Frank Loesser At 100: Celebrating A Broadway Legend The songwriter, who wrote hard, smart musicals like Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, would have turned 100 this year. To commemorate his life and work, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is playing a new musical featuring rare songs from Loesser's catalog.
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Frank Loesser At 100: Celebrating A Broadway Legend

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Frank Loesser At 100: Celebrating A Broadway Legend

Frank Loesser At 100: Celebrating A Broadway Legend

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky, you can bet that he's doing it for some doll. When you spot a...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUYS AND DOLLS")

SIMON: Thanks very much for being with us, Jo.

JO SULLIVAN LOESSER: Well, it's a great pleasure and thank you for asking me. I'm delighted to be here.

SIMON: How did you and Frank Loesser meet?

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Well, I auditioned for the lead in "Most Happy Fella." At that time I was in "The Threepenny Opera," the one that was with Lotte Lenya and Bea Arthur, and they were looking for a soprano to sing the role of Rosabella in "The Most Happy Fella." Now, I could sing it so I got the part. I auditioned - after auditioning for Mr. Loesser, I have to say, about 20 times.

SIMON: But how did getting the part lead to getting the part as Mrs. Loesser?

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Well, mutual attraction - shall we put it in those terms?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN LOESSER: I admired him very much and we just became closer and closer as the time went on. We both were married to other people and we both got a divorce and then we kept going together and Frank was kind of not figuring if he wanted to get married again, and I was thinking about it. But he didn't want me to sing or work anywhere. So finally I said, now, listen, Frank, I got to tell you something; we're going to have to get married and we're going to have to do it by May the 1st or I'm going to have to start working again because I need to do that. So we got married April 29th.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN LOESSER: He held on as - held off as long as he could, shall we say.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yeah. You know, there's so much to talk - we could talk about, in reviewing Frank Loesser's career, I mean the same man would write one of my favorite songs of all time, "I Believe in You."

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Oh yeah.

SIMON: From "How to Succeed in Business," and then a very sentimental song, "Once In Love with Amy."

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yes.

SIMON: And, of course, all the wonderful songs from "Guys and Dolls." May I tell you? I mean my favorite is "If I Were a Bell."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I WERE A BELL")

SIMON: (Singing) Well sir, all I can say, is if I were a bell I'd be ringing. From the moment we kissed tonight, that's the way I've just got to behave. Boy, if I were a lamp I'd light. And if I were a banner I'd wave.

SIMON: Oh.

SULLIVAN LOESSER: That's wonderful. That really is a terrific song. They couldn't figure out what to do with it, exactly how to do it. And finally, when they decided that she should get just a little high and sing it, it worked perfectly. But, you know, you can't tell, Frank's songs, you never know that it's Frank wrote that, because each song he wrote is different than the others.

SIMON: Yeah.

SULLIVAN LOESSER: I mean I don't take this away from anyone. I love Cole Porter but you know it's Cole Porter.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

SULLIVAN LOESSER: And I love Richard Rodgers but you know it's Richard Rodgers. But you're never quite sure if it's Frank Loesser. Because he wrote an English musical, which is "Where's Charley?" and then "Guys and Dolls," a Broadway musical, which is completely different, and then this big operatic piece, "Most Happy Fella," which you really had to sing your guts out, by the way. And he took five years to write that. And in that five years he wrote the score to "Hans Christian Andersen," which I think is one of his best scores.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE UGLY DUCKING")

DANNY KAYE: (Singing) There once was an ugly duckling with feathers all stubby and brown. And the other birds in so many words said get out of town. Get out, get out, get out of town. And he went with a quack and a waddle and a quack in a flurry of eiderdown.

SIMON: And this is the same guy that wrote "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."

SULLIVAN LOESSER: That's right. And everybody forgets that he wrote "Heart and Soul." He wrote the lyrics to "Heart and Soul." Nobody knows that. I have to always tell everybody that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, I want to talk specifically about what's going to be performed at the Kennedy Center on Monday, because this is "Of Mice and Manhattan."

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yes.

SIMON: And a very unusual premise for a show. Tell us about it.

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) We have people cried the mouse. We have people round the house. Just listen. Just listen and you'll hear. We have people round the place. Just imagine the disgrace. Just listen. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear.

(SOUNDBITE OF "OF MICE AND MANHATTAN")

SULLIVAN LOESSER: So that's the start of it, and they have adventures all the way to try to find out where to go and live and what to do. And it's a mother mouse and a little boy mouse and they meet a wise old owl, Frank wrote that, who lives at City Hall and knows everybody and helped everybody get elected.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I'm told we have a recording of you singing about the owl.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

SULLIVAN LOESSER: (Singing) There's a wise old owl who's a wise old fowl on the top floor of City Hall. Oh his life is cream and peaches for the party writes his speeches and on Decoration Day he gives his all.

SIMON: So...

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yeah, that is the owl.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: That's the Rahm Emanuel of his time, that owl.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yeah. He sure is. It's a very cute part in the show, by the way. He tells them what to do and tries to boss everybody, naturally. So these are all songs that Frank wrote and nobody knows them, and they've never been in anything.

SIMON: Oh boy.

SULLIVAN LOESSER: And I kept saying, we've got to do something about this. This has got to be a show, naturally.

SIMON: We're, by the way, speaking with Jo Sullivan Loesser, a Broadway leading lady and founder of Frank Loesser Enterprises, manages her husband's catalog of work.

SULLIVAN LOESSER: May I mention, by the way, that we're going to do a revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"?

SIMON: That's great news.

SULLIVAN LOESSER: With the gentleman, Mr. Harry Potter.

SIMON: With...

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Daniel Radcliff.

SIMON: Daniel Radcliff is going to...

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yes.

SIMON: ...is going to play J. Pierpont? Really?

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yes, he is. He came to New York about a month ago and we did a reading, because he wanted to show me he could sing. And guess what?

SIMON: He can sing?

SULLIVAN LOESSER: He really can. He sings terrific.

SIMON: Oh my...

SULLIVAN LOESSER: He's enchanting.

SIMON: So I mean, can I talk - since I do love that song, "I Believe in You," can I ask you a question about it?

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yes.

SIMON: Because, of course, a lot of people have heard that song and they think of it as a love song. And, of course, the context in which it's sung in the show is totally different. This is a man singing into the mirror, right?

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) You have the cool clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth. Yet there's that upturned chin and the grin of impetuous youth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BELIEVE IN YOU")

SIMON: So how did that song come about? Do you have any idea?

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Well, I know that Frank had trouble because had he written one really love song in this musical, it would've been wrong because it is a joke and everything is a takeoff on big business, so it's got to stay in that realm. So he wrote "I Believe in You," but to take the curse off, shall we say curse, of the fact that it could be a love song, he has J. Pierpont Finch sing it to himself in the mirror and it's really funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BELIEVE IN YOU")

SIMON: (Singing) Yet there's the bold, brave, spring of the tiger that quickens your walk. (Growls) Oh, I believe in you.

SIMON: Do you still sing his songs?

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yes, I do. I do. I don't sing a lot because enough is enough. But I'm going to sing Monday. I'm going to sing "Spring Will be a Little Late This Year." And then I'm going to sing with my daughter.

SIMON: Thanks so much, Jo.

SULLIVAN LOESSER: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROTHERHOOD OF MAN")

ROBERT MORSE: Your lifelong membership is free. Keep a' givin' each brother all you can. Oh aren't you proud to be in that fraternity? The great big brotherhood of...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. That's Robert Morse. I'm Scott Simon.

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