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Loesser's 'Happy Fella' Returns to Stage

The music of Frank Loesser has been celebrated and extended by his wife, Jo Sullivan Loesser, since his death in 1969. But her musical relationship with him began earlier, as she starred in the original production of Loesser's The Most Happy Fella.

26:45

Other segments from the episode on March 20, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 20, 2006: Interview with Mick Moloney; Interview with Jo Sullivan Loesser.

Transcript

DATE March 20, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Musician and folklorist Mick Moloney discusses album
"McNally's Row of Flats"

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When I saw Mick Moloney's new CD paying tribute to the songs of Ed Harrigan, I
wondered, `Was it the same Harrigan that James Cagney sang about in the film
"Yankee Doodle Dandy," when Cagney played the vaudevillian George M. Cohan?'

(Soundbite of "Yankee Doodle Dandy")

Mr. JAMES CAGNEY: (Singing) H...

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) A...

Mr. CAGNEY: (Singing) ...double R, I...

Woman: (Singing) ...G, A,N spells Harrigan.

Mr. CAGNEY: (Singing) Proud of all the Irish blood that's in me, and never a
man can say a word agin' me. H...

Woman: (Singing) A...

Mr. CAGNEY: (Singing) ...double R, I...

Woman: (Singing) ...G, A, N, you see.

Mr. CAGNEY and Woman: (Singing in unison) Is a name that a shame never has
been connected with. Harrigan, that's me. H, A, double R, I....

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Yep, same Harrigan. George M. Cohan was one of Harrigan's great
admirers. But why is a singer, guitarist and Irish folklorist like Mick
Moloney paying tribute? Well, it turns out the music by lyricist Harrigan and
the his songwriting partner David Braham is not only an important part of
Irish American music history, it's a fascinating example of early music
theater in New York in the 1870s and 80s, before Tin Pan Alley. Mick
Moloney's new CD is called "McNally's Row of Flats: Irish American Songs of
Old New York by Harrigan and Braham."

Moloney was born in Limerick and has lived in the US since 1973. He has
recorded and produced over 40 albums of traditional music.

Mick Moloney, welcome to FRESH AIR. I would like us to introduce the first
track on the new CD, which is called "McNally's Row of Flats." Would you
describe this as one of the really early songs about city life in America?

Mr. MICK MOLONEY: It is, indeed, one of the early songs about city life in
America, and it comes out of the context of Lower East Side Manhattan where Ed
Harrigan lived along with David Braham. And this was a time in the early
1880s, when this song was written, when Irish immigrants were living beside
Italian immigrants, and they were also living beside African-Americans. And
these immigrants--eastern European immigrants are arriving--mostly Jewish,
from Russia and Ukraine. And the whole thing was a real multi-cultural
mosaic. And this song gives a very good flavor of that.

GROSS: OK. A song about multi-culturalism long before anybody invented the
word. Here it is, "McNally's Row of Flats."

(Soundbite of "McNally's Row of Flats")

Mr. MOLONEY: (Singing) Down in Bottle Alley, lived Timothy McNally, at days
a politician and a gentleman at that. He loved by all the ladies, the gossums
and the babies, and occupied the building called McNally's Row of Flats.

Mr. MOLONEY and Unidentified Man: (Singing in unison) And it's Ireland and
Italy and Jerusalem and Germany, Chinese and Africans and a pair of
(Unintelligible) rats. All jumbled up together in the snow and rainy weather,
they constitute the tenants in McNally's Row of Flats.

That great conglomeration of men from every nation, the tower of Babylonian
couldn't equal that. A peculiar institution where the brogues without
dilution, they rattled on together in McNally's Row of Flats.

And it's Ireland and Italy and Jerusalem and Germany, Chinese and Africans and
a pair of (Unintelligible) rats. All jumbled up together in the snow and
rainy weather, they constitute the tenants in McNally's Row of Flats.

GROSS: That's Mr.. MOLONEY: from his new CD "McNally's Row of Flats Irish
American Songs of Old New York by Harrigan and Braham." Would you just place
us musically here? I mean, this is an era--we're talking like 1870--1870s to
1890s and it--it kind of precedes Tin Pan Alley.

Mr. MOLONEY: It does, yes.

GROSS: So, what-what are the entertainments of the time?

Mr. MOLONEY: Well, you would think of Gilbert and Sullivan around that era.
That's the late 1870s. Actually, Harrigan and Braham started writing songs
about six or seven years before Gilbert and Sullivan. Some of the songs have
somewhat of the same feel to them. Of course, Gilbert and Sullivan went to
opera and operetta, and Harrigan and Braham and Hart, they stick with musical
comedy, musical theater. But say a song, like say the "Mulligan Guard," was
their first big hit. If you look at the sheet music, it would go something
like this...

(Singing) We crave your condescension. We'll tell you what we know. Of
marching in the Mulligan Guard from Sligo ward below. Our captain's name was
Hussey, a Tipperary man. He shouldered his sword like a Russian duke whenever
he took command.

(Singing) We shoulder'd guns and marched and marched away. From Baxter
Street, we marched to Avenue A. Our fifes and drums so sweetly they did play,
as we marched, marched, marched in the Mulligan Guard.

Mr. MOLONEY: Now, when I went and listened that in sheet music, it didn't
sound like that much of a big deal. And I knew that it needed something as a
window into that past to make it more evocative of the original feel of music
in its context. This was the year of marching bands, of course. So I went to
Vince Giordano who has a band, the Nighthawks. And they played for 15 years
up in 48th and Broadway at Charley O's. A big fan of their music...

GROSS: Didn't they do swing tunes and early jazz?

Mr. MOLONEY: Yeah. Early jazz. And Vince has a great knowledge of early
American music, especially 20th century music. This was little bit before his
time. With him and his arranger, John Galowalz, a bass in the band, we sort
of stepped back another few decades, said, `What might this have sounded like
in a pit orchestra in the Harrigan and Hart and Braham era?' You're talking
about the 1870s. And we did what we felt would be a fairly decent
reconstruction of what it would have sounded like then, with the feel,
however, of today as well. Because the intent was never--from the start of
making this CD--the intent was never to reconstruct anything, but to more or
less get the flavor of what it was like, and then do it as if it would have
been done today by Harrigan.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear how it sounds on your CD with Vince Giordano's
band behind you. So this is from "Mulligan Guard."

(Soundbite of "Mulligan Guard")

Mr. MOLONEY: (Singing) We crave your condescension, we'll tell you what we
know, of marching in the Mulligan Guard from the Sligo ward below. Our
captain's name was Hussey, that Tipperary man, he carried his sword like a
Russian duke whenever he took command. Forward! March!

Mr. MOLONEY and Man: (Singing in unison) We shouldered guns and marched and
marched away, from Baxter Street we marched to Avenue A. Our fifes and drums,
so sweetly they did play as we marched, marched, marched in the Mulligan
Guard.

GROSS: That is Mick Moloney from his new CD "McNally's Row of Flats: Irish
American Songs of Old New York by Harrigan and Braham." And that was Vince
Giordano's band backing him up.

Now, this song is about, what, a neighborhood militia?

Mr. MOLONEY: A neighborhood militia, because after the Civil War there were
a lot of people dressed up and nowhere to go. And the whole idea of having
militias that will go and do target shooting really peripherated New York.
Dickens wrote a lot about it. He was appalled by the number of people who
clogged up the arterial routes of Manhattan on any given Sunday. Basically an
excuse to have a big picnic and drink a lot. And a lot of these "target
companies," as they were called, were ethnically and fraternally based, and
often based in particular neighborhoods. So they were very competitive. So
the whole idea was really to go and do some target shooting. But that somehow
got overwhelmed by the idea of having a big party, lots of drunkenness. It's
very New York and very urban New York.

So this was satire from the very start. And the strange thing about it was
that the song became the most popular song ever for Ed Harrigan and David
Braham. And it was taken up by all the military bands. John Phillip Sousa's
band played it. Gilmore's band played it. It was even played in all the
British regimental bands. And Kipling in his novel "Kim" even mentions a
regimental British band in India playing the "Mulligan Guard." He even quotes
the first chorus. I doubt if that old imperialist would have known it was
written by an Irish American, the stand up of the military.

GROSS: Now, the lyricist for the songs that you do on your new CD, Ed
Harrigan, was part of a duo with Tony Hart. They had an act that they did in
minstrel shows?

Mr. MOLONEY: They did. They both started out as minstrels. And if you were
an entertainer in urban American in the 1860, or really anytime before that,
after 1840, you really didn't have a whole lot of options. You had to black
up if you wanted to be professional musicians, and Harrigan did that. Also
Tony Hart, whose original name was Anthony Cannon, he was an immigrant from
County Mayo. Ed Harrigan was born in Manhattan in 1844 and Anthony Cannon,
who became Tony Hart, was born in 1855 up in Massachusetts near Boston. And
they met up in Chicago, and they teamed up and they became known as the team
of "Harrigan and Hart." So they moved from minstrels to variety theater, from
there to inventing musical theater.

GROSS: What do you mean when you say that they invented musical theater?

Mr. MOLONEY: Before that time, variety theater had presented music and song
and dance, along with sketches as part of one long evening of sequential acts
and entertainment. What they did, beginning with the expansion of the
"Mulligan Guard" idea, was to create one full-length exposition, a play, if
you want, with music and dance and song woven into the play and adding
characters all the time. So the "Mulligan Guard" starts off with three
people. By the time it's gone through its six different incarnations there is
a cast of over 25 different people. And they represent ethnic New York.
There is Walshcan McSweeney, who owns the saloon. There is Gostaphus
Lockmuller the German butcher. There is At Won, the Chinese laundry man who
also has an opium den. And there is a cast of Irish characters. And it
expands, representing in a sense, I suppose, the first realism in theater in
New York. And that New York was being given itself back on stage for the
first time in a comprehensive way. And Harrigan went and bought clothes in
second hand stores. He went even to the immigrant ships coming in and he
bought the clothes off the backs of the immigrants. So you could arrive in
America on a Monday and see your shirt up on stage on a Saturday night. It
was that realistic. And he very deliberately sought to represent New York,
but in a very good humored way.

GROSS: We're describing Harrigan's music as preceding Tin Pan Alley. You
know, Tin Pan Alley in its early years was really dominated by a lot of Jewish
songwriters, like the Gershwins, and Irving Berlin. Is it fair to say that
before there were so many popular Jewish songwriters there were a lot of
popular Irish songwriters?

Mr. MOLONEY: There were a lot of popular Irish songwriters. And also a lot
of very popular Jewish and Irish teams of songwriters. When you hear of
songs, for instance, like the one that was a big hit in Ireland some years
back, "My Irish Molly-O." That was written by Jerome and Schwartz.

GROSS: Really.

Mr. MOLONEY: And who else wrote if it weren't for the Irish and the Jews?
And you would think with Jerome and Schwartz they were surely two Jewish song
writers. Well, they weren't. Bill Jerome was actually William Flannery from
County Mayo. And nobody knew exactly how the entertainment industry was going
to go in the 1890s. And people were hedging their bets. And some people like
William Flannery said, `Well, it's definitely going Jewish. I'm Bill Jerome.'
Where Norma Goldberg arrived from Milwaukee, and she says, `I don't know which
way this is going. I am changing my name to Nora Baze and I'm going to sing,
"Has anybody here seen Kelly? K-E-double L-Y."' So it went in both
directions, and then after 1900 there was a lot of the Jewish-Irish
songwriting team in the early years of Tin Pan Alley, more or less supplanted
later on by Jewish songwriters. But there was that whole two decades where
there was kind of an ambiguity.

GROSS: It sounds like one of the reasons why Harrigan lost his audience is
that the audience changed, like the ethnic make up of the audience.

Mr. MOLONEY: They did. And Harrigan lost touch with--his biggest asset was
his power as a wordsmith, and his sense of humor which was tied to that. And
he became middle class himself, but the old neighborhood stopped being Irish
and African-American and German and particularly immigrants come in from
Eastern Europe who were Jewish. And Harrigan complained in his writing that
these people, he said, had no sense of humor. And, of course, he was
completely wrong. He knew nothing about Yiddish theater. He just wasn't--the
humor wasn't available to him because of linguistic reasons and cultural
reasons. So he lost touch with the old neighborhoods, and New York changed,
and the humor changed. And also the recording industry was in now in the late
1890s. And tastes were changing, as they always do, in America. In popular
culture you hold two options. You can reinvent yourself, which he wasn't able
to do. He was just too old. You can wait until your time comes around again.
And again, he was too old for that. Or you can just fade away. Which is
exactly what he did.

GROSS: My guest is Mick Moloney. His new CD is called "McNally's Row of
Flats." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Mick Moloney. His new CD is called "McNally's Row of
Flats: Irish American Songs of Old New York by Harrigan and Braham."

In rediscovering the songs of Harrigan and Braham, did you find yourself
rethinking a lot of songs from early American pop history? And I am wondering
if there are any songs that you maybe used to dismiss as kind of commercial,
or schmaltzy, or, know, silly, that once discovering more about their history
you decided are actually pretty interesting?

Mr. MOLONEY: Well, yes. And I think the more you learn about the social
context of the songs, the more you learn about why people bought into an
idealized notion of a homeland. Because, I mean, the horrors of the real
story were too much to deal with in day to day life. You can't just relive
trauma all your life. Life would literally be hell. It wouldn't be worth
living. So Tin Pan Alley specialized in creating this sanitized images of
homelands for so many immigrant populations in America.

I think once I started to realize that, once I started to talk to people who
loved the songs and realized that their grandparents had at least something
positive to say--even if it was an invented reality--I started to feel very
sympathetic towards the songs, some that I might have dismissed completely.

This is one in case. And, in fact, this is actually--this was the classic
Jewish-Irish Tin Pan Alley song sung by the team of Dugan and O'Brian. I'll
see if I can remember this now.

Mr. MOLONEY: (Singing) Oh, you should have seen the sights I saw, t'was just
the other night. Oh you never saw the likes of it, it was such a pleasing
sight. I was happy for a moment, ah, but now I'm feeling blue. For what I
saw I'll see no more, t'was too good to be true.

(Singing) Oh, the shamrocks are blooming on Broadway. Every girl is an Irish
Colleen. And the streets of New York are the County of Cork, all the
buildings are painted green. Sure the Hudson is just like the Shannon. Oh,
how good and how real it did seem. I could hear mother singing, the sweet
Shannon bells ringing. T'was only an Irish man's dream.

And I see a beauty in that now that I would not have been able to see some
years back.

GROSS: When did you rediscover the song?

Mr. MOLONEY: I always knew it, but I started to feel differently about it
when I started to delve into the story of immigrant song on Tin Pan Alley.
And I started to ask myself the question, `Why did this resonate with so many
Americans for so long?' And I realized this was a time of extraordinary social
transition from an old country to the new country, an old way of life to a new
way of life, from the countryside to the city. And this was a time when
America was urbanizing at a tremendous rate. It wasn't just American foreign
born people who identified with these songs. Anybody from the country side.
Songs about that which you--that left behind which was idealized.

GROSS: Harrigan starts off as a minstrel performer. He performs in black
face, as you mentioned. Is he still performing in black face when he is
writing his own shows and performing them in New York? And if so, like, what
is the context of a black face?

Mr. MOLONEY: Well, he is and all the way through his career he continues to
perform in black face. In fact, the "Mulligan Guard" was his most famous set
of characters. And right parallel to the "Mulligan Guard" and all the
"Mulligan Guard" series was the "Skidmore Guard," which was an
African-American target company. And they would come in contact often with a
lot of what they called "knockabouts" brawling on the stage. Of course it was
the same cast, in black face. And that never stopped. One of the reasons
Harrigan said in his own comments later was that he admired African-American
music and he admired the capacity for singing and dancing. But,of course, it
was still the minstrel representation. There were no African-Americans at all
on the stage.

GROSS: Do you know any of the songs that he wrote for--any of the black face
songs he sings?

Mr. MOLONEY: I know a lot. I know of them. And, in fact, there is a
wonderful book with 200 Harrigan songs that are now edited by Josh Spenson and
I wouldn't touch most of those songs. There are very racist by the standards
of today. It would be considered quite the norm at that time in the minstrel
tradition.

GROSS: Does that bother you? Does that get in your way of enjoying
Harrigan's songs?

Mr. MOLONEY: It does, to some degree. When you look at the whole body of
work, there is such a strong minstrel component in it. And, of course, that
is bothersome because it's racist. There's no two ways about it. It was of
its time. And I think minstrels is a very complex chapter in American musical
and in social history. And I certainly would find it very, very difficult to
sing any of those songs.

GROSS: I want to close with another song from you CD, and this is really a
lovely waltz called "Danny by My Side." Would you tell us about this song?

Mr. MOLONEY: Yes, it was written just a few years after the Brooklyn Bridge
was built, by the Roebling--designed one of the great structures in late 19th
century America. In a sense it's a symbol of what American ingenuity could
create. And it was, as well as being highly utilitarian structure, you know,
it increased the traffic flow between Brooklyn and Manhattan exponentially.
It was just a beautiful sight and people came from all over America to look at
it, indeed from all over the world, to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. It
was the talk of the day. And Harrigan, of course, grew up just a few hundred
yards from there. He didn't miss the opportunity to write, I think, one of
his most beautiful songs "Danny by My Side." And Bill McComesky came up from
Baltimore, Dana Lynn, who is originally from Los Angeles played the fiddle.
Brandon Dolan played the piano. We had a great time.

GROSS: Mick, thanks so much for being here.

Mr. MOLONEY: Thank you very much. It was an honor.

GROSS: And here is another track from Mick Moloney's new CD, "McNally's Row
of Flats: Irish American Songs in Old New York by Harrigan and Braham." And
this is "Danny by My Side."

(Soundbite of "Danny by My Side")

Mr. MOLONEY: (Singing) The Brooklyn Bridge on Sunday is known as Lovers
Lane. I stroll there with my sweetheart, oh, time and time again. It's then
I love to ramble. Oh, yes, it is my pride, dressed in my best each day of
rest with Danny by My side.

Mr. MOLONEY and Man: (Singing in unison) Then, oh, my, do try taking the
bridge on a Sunday. Laughing, tramping, happy the lovers go by. Moonlight,
starlight, watching the silvery tide, dressed in my best each day of rest with
Danny by my side.

GROSS: Music from Mick Moloney's new CD "McNally's Row of Flats: Songs of
Old New York by Harrigan and Braham." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Danny by My Side")

Mr. MOLONEY: (Singing) Go out to play...

(Announcements)

GROSS: Everyone who loves music theater knows Frank Loesser's musical "Guys
and Dolls." A wonderful Loesser musical that isn't really as well known, "The
Most Happy Fella," is now being revised by the New York City Opera. Coming
up, we meet Loesser's widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser. She starred in the original
1956 production.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jo Sullivan Loesser, wife of Frank Loesser of musical
fame, discusses her and her husband's careers

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Frank Loesser wrote the great musicals "Guys and Dolls" and "How to Succeed in
Business Without Really Trying." One of his musicals that isn't nearly as well
known is now being revived by the New York City Opera. It's called "The Most
Happy Fella," and it is about as different from "Guys and Dolls" as a musical
can be. The "The Most Happy Fella" is inspired by Italian opera. It is set
in the Depression in a California vineyard, where a lonely waitress becomes
the mail order bride of an older man who she betrays, only to later truly fall
in love with him. My guest is the star of the original 1956 Broadway
production, who later became Loesser's wife, Jo Sullivan Loesser. Here she is
from the original cast recording. She has just told her husband that she is
pregnant with another man's baby. And although she now loves her husband
deeply, she knows she must leave him.

(Soundbite of "The Most Happy Fella")

Ms. JO SULLIVAN LOESSER: (Singing) Please let me tell you that I love you,
just one more time before I go. Please let me tell you that I love you,
'cause it happens to be so. How I hurt you and how you must hate me, I know.
Oh, God, I know.

GROSS: Jo Sullivan got the part in "The Most Happy Fella" while she was
performing in the first New York production of "The Threepenny Opera" with
Lotte Lenya.

Ms. SULLIVAN 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 sang all the soprano roles. You know,
in those days, the sopranos, the leading ladies, were little blondes. And one
was Barbara Cook, one was Florence Henderson, and one was myself. So we all
auditioned, but, I guess, I was more Southern and sounded more like a waitress
than the other two. So I got the part.

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

Ms. SULLIVAN 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."

could go up there.

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?

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Frank gave everybody a lot of direction about how he
wanted the music sung. He would tell us--make us stand and even tell us when
he wanted us to raise our head, or to raise our right hand. And, naturally,
he gave us a lot of very good vocal things to do. 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 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.' So, then,
after he decided that the words were correct, then he would work on his music
and develop that. And he was very, very particular to every single person in
the cast about how they sang his music.

GROSS: You know what I find interesting about that? There are so many
composers who write dummy lyrics, that write lyrics that just kind of save the
place, that are mock lyrics. And then after the melody is all done, they will
write they really lyrics. But, I have never heard of a dummy melody before.

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Oh, I think it is much more important to write the
lyrics first because, in my book, the lyrics are the most important thing. I
mean, that tells the story. That's what you really, really got to work on.
And anybody that sings a song and holds up a sheet of music in front of them
and doesn't know words, I figure is not singing the song.

GROSS: I want to play more music from the original cast recording of "Most
Happy Fella," which you are in. And there's a song in this that is quite
lovely that is called "Somebody Somewhere." And this was actually a
replacement song for a song that he had originally written called "Wanting to
be Wanted." I'd like you to talk about both of those songs and why he decided
not to use "Wanting to be Wanted."

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Well, we didn't even know that Frank had written
another song instead of "Somebody Somewhere" until about 10 or 12 years ago,
because we were going through all of his music, organizing it correctly,
making sure everything was exactly the right place, exactly the right year,
exactly for the right show. And we came upon this song "Wanting to be
Wanted." And it is such a beautiful song. And we were all amazed that he had
written that and not used it. But then we looked at "Somebody Somewhere" and
realized that he had taken the verse of "Wanting to be Wanted" and used that
"Wanted to be Wanted" and then sang "Somebody Somewhere" for the chorus. And
so he was able to use both of them. And why he did it, I'll never know, but I
guess he was just pleased with it, but, you know, was happier with it that
way.

GROSS: The original song, the one that he cast out and didn't use, is much
darker than...

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: It is.

GROSS: ...the replacement song that's in the show. And why don't we think
about that as we hear them both back to back? First we will hear you in the
original cast recording singing "Somebody Somewhere." And then we will hear
you, nearly forty years later, singing the original song, the darker song that
Frank Loesser wrote, the one that that he did not use for the show. So here's
Jo Sullivan Loesser.

(Soundbite of "Somebody Somewhere")

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: (Singing) Wanting to be wanted. Needing to be needed.
That's what it is, that's what it is. 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..."

(Soundbite of "Wanting to be Wanted")

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: (Singing) Wanting to be wanted. Needing to be needed.
So many people go through life that way, kind of desperately wanting to be
wanted. Needing to be needed. That's how it was with me until today.
Suddenly I'm necessary to someone. It's a feeling I've never known. I'm
necessary to someone who'll cry for me, for me alone. When I was wanting to
be wanting...

GROSS: That's Jo Sullivan Loesser singing two songs written by her late
husband, Frank Loesser. The first is from the original cast recording of "The
Most Happy Fella," which was recorded in 1957. Then we heard her singing in a
1992 recording a song that he wrote for show but decided not to use.

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 is
when you fell in love because you got married...

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yeah. We did. Yes.

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

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Well, you just couldn't work with Frank and not sort
of fall in love with him. He was enchanting. I admired his work greatly. He
was very, very funny. He was witty. And 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. We spent so much time together during the show. We were
out of town for two months before we opened in New York, and then I played the
show a year and a half in New York. So we spent a lot of time together.

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

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Well, of course. We would 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. And it was wonderful. 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 to be with him and go where he went. And we had two beautiful
children, two girls. And so. 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.

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Oh, 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. He
demanded a lot...

GROSS: In what sense?

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: 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 or 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 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 12:00 at night and--around 12--and get up at 4 in the morning.
And from 4 in the morning until 8:00 in the morning, he would write on the
silent piano, thankfully. And that was 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 the telephone couldn't get to him too at the same
time. So then in the morning when I would get up--7:30 or whatever--he would
be having a martini and I would be having a cup of coffee. Because he had
been up for four hours, so he was having lunch and I was having breakfast. It
was kind of a funny arrangement.

GROSS: My guest is Jo Sullivan Loesser. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Announcement)

GROSS: My guest is Jo Sullivan Loesser, the widow of Frank Loesser, and the
star of the original 1956 production of his musical "The Most Happy Fella."
It's now being revived by the New York City Opera.

Frank Loesser was a kind of interesting singer himself. He recorded some
demos that were a few years ago put together on CD. And I really love that
recording. 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," "I'll
Know." But before we hear it, what did you think of these demos and did you
have any of his demos when you were preparing to perform in "Most Happy Fella"
?

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: No, we did not. We did not. But 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, the lyric, you could see how important the
lyrics were to him. And I think it shows in this album. I think it is great
fun to listen to.

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

(Soundbite of "I'll Know")

Mr. FRANK LOESSER: 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....

GROSS: That's Frank Loesser on an album of demo records that was put together
called "An Evening with Frank Loesser." My guest is his widow, the singer Jo
Sullivan Loesser, and she was in the original production of his 1956 musical
"The Most Happy Fella," which is now being revived by the New York City Opera.

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

Ms. SULLIVAN 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, `I think you've
gone a little far this time, Frank. For God's sake.' 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 song 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...

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: And Sinatra...

GROSS: ...was the fight about?

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Because Sinatra would not sing Frank's song the way he
wanted him to. He was a crooner more and Frank did not like it, didn't think
it suited the part.

GROSS: Oh.

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: And I think he was right.

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

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

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

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Fifty nine years old, yes.

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

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yes, we were.

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

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yes. Yes. He left me his publishing company, his--he
was a superb businessman and he had built himself up a little empire. And he
left me a company that leased shows to all the schools, and stock and
everything, and a publishing company. And in that publishing company he had
many young composers that he had helped and sponsored their careers. And one
is Richard Adler, who wrote "Pajama Game" with Jerry Ross. And that's a big
hit on Broadway right now. And Meredith Wilson and Bob Wright and Chet Forest
and Charlie Strauss, and all of these young men, he helped. And I really
admired that a great deal. Frank was always--Frank's motto for composers was
"Improve the breed." And he tried to. And I wish people would do that today.
I wish somebody would really help all these wonderful, young composers that
are coming up and give them money so they could write and they could work. So
I wish somebody would do that.

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

Ms. SULLIVAN 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 that, `Don't let them sing the big songs too much. Save them for a
big moments because they will 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: My guest is Jo Sullivan Loesser. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you are just joining us, my guest in Jo Sullivan Loesser. Her
husband was Frank Loesser, the great songwriter, and she was in the original
production of his musical "The Most Happy Fella," which is now being revived
by the New York City Opera. And I should mention that the original cast
recording from 1957 that Jo Sullivan Loesser is featured on still in print and
available.

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 Mark Blitzstein wrote
the translation for. It's a really famous production. Really...

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: It 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."
And this is called "The Jealousy Duet" because you are both...

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: After "Mack the Knife," of course.

GROSS: Exactly. Exactly. So we are going to pick this up in the part where
you're singing the main part, because is 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 "Threepenny Opera")

Ms. SULLIVAN 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.
Does the...(unintelligible)...

Ms. BEA ARTHUR: (Singing) Go peddle your wares somewhere else.

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

Ms. ARTHUR: (Singing) Did you, did you.

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: (Singing) You would be pleased to know I've met...

Ms. ARTHUR: (Singing) Have you, have you?

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: (Singing) Now you kind of make me laugh.

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

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

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

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: (Singing) How you are so pitiful, imagining you're
beautiful.

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

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

Ms. ARTHUR: (Singing) Go on then, ask him.

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: (Singing) You better ask him.

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER and Ms. ARTHUR: (Singing) Mackie, I need. He never
could refuse me. Mackie, I need, and he will never lose me.

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: (Singing( He likes a nice and sweet girl.

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

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER and Ms. ARTHUR: (Singing) He may be calling sweet
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 Mark Blitzstein. Now one of the amazing things about
this production is that Kurt Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, was in it. And, you
know, after you married Frank Loesser, did you kind of think back to your
experiences with Lotte Lenya and what her relationship was like with her
husband and his work? I know he had already passed away...

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: Yes.

GROSS: ...by the time you were in the "Threepenny Opera." But still, she must
have spoken to you about what it had been like to work with her husband.

Ms. SULLIVAN 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 years--I was starting to sing Frank's songs
by then, in clubs, at the ballroom, and in hotels, in concerts, etc.. And I
would never talk about him. I just didn't feel like I could say anything.
You know, like, `Oh, he always like to wear a blue shirt and, you know, things
that he did.' And so I went to hear Lotte, and 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 said--and I was fascinated.
It was so interesting. And I said, `Well, I'm going to do that from now on.'

So I started talking all about Frank. About how he would work and how he
would get up at, you know, at 12:00 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 would say,
`Are you ready to go out now? How about it, it's 8:00?' And I have 300 of his
drawings that are wonderful, amusing. He had great, great wit, drawings. And
I talk about his drawings and showed some of his drawings, and did some songs
that weren't famous, and all of that sort of thing. And Lenya is the one
that helped me do that, because I saw how interesting it was to know those
things.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you've kept alive all your memories of him and have
shared them. And thank you for sharing some of them with us today. Are you
still singing?

Ms. SULLIVAN LOESSER: I haven't, no. I'm learning the business, and I have
two daughters and I am busy with them. So I haven't sung in two years. I
don't know if I'll sing again or not. I love to sing, it's great. So I'll
see. I'll see.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

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

GROSS: Jo Sullivan Loesser starred in the original 1956 production of Frank
Loesser's musical "The Most Happy Fella." It's currently being performed by
the New York City Opera, the star is Paul Sorvino.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

Here's more from the original cast recording of "The Most Happy Fella." Two
songs from the show became popular, "Joey" and "Standing on a Corner."

(Soundbite of "Most Happy Fella")

Group of Performers: (Singing in unison) Standing on the corner watching all
the girls go by. Standing on the corner watching all the girls go by.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Brother, you don't know a nicer occupation.
Matter of fact, neither do I.

Group of Performers: (Singing in unison) Than standing on the corner watching
all the girls, watching all the girls, watching all the girls go by.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) I'm the cat that got the cream, haven't got a
girt but I can dream. Haven't got a girl...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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