Music Hall."

Sperling has had plenty of experience with Loesser's musicals, ranging from his high school production of Where's Charley? to Broadway revivals of How to Succeed in Business and Guys and Dolls. He also presented a retrospective of Loesser's Hollywood output for the Lyrics and Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y, and participated in a reading of Seê±or Discretion Himself, an unfinished Loesser work. Regarding the songwriter's eternal search for variety, Sperling says, "He certainly was always striving to stretch himself, and he was very much in tune with the whole aesthetic of the shows he wrote, so the music and lyrics were tailored to the different milieux and characters. There is a sense of humor and a sympathy for the man in the street that I think you can find in most of his work."

Sperling adds that, in addition to these classic Loesser hits, the Philharmonic evening will include some rarities and Hollywood songs, all performed by the likes of Ann Hampton Callaway, Victoria Clark, Robert Morse, and Bryn Terfel, with choreography by Andrew Palermo. Loesser's widow and leading lady Jo Sullivan Loesser will even make a special appearance. Sperling explains that the goal of this Spring Gala, as of all such evenings, is to "create an atmosphere of fun and celebration." With Loesser's songs at hand, he has already won half the battle.


David Barbour is editor-in-chief of Lighting&Sound America, a monthly trade publication covering live entertainment technology.

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