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Multum in Parvo - The Musicals of Frank Loesser



Feature by David Munro

FRANK Loesser – who he? I hear you ask. Well if this is your reaction to his name then read on and learn.

In England , Frank Loesser is probably best known as the composer of Guys and Dolls – shortly to be seen at the Piccadilly Theatre - he had, in fact, a prolific career firstly a songwriter, then as a theatre composer and, finally, as a music publisher under which guise he fostered a lot of neophyte musical talents, not least the team of Adler and Ross and their great hit, The Pajama Game.

When Loesser first hit Broadway, in 1948, with Where’s Charley, a musical version of Brandon Thomas’ farce, Charlies Aunt, he had been writing lyrics for 17 years, mainly for Hollywood Musicals with such composers as Arthur Schwartz, Burton Lane, Hoagy Carmichael, etc.

He did not start composing until the last war when, faced with having to write songs for Forces shows and having no handy composer, he began writing his own songs.

The first solo success he had was with Praise the Lord and Pass The Ammunition in 1942.

Two years later, he was first heard in the London theatre as co–composer of a US Troop show, Skirts, which came briefly to the Cambridge Theatre in 1944.

The choreographer of which was, so it is said, one Wendy Toye who subsequently became a well-known director of British musicals from the 1950s onwards.

Another reason to remember Skirts was that his co-composer was one PFC Harold Rome, another well-known Broadway songwriter and who was responsible for, inter alia, Wish You Were Here ( London Casino - 1953), Fanny (Drury Lane - 1956) and Gone With The Wind (Drury Lane - 1972 ) with a then very young Bonnie Langford in her first West End appearance.

Loesser went on to contribute to a number of military touring shows but after the war he returned to Hollywood writing songs for various films, graduating to writing the full score for such films as Neptune’s Daughter (for which he won an Oscar for Baby, It’s Cold Outside and Let's Dance - notable for being probably the worst film Fred Astaire ever appeared in) and Hans Christian Andersen.

Where’s Charley was the work of novices – untried producers, Feuer and Martin, and composer, Frank Loesser.

It did have, however, the experienced George Abbott to adapt the book and direct and Ray Bolger to star as the eponymous hero.

The result was, if not a smash hit, sufficiently successful to ensure the future careers on Broadway of the three novices and proved to be the first major hit musical of Loesser’s 13-year Broadway career.

Where’s Charley was produced in London in February 1958 with Norman Wisdom in the title role.

His next show was Guys and Dolls (1950), a musical based on Damon Runyon’s colourful characters who hang around New York.

It tells the story of a Salvation Army girl who saves her mission from closing and, in the process, reforms an inveterate gambler.

Loesser’s lyrics catch the idiomatic speech of the characters and these are set to a tuneful score with many numbers, such as I’ve Never Been In Love Before, having a life outside the show.

It is probably the best known and most revived of all his musicals and was notably filmed by Samuel Goldwyn in 1955 with Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons.

It suffered prior to production in that the original book by Jo Swerling was felt not to be sufficiently Runyon-esque.

Abe Burrows was called in to beef up the script and, it is generally accepted, he ended up by writing a completely new version although for contractual reasons joint credit had to be given to Swerling.

Loesser had already written 14 numbers for the Swerling book and Burrows tailored his version to the written songs - a reversal of the normal process of show writing where the score is secondary to the book.

It was first produced in London at the London Coliseum in May 1953 with three of the New York cast, Vivian Blaine (Adelaide), Sam Levene (Nathan Detroit) and Stubby Kaye (Nicely-Nicely), and from England, Lizbeth Webb (Sarah Brown).

The last London revival was at the National Theatre in March 1982 with Ian Charleson (Sky Masterson), Julie Covington (Sarah Brown), Bob Hoskins (Nathan Detroit), and Julia McKenzie (Adelaide).

Loesser now felt it was time he went it alone and took a pre-war play by Sydney Howard - They Knew What They Wanted - about wine growers in the Napa Valley and turned it into The Most Happy Fella (1956) which is a virtual opera in that it had only about 15 minutes of spoken dialogue, the rest of the score being sung.

Loesser deprecated the operatic description; he described it as a 'warm simple love story'. Nonetheless, this did not prevent the New York City Opera reviving it in 1991.

Whatever it was, it proved once and for all that Loesser was more than just a Broadway hack composer but a force to be reckoned with.

It also provided a love story in real life, as Loesser divorced his wife (who was co-producing the show) in order to marry its leading lady!

It was produced in London at the London Coliseum in April 1960 with Inia te Wiata as Tony, the elderly wine grower who persuades a girl to come to California to marry him on the strength of a picture of his handsome foreman.

Something must have annoyed the gods as his next show (which he co-produced) was a failure.

In Greenwillow (1960), he tried to create a mellow pastoral style musical which sadly turned out whimsical and dull and a major disappointment to Loesser, who always considered it one of his better shows. Despite having Anthony Perkins in the lead, it only ran 95 performances.

However, his disappointment was soon assuaged by How To Succeed in Business Without Actually Trying which opened in October 1961 and ran for 1,471 performances.

How To Succeed…. is based on a comic novel by Shepherd Mead which sets out the ploys for successful advancement in the corporate world.

Again, Abe Burrows was called in to doctor the book and the Guys And Dolls authorship saga was reprised; book by Burrows with co-authorship credits.

The show follows the progress of J. Pierrepoint Morgan from window cleaner to president with no qualifications but his wits and, in so doing, takes a satirical look at big business including nepotism, blackmail, false pretences , selfishness; all as part of the worship of Mammon and makes this malodorous mix extremely funny.

Loesser rose to the challenge and produced what turned out to be his last great score.

Witty, original and imaginative, he gave urbanity to this very urban musical.

Burrows and Loesser were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the show garnered a clutch of Tony Awards although Loesser lost out to Richard Rodgers that year, for the best score.

How to Succeed was produced in London at the Shaftesbury in 1963 with Warren Berlinger and Billy de Wolfe in the leads.

The film version followed, in 1966, with Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee. It is now playing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, with Joe McFadden and James Bolam.

His final musical never reached Broadway but closed during its pre-Broadway tryout.

Pleasures And Palaces was based on a unsuccessful comedy by Sam Spewack about the intrigues of Catherine of Russia with Potemkin and John Paul Jones but, despite the presence of Hy Hazell and Alfred Marks (or perhaps because of them) it proved to be an unwieldy, unfunny costume operetta, and was consigned to oblivion in Detroit.

Loesser died on July 28, 1969, at the age of 59 of lung cancer, leaving one last musical, The Wisdom of Tepaningo (aka The Wisdom Of The Heart or Senor Discretion Himself) which, apart from a workshop production in 1985, has never been produced.

Although his roster of shows in minimal in comparison to some of the greats, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Cole Porter, his craftsmanship and quality of writing ensure his place in the pantheon of the great musical comedy composers – small is good indeed.

His three major shows, Guys and Dolls, Most Happy Fella and How to Suceed… . are revived constantly in the States where his reputation is jealously preserved, and elsewhere.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that two of them are now to be revived in the UK which is a chance not to be missed.

And I hope I may have persuaded you to catch up on two of the classics of American Musical Theatre. With luck, I shall be reviewing them both within the coming month, so watch this space!

GUYS AND DOLLS

On Wednesday, June 1 (following previews from 19 May) Ewan McGregor will be making his West End musical debut as Sky Masterson in GUYS AND DOLLS at the Piccadilly Theatre.

He will be joined by Broadway star, Jane Krakowski, following her appearance in Grand Hotel as Miss Adelaide.

Douglas Hodge appears as Nathan Detroit and Jenna Russell as Sarah Brown. The director is Michael Grandage.

The cast also features Martyn Ellis as ‘Nicely Nicely’, Niall Buggy as ‘Arvide’, Gaye Brown as ‘General Cartwright’ and Sevan Stephan as ‘Big Jule’.

Also in the cast are Norman Bowman, Patrick Brennan, Lyndsey Britton, Darren Carnall, Ben Clare, Matthew Cole, Elizabeth Cooper-Gee, Cory English, Charlotte Gorton, Zoe Hardman, Madeleine Harland, Nicola Keen, Graham MacDuff, Andrew Playfoot, Kelly Price, Jo Servi, Spencer Soloman, Summer Strallen, Suzanne Toase and Sebastian Torkia.

The Designer is Christopher Oram, with choreography by Rob Ashford, musical supervision by Jae Alexander, lighting by Howard Harrison and sound by Terry Jardine and Chris Full.

Performance times: Mondays-Saturdays at 7.30pm, with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm.
Tickets, priced from £20-£55, are available until March 2006. Box Office: 0870 060 0123.

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HOW TO SUCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING

I have already written about this production under the title How to Succeed …..in Chichester, but just to remind you of the salient points - James Bolam returns to the musical stage, in the footsteps of Rudy Vallee and Billy de Wolfe, as J.G. Biggley, the president of the company.

Joe McFadden (fresh from Aladdin at the Old Vic) steps into the shoes of Robert Morse and Warren Berlinger as the faux naïf J Pierrepont Finch.

The love interest is supplied by Fiona Dunn as Rosemary, the secretary who loves him and is 'happy to keep his dinner warm', while Sophie Louise Dann plays Smitty, the hard-boiled secretary who watches the office manoeuvres with a cynical eye.

The director is Martin Duncan, while the choreographer is Stephen Mears – (Olivier Award winner for Mary Poppins)

How To Succeed …. plays in repertory at the Chichester Festival Theatre from April 29 to September 10. Evenings 7.30pm, Thursday matinee, 2pm.
[There are reductions of prices in May, when 1/3rd of the tickets for all performances are £10.]
Box Office: 01243 781312.

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