Tin Pan Alley legend and top Broadway composer
Tonys for "Guys and Dolls" and "How To Succeed"
Frank Loesser was born in New York City on June 29, 1910. His father was well known as a pianist and teacher, frequently accompanying the celebrated Wagnerian soprano Lilli Lehmann. His older half-brother Arthur Loesser was to become one of the greatest pianists and music educators of his day. Frank Loesser, however, never studied music formally but would become one of the most influential film and stage musical writers in history.
Loesser wrote his first song at the age of six (“The May Party”) and as a child taught himself the harmonica and then the piano. Growing up in New York, he attended the Townsend Harris High School and then City College in New York. He left college in 1930, and experimented with several jobs including newspaper advertising, process server and newspaper editor until he began to write songs and sketches for radio scripts. Loesser’s first published song was “In Love With the Memory of You”, with music by William Schuman (later Schuman would become a serious composer and the President of Julliard School of Music).
In the mid-1930’s, he collaborated with composer Irving Actman, contributing 5 songs to the Broadway show The Illustrator’s Show. While the show was unsuccessful, Loesser had been discovered by Hollywood. Universal Pictures put him under contract in 1936 to write songs for film musicals. For Universal and then Paramount Pictures, Loesser would write the scores for more than sixty films over a 3-decade period.
In Hollywood, Loesser collaborated with several composers, such as Harold Rome and Alex North, but his biggest successes came after he took over both the lyric and musical composition. The first song written entirely by Frank Loesser was “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” a huge wartime hit.
After World War II, Loesser moved back to New York City to write for the Cy Feuer-Ernest Martin production Where’s Charley. The musical opened on October 11, 1948 and had a run of 792 performances. Loesser followed up the success of Where’s Charley, with the hit Guys and Dolls, which opened on November 24, 1950. With a score full of standards like “A Bushel and a Peck,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”, “Luck be a Lady”, “I’ll Know”, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”, Guys and Dolls swept the Tony Awards that year, taking home the coveted Best Musical trophy.
In 1952, Loesser returned briefly to Hollywood to write the score for Hans Christian Anderson, a Danny Kaye vehicle that included "Ugly Duckling", "Inchworm", and "Thumbelina" (nominated for an Oscar in 1952).
Returning to Broadway in 1956, Loesser wrote the score and book for The Most Happy Fella, which included the hit songs “Standing on the Corner” and “Big D”, "Joey, Joey, Joey", and "Happy to Make Your Acquaintance". While The Most Happy Fella won the New York Drama Critics award in 1957, the production was memorable for another reason: it starred Jo Sullivan who would later become Mrs. Frank Loesser. Another success came in 1961 with the Broadway production How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. The production ran for four years and won the Pulitzer Prize and seven Tony Awards.
Throughout the years, Loesser collaborated with several of the great Tin Pan Alley composers, including Burton Lane, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy McHugh, Jule Styne, Victor Schertzinger and Arthur Schwartz.
Often called the most versatile of all Broadway composers, Frank Loesser passed away at the age of 59 on July 26, 1969 in New York City. He was survived by his wife Jo and four daughters.