June 29, 1910– Frank Loesser may seem overlooked as a songwriter for musical theatre, but I don’t mean he is forgotten. Richard Rodgers, yesterday’s #BornThisDay honoree is more famous, along with George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin & Stephen Sondheim, but Loesser was their artistic equal. His tunes are joyful, witty & passionate. Like Porter, Berlin & Sondheim, Loesser wrote words & music, & sometime even the book for his musicals. If you care about theatre, & you should, Loesser is someone you should remember. I bet you know at least a few of his numbers. I think I know them all.
Loesser had a special way with rhymed everyday speech & street slang, used to perfection in his masterpiece Guys & Dolls (1950). Along with that show are 3 more classic musicals: Where’s Charley (1948), The Most Happy Fella (1956), & How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1961), all terrific, all frequently revived.
Starting as a Tin Pan Alley writer of popular songs, Loesser left his native NYC for Hollywood & from 1938 to 1949, Loesser worked almost exclusively writing tunes for films. Because wrote both music & lyrics, he was cheaper for the studios to pay than a songwriting team. But, Loesser did work in collaboration: with Alfred Newman, he wrote Moon Of Manakoora for Goldwyn’s The Hurricane (1939), Frederick Hollander on Destry Rides Again (1939) with Marlene Dietrich belting out See What The Boys In The Back Room Will Have. At Paramount Studios he worked with Jule Styne on Sweater Girl (1942) with I Don’t Want to Walk Without You, Baby. Loesser was nominated an Academy Award 5 times & won for Baby It’s Cold Outside MGM’s Neptune’s Daughter (1949), originally a song which Loesser & his wife performed at parties for the entertainment of their friends. Besides the Oscar, Loesser won 3 Tony Awards & the Pulitzer Prize.
Loesser composed the tunes for Goldwyn’s Hans Christian Andersen (1952), including drag queen staples: Copenhagen, Thumbelina & Inchworm, but then he mostly set his sights on Broadway stage except for 3 new songs for the film version of Guys & Dolls (1955).
Loesser is well regarded for droll lyrics & using clever musical devices & classical forms, like the imitative counterpoint in Fugue For Tinhorns from Guys & Dolls. Has any popular music flirtation been as delectable as Baby, It’s Cold Outside? Are their character songs funnier & more specific than Adelaide’s Lament from Guys & Dolls or I Believe In You from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying? His more complex musical style shaped the Broadway musicals after his time, challenging the standard compositional approach to songwriting.
Besides his songs for the Broadway shows, my favorite Loesser tunes include: Let’s Get Lost, Heart & Soul, & 2 Sleepy People. In my own act I always loved to sing his song On A Slow Boat To China with its impish lecherous come-on:
I’d love to get you
On a slow boat to China
All to myself alone
A twist in the rudder
& a rip in the sails
Drifting & dreamin’
Honey throw the compass over the rail
Loesser was married to singer/actor Jo Sullivan who oversees his legacy & publishing company. Loesser took a final curtain call in 1969, taken by that damn cancer at just 59 years old.