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Remembering Jo Sullivan Loesser, Wife Of 'Guys And Dolls' Creator Frank Loesser

May 3, 2019
Originally published on May 7, 2019 10:33 am

Jo Sullivan Loesser, who died April 28, starred in Frank Loesser's Broadway show The Most Happy Fella and then married him. After he died she helped preserve his legacy.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Jo Sullivan Loesser, the musical comedy star who was featured in the first New York production of "The Threepenny Opera" and originated the role of Rosabella in "The Most Happy Fella," died Sunday. She was 91 years old. When she was cast in "The Most Happy Fella," she met and eventually married the show's composer, Frank Loesser, who wrote such other musicals as "Guys And Dolls" and "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying." He died in 1969.

Terry Gross spoke with Jo Sullivan Loesser in 2006 when "The Most Happy Fella" was being revived by the New York City Opera. "The Most Happy Fella" is about as different from "Guys And Dolls" as a musical can get. "Guys and Dolls" is streetwise and slangy, a jazz-inspired comedy about gamblers. "The Most Happy Fella," on the other hand, is inspired by Italian opera. It's set in the Depression at a California vineyard where a lonely waitress becomes the mail-order bride of an older man. She betrays him only to later fall truly in love with him. Here's Jo Sullivan Loesser from the original cast recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE")

JO SULLIVAN LOESSER: (As Rosabella, singing) Now I'm lucky that somebody somewhere wants me and needs me. That's very wonderful to know. Somebody lonely wants me to care, wants me of all people to notice him there. Well, I want to be wanted, need to be needed. And I'll admit I'm all aglow 'cause somebody somewhere wants me and needs me, wants lonely me to smile and say hello. Somebody somewhere wants me and needs me, and that's very wonderful to know.

BIANCULLI: That was Jo Sullivan Loesser from the original cast recording of "The Most Happy Fella." She got the part while she was performing in the first New York production of "The Threepenny Opera" with Lotte Lenya.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LOESSER: The producers saw me, and then they dragged Frank down to see me. And then, after that, I auditioned about 20 times. And in those days, there were about three of us that that sang all the soprano roles. You know, in those days, the sopranos, the leading ladies, were little blondes. And one was Barbara Cook, and one was Florence Henderson, and one was myself. So we all auditioned, but I guess I was more Southern. I sounded more like a waitress than the other two, so I got the part.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: What did you do each of those 20 times? I mean, were the auditions different from time to time?

LOESSER: I would sing the same song some of the time, but he would have you do something that absolutely drove you nuts. He would have you sing "Happy Birthday To You," and he would have you sing it higher and higher and higher and higher. We would have to go (singing) happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday till you almost hit the ceiling.

GROSS: So what was he like to work with that first time before you were married to him? Did he give you a lot of direction about how he wanted the music sung or what he was thinking when he wrote it?

LOESSER: Frank gave everybody a lot of direction about how he wanted the music sung. He was very - the words were very important to Frank, too. He loved the words because when he wrote a piece, he always wrote the words first. And then he would write a melody. And he would - used to say to me, now, don't pay any attention to this melody. It may not be the right one. It's just a dummy melody. Just listen to the words.

GROSS: Now, it was during the making of "The Most Happy Fella" that you and your husband fell in love. I mean, you met through the show. I imagine that's when you fell in love because you got married...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Afterwards.

LOESSER: Yeah, we did. Yes.

GROSS: So at what point did you realize that you were more than his star and he was more than your director?

LOESSER: Well, you just couldn't work with Frank and not sort of fall in love with him. He was enchanting. He was - I admired his work greatly. He was witty. He was just a wonderful, wonderful human being to be with. And both of us were not exactly happy in the arrangements we had. Both of us were married. And so we just sort of got together after that.

GROSS: Did you try to keep it hidden during the show?

LOESSER: Well, of course (laughter), naturally. But there was a spark there. I think people sort of knew it. And we were married two years after the show - after I left the show in 1960. I have to think of the year, my. It was wonderful to be married to a composer. I didn't sing after that for 17 years because he didn't want me to sing. He wanted me to be with him and go where he went. And we had two beautiful children, two girls. But it worked out fine. I was very happy.

GROSS: Well, how did you feel about giving up performing? You have such a beautiful voice.

LOESSER: Well, thank you very much. I frankly didn't even think about it. I was very busy listening to - going to all the shows with him and listening to what was going on and seeing how things were working out and taking care of two children. And Frank was a handful, I have to say.

GROSS: In what sense?

LOESSER: He demanded - well, he demanded a lot of attention. He wanted to make sure we went on trips. And listen to this - he wanted me to listen to that piece, listen to this piece and learn that piece for him and see if it sounded right. And I played the piano, and I would play parts of it for the piano with him to see if it was right. And he was a handful.

He used to go to bed at 12 o'clock at night and - around 12 and get up at 4 in the morning. And from 4 in the morning till 8 o'clock in the morning, he would write - on a silent piano, thankfully. And that's because the telephone couldn't bother him. He could write and compose and be completely clear about that. He would also get in the car, and you would drive him around. And he would write in the car because a telephone couldn't get to him, too, at the same time.

And then in the morning when I would get up - 7:30, whatever - he would be having a martini, and I would be having a cup of coffee because he'd been up for four hours. So he was having lunch, and I was having breakfast. It was kind of a funny (laughter) arrangement.

BIANCULLI: Musical comedy star Jo Sullivan Loesser speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "TOOT TOOT TOOTSIE")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2006 interview with musical comedy actress Jo Sullivan Loesser. She died Sunday at age 91.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROSS: Frank Loesser was a kind of interesting singer himself. He recorded some demos that were put together on CD. And I really love that recording, so I thought we could pause here and listen to one of them. I thought we'd hear him singing something he wrote for "Guys And Dolls."

LOESSER: I put that - we put that album together to make sure that he sang - I thought he sang terrific. I mean, let's face it. He didn't have a very beautiful voice, but he certainly knew how to put a lyric over. I mean, you could see how important the lyrics were to him, and I think it shows on this album. I think it's great fun to listen to.

GROSS: Oh, me too. Let's hear it. This is Frank Loesser singing one of his songs from "Guys And Dolls," "I'll Know."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL KNOW")

FRANK LOESSER: (Singing) I'll know when my love comes along. I'll know then and there. I'll know at the sight of her face how I care, how I care, how I care. And I'll stop, and I'll stare. And I'll know long before we can speak. I'll know in my heart. I'll know, and I won't ever ask, am I right? Am I wise? Am I smart? But I'll stop, and I'll stare at that face in the throng. Yes, I'll know when my love comes along.

GROSS: You know, we heard Frank Loesser singing one of his songs. What was his attitude towards singers and musicians who took liberties with either his lyrics or the music? And I'm talking about on their own records. I'm not talking about when they were appearing in a production of one of his shows.

LOESSER: I don't think he cared when they were on a record. I know that he used to say to me, oh, let them do that. That song is so famous; it doesn't make any difference. That would happen often. But if you did decide that you were going to do something and change the way you sang or whatever, his rhythm or whatever he wrote in a show, then there was a lot of trouble. And in "How To Succeed," he had such a fight with Rudy Vallee.

You know, Rudy Vallee had been singing for many, many years, and said, listen; I don't need anybody to tell me how to sing a song. Well, Frank said, well, you're going to sing my song this way. They almost came to blows, but the fact was that Frank quit the show. When he came home, I said to him, I think you've gone a little far this time, Frank, for God's sakes. But he quit the show, and they had to beg him and cajole him to come back. And of course he did.

And then when they made the movie of "Guys And Dolls," Frank Sinatra would not sing the songs the way Frank wanted him to. And Frank wrote him a great song called "Adelaide," and Sinatra and he never spoke after that. They had such a fight that they never spoke after that movie.

GROSS: What exactly was the fight about?

LOESSER: Because Sinatra would not sing Frank's songs the way he wanted him to.

GROSS: Melodically or lyrically?

LOESSER: He was going to croon them more, and Frank didn't like it and didn't think it suited the part.

GROSS: Oh.

LOESSER: And I think he was right.

GROSS: So who won in the movie of "Guys And Dolls"? Was it Sinatra or Frank Loesser?

LOESSER: I think that Sinatra sang it the way he wanted to.

GROSS: You know, your husband, Frank Loesser, died at - what was he? - like, 59...

LOESSER: Fifty-nine years old, yes.

GROSS: ...Of lung cancer after you were married about 10 years.

LOESSER: Yes, we were.

GROSS: And he left to you - what? - his publishing company, which was publishing rights to all of his songs.

LOESSER: Yes, yes, he left me his publishing company, his - he was a superb businessman.

GROSS: So what were some of the difficult decisions you had to make about rights to his songs and rights to his musicals?

LOESSER: Well, I remember that he told me - first of all, we never allowed anyone to sing "Adelaide's Lament" on television. And Frank told me, don't let them sing the big songs too much. Save them for big moments because they'll ruin it. So I keep "Luck Be A Lady" - every week, two or three times, somebody calls and wants to do "Luck Be A Lady," and I don't let them do it. Very, very seldom do I.

GROSS: Before you did Frank Loesser's "The Most Happy Fella," you were off-Broadway in the original New York production of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical "The Threepenny Opera," and this was the production that Marc Blitzstein wrote the translation for. It's a really famous production.

LOESSER: Ran for five years.

GROSS: Yeah, and the cast recording is still around and still, of course, wonderful. I want to play your duet with Bea Arthur, who eventually became known for her TV role as Maude and then for her role on "The Golden Girls." This is called "The Jealousy Duet" because you're both...

LOESSER: After Mack the Knife, of course.

GROSS: Exactly, exactly. So we're going to pick this up in the part where you're singing the main part because it kind of alternates between the two of you. So here it is. From "The Threepenny Opera," my guest Jo Sullivan Loesser and Bea Arthur.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JEALOUSY DUET")

LOESSER: (Singing) Yes, they call me beauty of the town - see my legs and say, now, those are pretty. I'm glad you're glad to admire beauty. Note the trimmest ankle in the city.

BEA ARTHUR: Go peddle your wares somewhere else.

LOESSER: (Singing) I knew I would make a big impression on my Mackie.

ARTHUR: (Singing) Oh, did you? Did you?

LOESSER: (Singing) You'll be pleased to know I've met his Jackie.

ARTHUR: (Singing) Have you? Have you?

LOESSER: (Singing) Well, you kind of make me laugh.

ARTHUR: (Singing) Now I kind of make you laugh.

LOESSER: (Singing) Who would want a big giraffe?

ARTHUR: (Singing) Who would want what big giraffe?

LOESSER: (Singing) Ha, ha, ha. You are so pitiful, imagining you're beautiful.

ARTHUR: (Singing) Bet you wouldn't ask him.

LOESSER: (Singing) Certainly I'll ask him.

ARTHUR: (Singing) Go on, then. Ask him.

LOESSER: (Singing) You better ask him. (Vocalizing).

JO SULLIVAN LOESSER AND BEA ARTHUR: (Singing) Mackie and me - he never could refuse me. Mackie and me - and he will never lose me.

LOESSER: (Singing) He likes a nice, petite girl.

ARTHUR: (Singing) He likes a big, complete girl.

LOESSER AND ARTHUR: (Singing) Him leave me for a street girl - asinine.

GROSS: That's my guest, Jo Sullivan Loesser, along with Bea Arthur from "The Threepenny Opera" production with the original New York production with lyrics translated by Marc Blitzstein. Now, one of the amazing things about this production is that Kurt Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, was in it. After you married Frank Loesser, did you kind of think back to your experiences with Lotte Lenya and how - what her relationship was like with her husband and his work? I know he was - he had already passed away by the time...

LOESSER: Yes.

GROSS: ...You were in "The Threepenny Opera." But still, she must've spoken to you about what it had been like to work with her husband.

LOESSER: She spoke very little about that. I know that I stood in the wings and watched her all the time because she was superb. The woman was absolutely superb. And a few - I was - started to sing Frank's songs by then in clubs, at the ballroom and in hotels and concerts, et cetera. And I would never talk about him. I just didn't feel like I could say anything, you know? Like, oh, he always liked to wear a blue shirt.

And I went to hear Lotte. She talked all about Kurt Weill, and she told all - many stories about him - how he worked and what kind of a person he was and their relationship. And I was fascinated. It was so interesting. And I said, well, I - I'm going to do that from now on.

So I started talking all about Frank - about how he would work and how he'd get up at, you know - at 12 o'clock at night and his martini in the morning and that he always loved blue shirts and always wore them. And he would write notes. He drew, I must say, beautifully. And he would write me a note and make it like an airplane and throw it through the door. And it'd say, are you ready to go out now? How about, at say, 8 o'clock? I have 300 of his drawings that are wonderful, musing - he had great, great wit - drawings. And I talked all about his drawings and did some songs that weren't famous and all of that sort of thing. And Lenya's the one that helped me do that 'cause I saw how interesting it was to know those things.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you've kept alive your memories of him and have shared them. And thank you for sharing some of them with us today. Thank you so much for talking with us.

LOESSER: And thank you so much for asking me. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Musical comedy star Jo Sullivan Loesser speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. Jo Sullivan Loesser starred in the original 1956 Broadway production of "The Most Happy Fella," where she met and married the show's composer and lyricist, Frank Loesser. He died in 1969. Jo Sullivan Loesser died Sunday at age 91. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan suggests two new books to add to your summer reading list. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARY BARILLEAU & THE LATIN JAZZ COLLECTIVE'S "CARMEN'S MAMBO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.