Monday, July 1, 2013

On Broadway, nobody's greater than Loesser

Saturday was the birthday of the composer-lyricist who, for my money, had a higher batting average than anyone in Broadway history: four hits out of five attempts. (Well, Jerry Ross went 2-for-2 with "The Pajama Game" and "Damn Yankees," then died. It's hard to judge him on that scale.)

I'm talking about Frank Loesser, who'd have been 103 on June 29. Though he died at 59, Loesser (pronounced "LESS-er") wrote four classic musicals: the sentimental "Where's Charley?," the mock-gangster comedy "Guys and Dolls," the semi-operatic "The Most Happy Fella" -- which, of all things, gave the city of Dallas its theme song -- and the sardonic "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which had a Broadway revival in the 2011-12 season with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead.

In his spare time, he wrote four songs that were nominees for Oscars (including "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which won) and about 700 others, one dear to the hearts of Americans in World War II: "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." He also wrote the best score, Hans down, for any children's musical: "Hans Christian Andersen," with Danny Kaye as the Danish storyteller. In his spare time, he began a production company (Frank Productions) that got behind "The Music Man" and other musicals.

Loesser died in 1969, less than two years after "Hair" changed the Broadway musical landscape. He never saw the decline of traditional tunesmiths (Richard Rodgers, Fritz Loewe) or the rise to power of the brittle wits (Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb) and bombastic Earth-shakers (Andrew Lloyd Webber, the "Les Miz" team). The big Tony-winning musicals the year Loesser died were "1776" and "Promises, Promises," both traditional works by old-fashioned songwriters.

But old-fashioned Loesser wasn't, and that's why his work endures. "Most Happy Fella" has more than two hours of singing, with significant solos for all five principal characters. The lying anti-hero of "How to Succeed" is smarmy and self-obsessed to the point of creepiness; as he finally acknowledges his love for the secretary who stands by him, the upward-crawling J. Pierrepont Finch thinks of another way to advance his career. Sample any of his scores -- even the fantasy-based "Greenwillow," his lone Broadway flop -- and you'll hear a blend of traditional melodies and unusual harmonies, familiar elements and experimentation.

He may have gone out with a fizzle: The 1965 "Pleasures and Palaces," based on a dud play called "Once There Was a Russian," closed in Detroit before reaching Broadway, though director Bob Fosse was reportedly willing to invest his own money to keep it going. But if lung cancer hadn't felled Loesser (an avid smoker), I bet he'd have had something great left in him.