One of the great writers of Hollywood and Broadway, Frank Loesser was as much a character as those he musicalized in Guys and Dolls. He was also extremely loyal to those who helped him and tried to help those who came after him.
Burton Lane was responsible for Loesser’s success in Hollywood. In July of 1937, Lane heard some of Loesser and Manning Sherwin’s songs. Lane was impressed and recommended the team to Paramount where they were given a ten-week contract. This was a typical tryout at the studio: at the end of ten weeks anybody who had managed to get some good songs into films got to stay. Manning Sherwin, an Englishman, was later to have great success as the composer of “These Foolish Things,” but in 1937 Paramount wasn’t impressed with his work.
Sherwin and Loesser had written songs for the film Cocoanut Grove and the executives liked the lyric but not the music—so they asked Burton Lane to write a new tune immediately. They stuck him in a piano room and waited for him while he pounded out a song. The result was “Says My Heart,” a big hit (which surprised Lane, who didn’t find out the song was in the picture until he heard it played on the radio!). The success of that song led to a long-term contract for Loesser at Paramount.
Prior to the success of “Says My Heart,” Lane would pick Loesser up at his house as the newcomer couldn’t afford a car. One day Lane and Loesser were invited to a party and Lane dutifully arrived at Loesser’s to pick him up. “Frank and his wife were having dinner. I looked down and there on the two plates were baked beans and a half an apple each. Frank said to me, ‘Oh, we’re having dinner, did you want to join us?’ It was a very embarrassing situation. They were so broke that Frank only had one suit that he had to keep cleaning.
“Then, ‘Says My Heart’ went through the ceiling. A few weeks later I went to pick up Frank again, who still didn’t have a car, and when I walked in this time there’s a tailor there who’s measuring Frank for custom-made suits. He knew he was well on his way.”
When Jule Styne, entombed at Republic Studios, asked that Loesser be loaned out from Paramount, the lyricist was incensed to be working at a B studio. Loesser told Styne that he’d work for a week to finish writing the lyrics and then take a couple weeks off. He instructed Styne not to hand in the songs into the studio until the three weeks were up. There was no reason to let the brass know they could turn out songs so quickly.
At age 32, Loesser soon got a hankering to supply his own music to his lyrics. And the tunes were good, really good. Loesser joined the pantheon of George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Noel Coward as a guy who could write music and lyrics.
He was arguably the most versatile of all musical theatre writers, each of his shows entirely unique. His first show, Where’s Charley? was a farcical drawing room comedy. He then did an about face with Guys and Dolls, based on Damon Runyon’s short stories about the denizens of Times Square. The Most Happy Fella followed, a sung-through musical (almost an opera) based on the serio-comic play, They Knew What They Wanted. Then to something completely different, a sweet, bucolic look at smalltown life, Greenwillow. For his next show, Loesser tackled the world of big business with the playfully satirical musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Pleasures and Palaces, a Russian-based tuner closed out-of-town. His last show was another departure from his previous work. Senor Discretion Himself, which Loesser did not complete before his death, took place in a small Mexican town. Loesser’s remarkable versatility was the product of an active intellect and need to stretch his own talents and the art form in which he worked.
But Loesser will be remembered for more than his songwriting or shows. As the owner of Frank Music, a highly regarded music publisher, Loesser encouraged the careers of Robert Wright and George Forrest (writers of Kismet and Grand Hotel), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (writers of The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees), Meredith Willson (The Music Man), Moose Charlap (Peter Pan), and Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!). Loesser put many of these composers on salary knowing that the security would enable them to do their best work. Unhappy with the sorry state of dramatic licensing, Loesser started Music Theatre International. He arranged for Stephen Sondheim’s first lawyer.
Loesser was quite a guy—a brilliant songwriter, astute businessman, faithful friend and colleague. His faith in his own talents gave him the courage to undertake a remarkable variety of subjects for his musicals and his songs are paeans to the regular guy be them wine-growers in the Napa Valley, crap-shooters in the sewers of New York, or ambitious office workers. That’s how Frank Loesser thought of himself, talented to be sure, but in the end a guy trying his best to do his best at a job.
“Frank Loesser was the one who recognized I had great talent, and he told me how it goes. He said, ‘When you write songs it’s a horrendous thing for a composer who writes a tune and has to wait till the lyric’s finished. Have patience, don’t nudge a lyric writer, you’ll have less.’ For five weeks I went to his house every day after the studio; we were both at Paramount, he got me to Paramount. He asked for me to be his lyric writer. I was at Republic. I asked for him first at Republic. And he hated me [for bringing him to a lesser studio]. He said to me, ‘You don’t understand, all the big movies they have they give to Johnny Mercer, and I get loaned out to Republic and stuff. But I like you. I’m gonna write Sis Hopkins in four days but you won’t hand it in for three weeks 'cause I’ll be in Florida. You have to learn to fake it. Its part of the game you just make up excuses.’
He says, ‘Play me something.’ I play, [what would become "I Don’t Want to Walk Without You."] He says, ‘Shhh! Quiet! Never play that song anyplace. I’m taking it to Paramount and we’ll write it there.’ Every day I went to his house. This was the day before cassettes, the piano player sat at the piano and played it over and over, must have played it 24 times every day. One day he called me up and said, ‘You want to meet me someplace for lunch? ‘Cause at lunch I’m gonna tell you the lyrics of your song.’ A pancake place on Hollywood Boulevard. No dummy lyrics. He doesn’t write dummy lyrics. He writes in his mind. He sang me the whole song by memory.”I Don't Want to Walk Without You
Lynn Loesser explained to radio host Ezio Petersen the genesis of this song, “This was written before Guys and Dolls was even thought of. It had come about because I had read a book from Truman Capote called Other Voices, Other Rooms, a collection of short stories that came out as he was just breaking on the literary scene. I insisted that Frank read it. I was getting ready for bed one evening and Frank came tearing upstairs hollering, 'You’ve got to come down, I’ve just found something.' So I went down to the piano and he’d found a passage in Capote’s book that quoted an old nursery rhyme that went, 'I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.' He quickly wrote the whole song based on that line.
After he’d written it I asked him if maybe he should talk to Capote and ask if it was alright to use the line. Frank brushed it off as being obviously in the public domain since it was quoted as a nursery rhyme or saying. When Guys and Dolls came along, Frank pulled it out of the trunk and that was that.
I met Capote a year or so later and he said he’d almost sued Frank but decided at the last minute that it wasn’t worth it.”A Bushel and a Peck
In Where’s Charley, Ray Bolger led the audience in a rousing chorus of “Once in Love with Amy.” Producer Cy Feuer told the story of how the idea came to Bolger, “My son, Robert, seven years old at the time, and a friend of his, were taken to one of the first matinees by my wife, who arranged to have them seated down front by themselves. She waited for them in the back of the house. Bobby, of course, knew Ray Bolger from having met him at home, and Bobby also knew the song. When Ray came to ‘Once in Love with Amy’ in the second act, he either forgot the lyrics or pretended to forget them, and as a result, stopped the music and said to himself something to the effect of ‘I forgot the words’ or ‘What were the lyrics again?’ Bobby stood up and unselfconsciously reminded Ray of the lyric. The audience laughed and Ray of course didn’t know it was Bobby. In order to recover, Ray asked the little boy whether he would join him in singing. Bobby said he would, whereupon the two of them began to sing. Ray then urged the rest of the audience to join them, and so was born the community-sing spot which over a period of a couple of years evolved to about a fifteen-minute number, depending upon how long Ray felt like keeping it running.”Once in Love with Amy
“I listened to it and jumped up from my chair to phone Frank in California and say I thought it was one of the finest pieces of songwriting I had ever heard. Today I don’t care why I thought so; I just know what it did for me and millions of others. Perhaps this sort of emotional response is all any piece needs to become a valid work of art.”Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Frank Loesser first thought he’d write a song about a stripper who constantly caught cold. But he revised his thoughts with the idea that a psychosomatic illness would be funnier and make the character of Miss Adelaide more sympathetic.Adelaide’s Lament
"I had to sit at the piano and play the tune constantly until he remembered it well enough to write a lyric to it.… Now Frank was very secretive. He would sit across the room from me, a pad held very high so that all I could see was his eyes. He would write very small, and then he would suddenly start to smile, and I’m dying to know what he’s writing. I would say, ‘Frank, what is it, what did you get, what made you laugh, what’s tickling you?’ And he’d go on writing till he’d finished, and then he’d put what he’d written up on the piano. His handwriting was terrible and I’m supposed to sing the song and read his handwriting at the same time. Now I really adored Frank, but if I blew a line because I couldn’t understand his writing, he’d say, ‘God damn it, what’s the matter with you, can’t you read?’ and he’d get upset. But finally he would settle down and I would ask him to type it out.”Burton Lane
“What are we going to do about the kid?”Irving Berlin to Richard Rodgers
“You can well understand my enthusiasm when the head of the music department deposited Frank in my crib. But he shook me up a little bit on first meeting. His exuberance and zany talk were too much for an older man who took composing seriously. All of a sudden I felt as if I wasn’t adequate in spite of the hits I’d written. He just didn’t seem serious enough about this serious matter of writing songs.”Hoagy Carmichael
“The public Loesser was a cerebral, tough, sharp man with wit and charm. In a working relationship, he was a demanding perfectionist with a short fuse … his anger directed against himself as much as anyone else. But all these qualities were surface. Somewhere, buried very deep, was a gentle something that wanted to ‘make them cry.’”Abe Burrows