Frank Loesser has been called the most versatile of all Broadway composers. His five Broadway musicals, each a unique contribution to the art of the American musical theater, were as different from each other as they were from the theater of their day: Where’s Charley?, Guys And Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, Greenwillow and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Long before he wrote Where’s Charley?, he was already known to America from the dozens of songs that had become enormous popular hits from his Hollywood career. He had supplied lyrics to the music of such greats as Jule Styne, Hoagy Carmichael, Burton Lane and Arthur Schwartz, among others, penning such standards as “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Two Sleepy People,” “Heart and Soul,” “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,”“Spring Will Be a Little Late this Year,” “(See What) The Boys in the Backroom (Will Have),” “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” and his 1948 Academy Award winner, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
Born June 29, 1910, in New York City, Frank never studied music formally, although he couldn’t help coming under its influence in his childhood. His father was a distinguished German-born teacher of classical piano and his older brother, Arthur, was a renowned concert pianist, musicologist and music critic. He wrote his first song at the age of six Frank at 4 years of age in 1914 (“The May Party”), but Frank refused to study classical music. His interest was in pop music, which his father disdained. So he taught himself, first the harmonica, then the piano in his early teens. He attended Townsend Harris High School and New York’s City College, which he dropped out of during the Depression, and supported himself with an array of jobs that included selling newspaper advertising, working as a process server and his favorite, city editor of a short-lived newspaper in New Rochelle. Intrigued by word play, Frank began to write songs, sketches and radio scripts. He teamed up with William Schuman, who later became a serious composer and President of Juilliard. In 1931, they wrote “In Love with a Memory of You,” Frank’s first published lyric. Of this, Schuman later said “Frank Loesser has written hits with Hoagy Carmichael, Burton Lane, Jule Styne and other Hollywood grand dukes, but I have the distinction of having written a flop with him.”
By the mid-1930’s, he tried his hand at singing and playing piano in nightclubs, and began writing lyrics to music by Irving Actman. They contributed five songs to The Illustrator’s Show, which opened January 22, 1936, and closed five performances later, a swift casualty on Broadway, but it was enough to land him a Hollywood contract, first with Universal, then Paramount, where he wrote his first hit song, “Moon of Manakoora,” with Alfred Newman, for the Dorothy Lamour picture, Hurricane. He would go on to write lyrics for songs for over sixty films, including Destry Rides Again, Neptune’s Daughter, Thank Your Lucky Stars and Fred Astaire’s Let’s Dance.
In 1939, Frank made his composing debut with the music (and lyric) for the title song of the Paramount film, Seventeen. War intervened and Loesser was assigned to Special Services, providing lyrics for camp shows with such composers as Harold Rome and Alex North. Later, suddenly finding himself without a collaborator, Frank resumed his composing career with the wartime hit, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” He told Jule Styne, “You boys showed me how it goes.”
He returned to Hollywood after the war, but struggling young producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin convinced him to migrate back east and create a score for their projected Broadway musical of Charley’s Aunt, called Where’s Charley?It opened October 11, 1948, and became Frank’s first smash hit, giving star Ray Bolger his greatest stage success. With a score that included “Once in Love with Amy,” “My Darling, My Darling” and “Make a Miracle,” Where’s Charley?proved that Frank was more than just another pop tune writer from Hollywood.
He followed that show with one of the great masterworks of American theater, Guys and Dolls, which opened November 24, 1950, and quickly became a theatrical landmark, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical. His score was lush with hits, including “A Bushel and a Peck,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “I’ll Know”and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.”
Frank then took four years to write not only the score, but also the book for his next show, which he called an “extended musical comedy,” The Most Happy Fella. Whereas such opera-like musicals as Porgy and Bess and Street Scene were unsuccessful in their time, Frank’s Napa Valley show with the hit songs “Standing on the Corner” and “Big D” opened May 3, 1956, and ran two years. It was the first show recorded in its entirety by Columbia Records.
Reluctant to ever repeat himself, he decided on a simple, country musical fable, Greenwillow, for his next project. In spite of seven Tony nominations, it faltered and ran only 95 performances in 1960. Years later, Barbra Streisand made a hit song out of Greenwillow’s “Never Will I Marry.”
On October 14, 1961, Frank bounced back with How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, which won the Pulitzer Prize and seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It ran four years on Broadway, with “I Believe in You”and “Brotherhood of Man” becoming enormous hits from that score.
In the midst of all this stage work, Frank returned to Hollywood and created one of his best loved scores for the filmHans Christian Andersen (1952), which featured such songs as “Wonderful Copenhagen,” “Anywhere I Wander,” “The Inch Worm” and “Thumbelina,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. In 1974, Loesser’s widow, Jo Sullivan, produced a long running, hit stage version called Hans Andersen, starring Tommy Steele, at the Palladium in London.
The Loesser work pattern was directly related to the Loesser metabolism, which was extraordinary. He worked at a pace of unrelenting dynamism, rarely sleeping more than four hours in a row. In the late 1940’s, he formed his own music publishing company, Frank Music Corp., with the primary purpose of discovering and developing new and young popular composers and lyricists. He was instrumental in furthering the careers of three of the most successful songwriters of the theater to emerge during the 1950’s: Richard Adler, Jerry Ross and Meredith Willson. The company became a major force in music publishing, licensing of secondary theatrical rights and production of printed music editions. In 1976, Frank Music was acquired by CBS, and today is part of Paul McCartney’s music publishing company, MPL Communications.
Frank was married twice, first to actress Lynn Loesser, with whom he had two children, Susan and John, then to hisMost Happy Fella leading lady, Jo Sullivan, who gave him two daughters, Hannah and Emily. He died of lung cancer at the age of 59 on July 26, 1969, in his beloved New York City.