Luck be a Lyric

By Jim Steinblatt

June 02, 2010

The music of FRANK LOESSER, writer of "Luck Be a Lady Tonight," "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and numerous other beloved standards, is given a centennial year revival

By Jim Steinblatt

This year marks the centennial of Frank Loesser, the songwriting great who conquered Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood and Broadway and created a sheaf of beloved standards. The songwriting giant died in 1965 of lung cancer. As the writer or co-writer of "Luck Be a Lady Tonight," "Baby, It's Cold Outside," "Two Sleepy People," "Once in Love with Amy," "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year," "Heart and Soul," "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" and "I Don't Want to Walk Without You, Baby," Loesser was clearly one of the greatest American songwriters, one who should be a household name, but isn't. As his 100th birthday approaches, however, encouraging signs of a Frank Loesser revival are in evidence with an abundance of related musical events, in venues ranging from Opera Omaha to the Kennedy Center to Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House.

Frank Loesser was born in Manhattan into a very genteel and intellectual German-Jewish family. As Loesser's widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser observes, "His brother was a great concert pianist and wrote the authoritative book, Men, Women and Pianos, and ended up being the head of the Cleveland Institute of Music piano department. And I think that Frank always wanted to live up to that, but he would be a rebel and be something completely different than what his brother did."

With music in his blood, Loesser's earliest songwriting work was as a lyricist only. One Tin Pan Alley success, "I Wish I Were Twins," from 1934, was written with Joseph Meyer and Edgar de Lange and recorded by Fats Waller. And though the flops outnumbered the hits for Loesser during those first years, Hollywood recognized his talent and he was signed to write for Universal Studios in 1936. The movies brought Loesser into collaborations with leading composers like Hoagy Carmichael, Burton Lane, Frederick Hollander, Jule Styne and Jimmy McHugh. Many of the songs he wrote during that period – including "Small Fry," "I Hear Music" and "(I've Got Spurs that) Jingle Jangle Jingle" have outlasted the films for which they were written.

Jo Loesser agrees that the Hollywood period was training for the Broadway triumphs in Loesser's future, where he would write both words and music on his own. "Working with all these wonderful composers, he was learning from them I'm sure." The music was inside of Loesser, and it began to come out. The first song he wrote alone was inspired by the war America entered on December 7th, 1941. It became one of the iconic World War II hits – "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." Loesser would spend most of the War years in the Army's Radio Production Unit, writing songs designed to aid in recruitment. A wartime collaboration with Arthur Schwartz, "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," brought the pair an Oscar nomination, one of five Loesser would receive during his career. His sole Academy Award win was for "Baby, It's Cold Outside," featured in the 1948 EstherWilliams film, Neptune's Daughter.

With a solid record of Hollywood smash hits behind him, Loesser was homesick for his nativeManhattan and primed for the challenges of Broadway. He was recruited to write the score for a musical called Where's Charley?, which was based on a Victorian comedy of errors called Charley's Aunt. The show had a book and direction by George Abbott and a cast headed by the great song & dance man, Ray Bolger. The original production ran for nearly two years. Loesser's Broadway success had just begun.

The combination of Damon Runyon's endearing Times Square gamblers, showgirls and Salvation Army missionaries and Frank Loesser's gloriously witty score (including "Fugue for Tinhorns," "A Bushel and a Peck," "If I Were a Bell," "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," "I've Never Been in Love Before" and "Luck Be a Lady") would make Broadway history as Guys and Dolls began its three year run in 1950, winning five Tony Awards.


Singer-actress Jo Sullivan's life would change after being cast in a leading role in Loesser's next and most ambitious musical, The Most Happy Fella, which premiered in 1956. She, of course, became Mrs. Frank Loesser. Most Happy Fella had music, lyrics and book by Loesser, and was the story of life and love among farmworkers and Italian immigrants in California's wine country. "Imet Frank when they were auditioning people for The Most Happy Fella," recalls Jo Loesser. "I auditioned about 20 times. They wanted a girl that could sing who could also sound like a waitress. The fact that I had a slight southern accent helped me. Frank was very, very finicky and very, very definite about how he wanted the songs to sound." The Most Happy Fella was almost operatic, with just eightminutes of spoken dialogue; nonetheless, it ran for 19months.

Loesser's final Broadway musical, 1961's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, garnered six Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and 1417 performances. Part of the legend surrounding the show was the clash between Loesser and star Rudy Valee about how Valee's featured number was to be performed. As Jo Loesser remembers it, "Rudy Vallee said, 'I've been singing for a long time; I know how to sing.' Frank got somad at himand said, 'I'm gonna quit this show.' Of course he didn't, he went back but he always was doing that: Being dramatic." Howto Succeed enjoyed a long revival starring Matthew Broderick in 1995. A highly anticipated new version, starring Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe, is currently in the works.

Frank Loesser can't be shoehorned into any one category. Jo Loesser says it best about her late husband's range: "There were so many different songs and so many different styles. Nobody really did that but him. You can always tell if it was Cole Porter… when it was Frank you never knew what he was gonna do next."