Thomas L. Riis: Frank Loesser (Yale Broadway Masters)

Yale University Press, 2008 (350pp)

9 May 2009 3.5 stars

Frank LoesserBy far the finest study so far attempted on the subject, Thomas L Riis' new book on Frank Loesser in the Yale Broadway Masters series is a significant contribution to the literature on American musical theatre.

It joins previous volumes from the same publisher, on composers as diverse as Jerome Kern (by Stephen Banfield), Andrew Lloyd Webber (by John Snelson) and Richard Rodgers (by Geoffrey Block, the excellent editor for the series).

Until now, far too little has been written about Frank Loesser (1910-69), the composer of some of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time. Though Guys and Dolls remains by far and away his most popular show, his other pieces, such as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Where's Charley and The Most Happy Fella, are no less carefully conceived. What comes across particularly well in Riis' book is the consistency of approach in Loesser's output. The less prominent aspects of his career are considered with equal weight to the more public ones, and overall we're given a well-rounded and elegantly-written account of the composer as an artist, as well as an astute producer and businessman.

The first chapter, for instance, deals with Loesser's interest in poetry and music as a young man, his activities as a lyricist in Hollywood, and his role as a popular songwriter during the Second World War. The description of his transition from writing only lyrics (with composers including Burton Lane and Arthur Schwartz) to becoming a composer-lyricist in his later Hollywood years is of particular interest, taking in titles such as 'Baby it's Cold Outside' and 'Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year'. But what stands out during this section is Riis' examination of Loesser's compositions for musicals written for overseas troops – 'wartime morale boosters' whose amusing titles include Skirts, PFC Mary Brown, About Face! and Okay, USA!. In this exemplary section, one truly gets a sense of Loesser gaining a kind of apprenticeship by helping to provide material for these makeshift shows, and Riis gives both a broad overview of the performance conditions of the musicals and close readings of some of the songs. It reminds us that Loesser had plenty of practice before he went to Broadway, rather than emerging as a leading composer without having gained technique in advance.

There follows a serious re-evaluation of Where's Charley?, Loesser's first Broadway hit. Long overshadowed by Guys and Dolls both in performance and in musical theatre literature, this show is nonetheless highly accomplished. Riis illustrates how the initially cool critical reaction to the piece was later met with greater approval in some quarters when it was revived in 1966, and also succeeds in demonstrating how Loesser and his colleagues opened up and refined the source material (the 1892 cross-dressing farce, Charley's Aunt) to better serve the needs of a mid-twentieth-century Broadway musical.

Less successful, in my view, is the section on 'Loesser and Counterpoint'. Here, Riis lingers on some of Loesser's non-choral contrapuntal songs, such as 'Make a Miracle' from Where's Charley?, through which he tries to paint 'Loesser the intellectual, who was anything but put off by the puzzle-making character of contrapuntal writing' (p.66). But to me this section stands out as too much of a diversion from the through-narrative of the monograph, as well as prioritising one aspect of Loesser's compositional procedure too keenly over the others. It also seems to me that while the contrapuntal complexity of some of Loesser's music is indeed a sign of a highly intelligent composer, the word 'intellectual' indicates something quite different, a type of thinker that is quite foreign from the accessible Loesser.

Frank LoesserI was a little disappointed by the Guys and Dolls and Most Happy Fella chapters in Riis' book, which don't go much beyond Geoffrey Block's publications on these two shows (especially his article on the Most Happy Fella sketches). In particular, Riis' exploration of Guys and Dolls doesn't quite rise to the occasion: it seems to me that a study of this landmark show requires consideration of a wider range of sources, preferably including the autograph manuscripts, than Riis brings into his discussion. Little is added to the mix by a section on 'The Quality of Guys and Dolls' – such a title is inevitably self-fulfilling, as the author has previously extrapolated the show's qualities and then proceeds to demonstrate how it contains them – and there just isn't space in a broad study of this kind to do justice to the performance history of such a frequently revived show, so personally I wouldn't have attempted one.

It's true that in both these chapters, Riis' grasp of Loesser's taut compositional technique is excellent, and in the Most Happy Fella chapter his explanation of how Loesser reworked Sidney Howard's play, They Knew What They Wanted, is exceptionally detailed. However, for me the analyses are too bound up with the published vocal scores, and reference to composers of European art music throughout the book is an unnecessary attempt to aggrandise Loesser by association with the likes of Bach (pp.66 and 256), Wagner (pp.117-19), Puccini (p.143), and Mozart (pp.254-6). This is a common trend in much of the literature on the Broadway musical, and is undoubtedly justified to the extent that the genre owes much to various 'classical' forms from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century lyric theatre, but I feel that the repertoire is better served by demonstrating its unique qualities and strengths on their own terms rather than its (surely obvious) connections with music of a different time and place.

By contrast, I found much of the ensuing two chapters quite riveting. I can pay the chapter on How to Succeed in Business no greater compliment than to admit that I've been listening to the original cast recording at least once a day since reading the author's thoughts on the musical. Riis brings home two very important things: on a factual level, that the show was critically and commercially popular, winning the Pulitzer prize (only the fourth musical to do so) and running 1,417 performances (more than the original run of Guys and Dolls); and on a compositional level, that Loesser's creation of a satire on the business world through a specific musical tinta (colour) is absolutely unique. Though the rather dated film version has done nothing for the show's reputation, How to Succeed receives an excellent reappraisal at Riis' hands.

I was also fascinated by the sixth chapter, on 'The Unknown Loesser'. Riis deals with Greenwillow, the composer's unfortunate Broadway flop of 1960; Dream People, a projected musical of 1956-9 which was abandoned; Leocadia, a show to be based on a Jean Anouilh play for which Loesser wrote four lyrics and musical sketches in 1962 before Anouilh refused permission for a new staging; Pleasures and Palaces, a show with a Russian theme that had considerable talent signed up to it in the form of director-choreographer Bob Fosse but which folded during the tryouts in Detroit in 1965; and Señor Discretion Himself, which Loesser worked on from 1966-8 and left uncompleted at his death, but which was completed and performed in Washington DC in 2004.

Both this chapter and the final chapter ('The Legacy of Frank Loesser') give one a sense of Loesser as a working composer, and also as a producer. Setting up his own publishing and production companies helped Loesser to have a control over the dissemination of his work that was modelled on the business skills of his two heroes, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers. It meant that Loesser knew what was popular with the public, and allowed him to reap more of the profits of the sales and performances of his songs than was the case with many of his contemporaries. It also allowed him to encourage the next generation, so that he could publish and/or produce shows such as Adler and Ross' Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game, Meredith Willson's The Music Man and Wright and Forrest's Kismet. On the other hand, it also meant that he probably pulled the plug on the unsuccessful tryouts of his own Pleasures and Palaces too soon, since as the show's producer and composer he was too financially and emotionally involved.

One also has a sense of the unprecedented cultural significance of the Broadway musical in the 1940s and '50s, when it was no longer ephemeral in the sense that many of the pre-War shows had been. Yet Riis also paints the poignancy of this artistic moment, which was to be shattered by changes in both society and pop music during the 1960s, and never rebuilt. It's in this context that Loesser's faltering steps in the years leading up to his death are placed: the Broadway musical was no longer what it had been, and Loesser could therefore no longer rely on his instincts for crafting a successful show in the way he had done in the 1950s – something else he shared with Rodgers and Berlin, neither of whom produced a lasting hit in their final decades.

Riis illustrates the various aspects of Loesser's activities very well in his final chapter. Admittedly, he's rather reverential to the composer as a man, but that's in the nature of the Yale series, which is (admirably) more concerned with art than dishing the dirt on the people involved. On the other hand, at times I find Riis' attitude to the secondary literature on the music aspect of the subject too obsequious, rarely criticising or questioning the work of earlier writers, even though the very fact that Riis' own book fills so many gaps and corrects so many misconceptions shows that much has been flawed in the past.

Still, it's a small complaint. General readers, it has to be said, might be put off by the quantity of music examples, and indeed the general academic purpose of the book. But taking into consideration the excellent song lists in the appendix and the overall high level of insight, this book is an indispensable read for all musical theatre scholars.

By Dominic McHugh


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