'Guys and Dolls' revival could revive composer Frank Loesser's reputation

April 15, 1992|By Patricia O'Haire | Patricia O'Haire,New York Daily News

NEW YORK PVB — NEW YORK -- One of the first things to catch your eye when you walk into Jo Sullivan Loesser's apartment is a portrait of her husband, Frank. He's there -- in shirtsleeves, his tie loosened, his head down the way someone who's very shy usually poses -- but there's a smile on his face.

"That's my Frank," the diminutive singer-actress said proudly. She has every right to be. Her husband was the man who wrote "Guys and Dolls," one of the most beloved musicals ever, for the Broadway stage. A revival opened last night at the Martin Beck Theater.

And if that weren't enough, he was also the words-and-music man of "Where's Charley?," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," the movie "Hans Christian Andersen" and the lovely, almost operatic "The Most Happy Fella," which is being given an absolutely delightful revival at the moment at the Booth Theater.

"The Most Happy Fella" occupies a particularly warm spot in Jo Sullivan's heart. She was the girl who played the lead in the original production -- though she went through 10 auditions before she was chosen -- back in 1956. And it was where she met and, three years later, married Frank Loesser. Later, she became the mother of the couple's two daughters, Hannah and Emily.

"Fella" is one of Loesser's loveliest scores, with "Standin' on the Corner," "Joey, Joey, Joey" "How Beautiful the Days" and "Big D." And the musical is almost completely sung; dialogue is kept to a minimum.

The musical was based on an earlier play by Sidney Howard (which won a Pulitzer Prize), called "They Knew What They Wanted," and it is the story of Italian immigrant wine makers living in California's Napa Valley.

"It took Frank four years after 'Guys and Dolls' opened to write 'The Most Happy Fella,'" she remembered. "But while that one picked up every prize known to man, 'Happy Fella' was more or less ignored. Bad timing, really. We opened two months after 'My Fair Lady,' and it walked off with everything that year.

"But I knew it was a wonderful score, and that it would be recog nized," she enthused. "I'm delighted with this revival. They have lovely voices and the dancers are great, and you can hear every syllable!"

Frank Loesser as a composer and lyricist is ready for a major re-evaluation. About time, too. New York-born and educated, he grew up in a very musical household. His father, Henry, was a piano teacher and his brother, Arthur, became a classical pianist, but Frank never studied music. Instead, he went into journalism, moved into lyric writing and writing skits for vaudeville performers.

It wasn't until many years later that he actually began writing music on his own, for films at first.

He died in 1969, leaving a great legacy of songs and melodies. Consider "Baby, It's Cold Outside," "Two Sleepy People," "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" and others that were enormous hits of their time.

The revival of "Guys and Dolls" promises to make his songs hits again. "Guys and Dolls," directed by Jerry Zaks, stars Peter Gallagher (as Sky Masterson), Nathan Lane (Nathan Detroit), Faith Prince (Adelaide) and Carolyn Mignini (Sarah Brown) in the roles originally played by Robert Alda, Sam Levene, Vivian Blaine and Isabel Bigley. And there is talk about a revival of "How to Succeed," with Matthew Broderick taking the role Bobby Morse played the first time around.

If that does happen soon, the late Frank Loesser may be the first American composer ever to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway.

That would doubtless have made him a most happy fella.

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