Loesser songs make for a great night with Grant Park Music Festival
Frank Loesser’s most commercially successful shows — 1950’s “Guys and Dolls” and 1961’s “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” — included heavy, and hilarious, representation of cynical characters on the make.
Loesser had an affection for such types and captured them in song as few others could. But even when bringing Damon Runyon’s gamblers and Madison Avenue’s corporate hustlers to life, he always saw their soft sides too. He could celebrate the con man but be serious and even romantic about his — real or potential — redemption.
The younger son of a Manhattan professional classical music family, Loesser (1910-1969) started out rejecting his heritage and working as a lyricist, mostly in Hollywood. By the late 1940s he was writing his own music, too, work that grew increasingly sophisticated, with “The Most Happy Fella” of 1956 being revived most frequently by opera and operetta companies.
All of this made Loesser the perfect focus for one of the Grant Park Music Festival’s top-drawer treatments of Broadway composers. Kevin Stites, the former Chicago music director, has brought Bernstein, Gershwin and Sondheim programs to the park, and with local star stage director Gary Griffin he had another success with Loesser in two free weekend performances. I heard the second, on a beautiful clear Saturday night.
On hand were four of the best of Broadway’s current revivalists — Rebecca Luker, Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley and Howard McGillin — along with the phenomenally flexible Grant Park Orchestra and members of the festival’s laser-sharp chorus. Stites and Griffin are completists by nature, and while Loesser’s catalogue is too enormous for even an all-night show, they pulled together generous servings from the composer’s first Broadway outing, “Where’s Charley?” (1948, including a Ray Bolger-inspired singalong of “Once in Love with Amy”), “Happy Fella,” the connoisseurs’ show “Greenwillow” (1961) and the 1952 Danny Kaye family film “Hans Christian Andersen,” with its own tearjerker, “Anywhere I Wander.”
Loesser wrote so many standards as a lyricist, originally for low-budget Hollywood features, that you shook your head in disbelief as the quartet and chorus brought us more than a baker’s dozen of hits, from his first, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” to “Two Sleepy People,” “I Don’t Want To Walk Without You” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” as well as such World War II spirit-raisers as “Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition.”
Each soloist had at least one showstopper, including McGillin’s well-calibrated “I Believe in You” from “How To Succeed” and Mazzie’s full skit of “Adelaide’s Lament” from “Guys and Dolls.” But for many in the crowd of 10,000, the evening’s highlight was when Loesser’s eightysomething widow, Jo Sullivan, “Fella’s” original Rosabella as well as Polly Peachum in the first U.S. “Threepenny Opera” in 1954, took the stage at evening’s end. Sharing memories, recalling Loesser’s generosity to other composers and praising the artists, she then sang the 1944 “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” written for Deanna Durbin, accompanied only by Stites on grand piano. Now that’s testimony to Loesser’s staying power.
Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7).