Saturday, July 29, 2017

Frank Loesser's Musical Martinis


Frank Loesser would mix his martini at sunrise, having worked on songs through the night while friends and family slept.

As a fan of both Loesser and the martini, I was gratified to hear that tidbit from an interview with his widow Jo Sullivan, because it fits.  Loesser explains why, in the only song of his I know to mention the cocktail:  
To see the cool clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet with the slam, bang, tang
Reminiscent of gin and vermouth --
Oh, I believe in you,
I believe in you!
      - Frank Loesser, music and lyrics, from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

[Photograph: Young Loesser's face on a recording of his own renditions of songs, including "Heart and Soul" with music by Hoagy Carmichael; Loesser's image on a stamp in a series honoring the classic American songbook writers; and Loesser during the War with a young Frank Sinatra.]

Loesser's work, like his favorite cocktail, is always fresh.  Many Loesser songs have that "slam, bang, tang" every time we hear them.  Here's an example of a lyric I know by heart that still takes me by surprise.  It's "Adelaide's Lament" from the musical Guys and Dolls:
You can spray her all day with the Vitamin A and the Bromo fizz,
But the medicine never gets anywhere near where the (sniff) trouble is.
If the girl has been getting a name for herself, and the name ain't his --
A person can develop a cough.  
Loesser wrote lyrics, or lyrics and music, for hundreds of popular stand-alone songs, and songs for forgettable movies.  Four unforgettable Broadway musicals are graced by his music and lyrics, Where's Charley?, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.  

Stephen Sondheim writes early and often about Loesser in his memoir - cum - lyricist's manual Finishing the Hat.  Loesser had been first choice to write music and lyrics for a show called Saturday Night, but young Sondheim got the job. He admits to imitating Loesser unconsciously in his first professional score (Sondheim p. 6).   Loesser, he writes, was a master of writing "conversational lyrics" that he "tailored" to characters, "able to perform the rare trick of sounding modestly conversational and brilliantly dextrous at the same time, a skill only [Dorothy] Fields and occasionally [Irving] Berlin possessed before him."  Sondheim calls Loesser "The Idea Man," because his notions for songs were, and still are, funny, growing naturally from character and situation. Later in his book, Sondheim brings Loesser into thumbnail assessments of other Broadway lyricists, citing Loesser as equal to some, superior to others. (see my Sondheim page)

From American Songbook specialist Michael Feinstein, I learned that Loesser originally had a reputation for writing off-color specialty songs, such that Hollywood producers were leery of hiring him.  Erotic currents flow just under the surface of Loesser's "Slow Boat to China," especially at the slow tempo that Cleo Laine purrs, "I'd love to get you / on a slow boat to China / all to myself, alone,"  though she hits at a plaintive note when she sings of "melting your heart of stone." (Cleo Laine and Laurie Hollowell, Loesser Genius).

Other songs play with fire.  A friend of mine hears date rape in the charming duet, "Baby It's Cold Outside," a conversational song of lines for Her and Him (left and right, below) that overlap and rhyme prodigiously:
My mother will start to worry - Beautiful, what's your hurry?
Father will be pacing the floor - Listen to the fireplace roar
So really I'd better scurry - Beautiful, please don't hurry
Maybe just a half a drink more - Put some records on while I pour

The neighbors might think - Baby, it's bad out there
Say, what's in this drink?      (from Frank Loesser, "Baby It's Cold Outside")
Loesser probably got whoops from the troops when he wrote a lyric for a Hollywood entertainment aimed at boosting morale during the Second World War. For "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," Bette Davis speak-sings constantly surprising variations on the title.  With young men overseas, the lyric says, her soldier boyfriend needn't be jealous:  
What's good is in the army.
What's left will never harm me...

I'm either their first breath of spring
Or else, I'm their last little fling
I either get a fossil or an adolescent pup
I either have to hold him off
Or have to hold him up.
  - (lyric by Frank Loesser, music by Arthur Shwartz)
But Loesser wanted to be remembered, not for sexy and funny songs, but for love and passion.  Sondheim suggests that Loesser failed when he tried too hard to be meaningful or touching.  Sondheim introduced me to the word "twee," which applies to every cut on the cast album of Loesser's forgotten show Greenwillow, which starts with the very "twee" lyric, "'Twill be a day / borrowed from heaven."

I've heard somewhere that he thought "I Believe in You" was going to be a great love song, until the director gave it to the young leading man to sing to his own reflection in the mirror of the men's restroom for How to Succeed.... 

Feinstein tells Terri Grose that Loesser's older brother Arthur had some classical music cred and that he disdained his brother's work.  Undeterred, Loesser wrote a near-operatic score for The Most Happy Fella, for which he created songs in counterpoint, a modern madrigal ("Song of a Summer Night"), full-throated arias for an operatic baritone in the leading role, and this delicious comedy song for the Broadway singer who portrays a waitress in the opening number:

Oh, my feet, my poor, poor feet,
Betcha your life a waitress earns her pay.
I've been on my feet, my poor, poor feet
All day long today.....
(four "piggies" in)  This little piggy feels the weight of the plate
Though the freight's just an order of Melba toast.
And this little piggy is the littlest little piggy,
But the big son of a bitch hurts the most!
    (- lyrics and music by Frank Loesser, "Oh My Feet" from The Most Happy Fella)

But Loesser didn't have to try so hard to be touching.  Look no further than poor Adelaide, years into her relationship with Nathan Detroit, who sings to him,
When I think of the times gone by...
And I think of the ways I cry...
I could honestly die.

   (-"Sue Me", music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls)
It's a funny song, but there's not doubt, she's wronged, he's a jerk, and something has to change -- and it does.  Funny as it is, I feel that line more each time she sings it.  It just stops being funny -- until Nathan sings his last rhyme for "sue me" - "Shoot bullets through me!  I love you!"

With so much to his credit that's clever, showy, funny, and sly, it's a little throwaway number that makes me think of Loesser as one of Broadway's greatest artists.  Here's the cocky gambler Sky Masterson singing about New York in the early morning:

My time of day is the dark-time
A couple of deals before dawn
When the street belongs to the cop
And the janitor with the mop
And the grocery clerks are all gone
When the smell of the rain-washed pavement
Comes up clean and fresh anc cold
And the street lamp light fills the gutter with gold
That's my time of day
My time of day,
And you're the only doll I've ever wanted to share it with me.
 - "My Time of Day," music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
That's the entire song, music meandering and short on pattern, designed to sound like natural speech. It's almost recitative; it's almost a song; it's straight from the heart of the character, down to the reference to gambling ("just a couple deals before dawn"), and it's as touching as any song I know.

I've heard that Loesser fought unsuccessfully to get Sinatra to sing his music as written for the film of Guys and Dolls, that he called his first wife "the evil of two Loessers," and that he was so unsure of his own composition skills that he would call his wife in to hear any new composition, to tell him if she recognized the tune from some other songwriter.

But, at his best, he was the best.  Here's a toast to you, Frank Loesser, with my third martini of the night.

Fresh Air interview with Terry Grose / Michael Feinstein  Loesser's 100th birthday, June 29, 2010.

From memory, I'm citing anecdotes from singer Jo Sullivan, Loesser's second wife, who spoke with Grose another time.  That show isn't archived on the web site. 

See a webiste devoted to Loesser with involvement from his children at http://www.frankloesser.com/

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