Programming note: Mark will be back right here in a couple of hours for Part Nine of our latest Tale for Our Time: Psmith, Journalist by P G Wodehouse.
Seventy years ago this week, the drama critic Walter Kerr was sitting on the aisle of the 46th Street Theatre for his umpteenth Broadway first night that season. But this one was different. Halfway through the first act, he turned to his wife Jean and said:
Am I wrong or isn't this the greatest musical we've ever seen?
It was November 24th 1950. The show was Guys and Dolls - and Walter and Jean Kerr had yet to hear the title song, "If I Were a Bell", "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat", or the Second Act showstopper we're featuring today.
Frank Loesser was a busy Hollywood lyricist who decided he was going to turn himself into a Hollywood lyricist-and-composer. Having pulled that off, he then decided to become one of Broadway's great musical dramatists to boot. His first stage musical, an adaptation of Charley's Aunt, opened in 1948, with a great score and a legendary showstopper of a song in "Once In Love With Amy". On our double-CD Frank Loesser centenary celebration (exclusively available from SteynOnline), you can hear me recreate that showstopping moment from Where's Charley? with the original producer Cy Feuer, and a bit of help from the legendary 106-year old director George Abbott.
Loesser's second show began with a phone call from Feuer and his producing partner Ernie Martin. As the songwriter recalled it, "When I heard Feuer's voice on the phone and he said the magic word 'Runyon', I said let's have a meeting, and that was it."
Well, there was a bit more to it than that. "Runyon" meant Damon Runyon, the famous New York newspaperman and storyteller with such a distinctive voice that he became an adjective - "Runyonesque". Runyon had died in 1946, but his characters - Nathan Detroit, Harry the Horse, Big Jule - and his milieu - the Broadway demi-monde - were by then as instantly recognizable as any literary creations of the mid-20th century. Loesser himself had spent much of his professional life passing himself off as a kind of Runyon character, with Runyonesque tics: When in public places, he insisted on sitting with his back to the wall - like a Nathan Detroit not wanting to be surprised in mid-cheesecake by a fellow he owes a couple g's to. The child of a cultured, classical household, Loesser had the air of a small-time horse gambler, a "dem, dese and dose" guy, as he described himself. But then Runyon's characters are somewhat paradoxical, too: colorful and slangy, they nevertheless have a certain courtly formality. Loesser caught the contradiction perfectly in his marvelously inspired opening to Guys and Dolls, in which a trio of tinhorns boast that each has "got the horse right here". First Nicely-Nicely Johnson (played by my old friend Stubby Kaye):
I got the horse right here
The name is Paul Revere
And here's a guy that says if the weather's clear
This guy says the horse can do...
And then Benny Southstreet chips in:
I'm pickin' Valentine
'Cause on the morning line
The guy has got him figured at five to nine...
And finally Rusty Charlie:
But look at Epitaph
He wins it by a half
According to this here in the Telegraph...
Now that would have all been perfectly fine sung by three solo singers wandering around the stage. But instead Loesser overlaid the verses in the manner of a "Broadway fugue", and thereby made it the perfect musical equivalent of the stylized vernacular Damon Runyon used in his original stories:
That is a truly inspired piece of musicalization, and one of the greatest opening numbers in the American theatre: It's nothing to do with the plot, but it sets the tone and conjures the world we're about to enter, a land which underneath its brashness and street savvy has as formal a protocol as any medieval court.
As delightful and skilled as his film and pop songs and first show score had been, nothing in the previous fifteen years gave any hint that Loesser had a score like Guys and Dolls in him. This is one of those rare moments when a writer stumbles into the subject he was born to write - as, in later years, Alan Jay Lerner did with My Fair Lady, or Meredith Willson with The Music Man, or Lionel Bart with Oliver!, Andrew Lloyd Webber with Phantom Of The Opera, or Jonathan Larson with Rent. If you're really lucky, it happens once in your life - just once and never again, no matter how many decades you spend trying to make lightning strike a second time. For Loesser, this was his subject, and, as soon as Feuer & Martin had pitched him the idea, he got writing. In fact, they never signed a contract until after the show opened, and the first they knew that Loesser had accepted the project was when he swung by the office and dropped off four songs - before there was even an outline of a plot or the dramatis personae. In fact, when a libretto was eventually written, things went downhill. It was by Jo Swerling and it didn't quite do the job. So Swerling departed, and Loesser's old friend Abe Burrows came on board. They'd first come across each other circa 1943, when Loesser turned up at a party and heard Burrows improvising a song called "I'm Strolling Down Memory Lane Without A Single Thing To Remember".
Usually on a hit musical the songs arise from character and plot point, which is why "the book" - the story - is written first. But Burrows wound up writing a new libretto to Loesser's pre-existing songs, connecting them up into a coherent whole. It's a tribute to Loesser's sure theatrical sense that he was able to write the precise musical expression of these characters without any kind of working libretto.The score remains one of the great masterpieces of the American stage. After the opening "Fugue For Tinhorns" came "The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game In New York)", "I'll Know", "(I love you) A Bushel And A Peck", "Adelaide's Lament (A person can develop a cold)", "Guys And Dolls", "If I Were A Bell", "My Time Of Day", "I've Never Been In Love Before", "Take Back Your Mink" ("to from whence it came" - one of my favorite Loesser lines), "More I Cannot Wish You", "Sue Me", on and on. Really the only way to do justice to the score's highlights would be to perform the whole thing, because it's a score made up entirely of highlights. The ballads were widely recorded - Sarah Vaughan did "I'll Know", Dinah Shore "If I Were A Bell", Mel Torme "I've Never Been In Love Before". But the goofy novelty "Bushel And A Peck" picked up the most recordings at the time - Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakeley had a hit with it, and so did Perry Como and Betty Hutton, with Doris Day, Johnny Desmond and the Andrews Sisters all nipping at their heels.
But over the last seven decades the song that's led a life most independent of the show was a number written for the Second Act crap game in which Sky Masterson has, as the lyric puts it, "bet my life on this roll". That's to say, everything depends on how the dice come up, not least his future with the girl he loves, Sister Sarah Brown of the Save-A-Soul mission. The number was introduced to the world by Robert Alda (Alan's dad) as Masterson. He sets up the pitch in the introductory verse: Will Lady Luck be his date for the night?
They call you Lady Luck
But there is room for doubt
At times you have a very unladylike way of running out
You're on this date with me
The pickings have been lush
And yet before this evening is over you might give me the brush
You might forget your manners
You might refuse to stay
And so the best that I can do is pray...
That's just the best kind of writing - fresh but not showy. I don't know of any other song that rhymes "lush" with "brush", but what's great about Loesser's pairing is that the words are both memorable and exactly right for the character and the situation. The chorus is pretty good, too:
Luck Be A Lady tonight
Luck Be A Lady tonight
Luck if you've ever been a lady to begin with
Luck Be A Lady tonight...
It's a simple AABA tune with a narrow range and two-chord accompaniment, with the bass alternating between the tonic D-flat and the next-door D-natural. But it gives the song both its drive and tension: combined with the upward modulation through the tune, it musicalizes the drama. The crap game is being held in a sewer, and there's a lot riding on it. It's not just a gamble; the song is a kind of prayer, for a man who's just found a new faith (the very name Sky Masterson has an odd sort of George Lucas clunkiness - Son of the Sky Master? Is that where "The Simpsons" got the idea for Star Wars: The Musical and "Luke, Be a Jedi Tonight"?). Whatever his epiphany, Sky is challenging his fellow rollers with what he calls "honest dice". Loesser's score indicates the tempo for the chorus as "Brightly", and the choreographer Michael Kidd took the invitation and literally ran with it, with a "Crapshooters' Dance" that thrilled Broadway audiences. The whole routine ended with the toss of the dice and a final "Ha!", which Loesser marked "fff" - ie, blow-the-roof-off loud.
Five years after the Broadway opening, Sam Goldwyn produced a film version. There was talk at one point that the movie would re-unite the stars of Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out To The Ball Game and On The Town - Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. As the "Crapshooters' Dance" was the big choreographic moment, that would definitely belong to Kelly, which meant he'd be playing Sky Masterson and Sinatra would play Nathan Detroit. But MGM refused to loan out Kelly to Goldwyn, and so Marlon Brando was signed to play opposite Frank. This was the great man's first musical role - "Brando Sings!" as the posters shrieked. And, to avoid any truth-in-advertising suits, the director Joe Mankiewicz asked Frank if maybe he could help Marlon learn his big number. For the rest of his life, Sinatra liked to tell the story as a kind of Henry Higgins "By George, he'll never get it" elocution lesson. "Repeat after me," said Frank:
They call you Lady Luck...
Marlon gave it his best:
Day cawooo lehyluh...
"I can't teach this boy nuttin'," Frank told the director. But Mankiewicz let Mumbles (as Sinatra called Brando) keep the song anyway:
As for the acting, it's weird to see Brando and Sinatra together. Sinatra was a two-take actor: it wasn't going to get any better. Brando liked to take all day. "I don't buy this take and retake jazz," said Frank. "The key to good acting on screen is spontaneity, and there's something you lose a little with each take." But Brando liked to do every line over and over and over, uncovering subtle nuances of meaning with every shift in emphasis. As Frank told Mankiewicz, "Don't put me in the game, Coach, until Mumbles is through rehearsing."
Their relationship degenerated. Knowing Sinatra's aversion to multiple retakes, Brando took to sabotaging each shot, doing the whole scene perfectly and then screwing up the last line. Back to square one. One scene required Frank to eat a slice of Lindy's cheesecake while Mumbles yakked away. Brando chose to "forget" his lines over and over, so that every retake began for Frank with a fresh slice of cheesecake. Nine takes and an entire cheesecake later, Sinatra hurled his plate across the set, stabbed his fork deep into the table, and yelled, "These f**king New York actors! How much more cheesecake do I have to eat?". Victory to Mumbles.
Six decades on, Brando's reading of Sky Masterson is oddly muted, whereas Sinatra's Nathan Detroit is about what you'd expect - and in its own shrugged-off way much closer to the spirit of Damon Runyon. Years later, Sinatra turned down The Godfather, so the role went to Mumbles: Who knows if it mightn't have worked out twitchier and more dangerous with Frank? The same year as Guys and Dolls, Brando desperately wanted The Man with the Golden Arm, but Otto Preminger went with Sinatra: as Frankie Machine, a drummer hooked on heroine, he's one bitter, raw jolt of authenticity, the sort of performance Brando's too considered to give.
But on Guys and Dolls the dice fell Brando's way: To augment the show score, Loesser wrote three new songs - one for Adelaide, one for Nathan, one for Sky. They're all good, which is, in its way, amazing: The composer took a great score and made it greater. The number he wrote to bulk up Sinatra's share of tunes, "Adelaide" (indeed, "ever-lovin'" Adelaide, a phrase Runyon planted in the language), is a charmer, and one of my very favorite Loesser tunes, and Sinatra movie songs. But the one he wrote for Brando, "A Woman In Love", became one of the blockbuster pop hits of the year. And, just to round out a bad experience, Loesser seemed more worried about Sinatra's performance than Brando's, and insisted on giving Frank tips on how to play Nathan. The role was a step backwards for Frank - a return to the MGM days, where Kelly had been the romantic lead and Sinatra the comic relief. Given that they'd handed the big love ballads to a guy who couldn't sing, Frank decided he didn't want to play his own numbers for laughs. After "Sue Me", Loesser told him he was doing it wrong. "We'll do it my way or you can f**k off," snarled Sinatra. He certainly respected Loesser, who had, after all, given him two of his early hits with the Dorsey band - "Say It" and "Dolores". And he loved the score of Guys and Dolls. But after this film the two men never spoke again.
Ten years later, Sinatra finally got the Loesser song he'd always wanted. He had quit Capitol to found his own company, Reprise Records, and among its innovations was the Reprise Repertory Theatre. It was a simple idea: Broadway cast albums by a cast you'd never see on Broadway - Frank, the Rat Pack and various gal pals doing entire theatre scores, complete with swingin' overtures. They did four complete shows - Finian's Rainbow, Kiss Me Kate, South Pacific and Guys and Dolls, performed by a company no stage has ever seen: Frank, Dean, Sam, Bing, Rosie, Keely, Dinah, Jo Stafford, Debbie Reynolds, the McGuire Sisters. Sinatra loved the Guys And Dolls score, and one duet and a trio - the title song and "The Oldest Established", with Bing and Dino - stayed in his book for twenty years as fun numbers to close out Rat Pack medleys or kick around on TV specials when an operatic guest such as Robert Merrill wanted to let his hair down a little. But far and away the best number to emerge from the series was "Luck Be a Lady". The moment Sinatra heard Billy May's arrangement, he loved it - except in one particular. May had intended it at roughly the same tempo as the Broadway original, but in the studio Frank suggested they ease up: "Why don't we slow this down a little?" he said to Billy - and suddenly it was a Sinatra song:
"Frank Loesser wrote the piece to depict smarmy Forty-Second Streeters bereft of necks shooting craps in a sewer," wrote Will Friedwald. "Sinatra and May transform these Damon Runyon types into smooth-groove Vegas high rollers":
Luck, let a gentleman see
How nice a dame you can be
I know the way you've treated other guys you've been with
Luck, Be A Lady with me...
Pace Friedwald, Sinatra did a little more than take it from a New York sewer to a more lavishly appointed Vegas sewer. He made it a metaphor - for a first date, and all the possibilities that lie ahead. You couldn't have done that with that original Broadway pacing. What Friedwald called Billy May's "tight, even swing" combined with Sinatra's attitude to the lyric to produce one of his great signature songs. It was always a thrilling number live - and occasionally he took it at something a wee bit closer to the original gallop. Here's Nelson Riddle conducting Billy May's chart - but augmented by what was then Nelson's favorite bit of orchestral color, the jazz organ:
Sinatra kept it in the act right until the very end, and, when it came to the mid-Nineties Duets project, even Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders couldn't wreck it, although she certainly gave it a shot. Miss Hynde's account of her contribution is instructive:
I'm probably the only person in the world who hasn't seen Guys & Dolls and when I heard it I got a real shock. 'Cos Frank is in New York and I'm in some basement in Soho [London] with an engineer I've never met and he's got someone on the line from America and he's like, 'Okay, Chrissie,' and I'm like, 'Oh, f**k...' It was not in a register that was comfortable for me.
But forget Chrissie. The trumpet solo by the great Arturo Sandoval (with whom I had the honor of appearing at the Lincoln Club in Orange County a couple of years ago) is magnificent:
Not for the first time, Sinatra re-defined a song, to the point where the breakneck tempo of the various New York and London cast albums now sounds vaguely ridiculous. Oddly enough, on his own demo, Loesser himself is noticeably laid back over the frenetic accompaniment:
Even Cy Coleman, who was supremely cool and laid-back, was unusually frantic in this (not quite entirely non-vocal) piano take:
But that's the exception that proves the rule - that the Billy May arrangement was what the number had always been waiting for:
A lady doesn't leave her escort
It isn't fair, it isn't nice
A lady doesn't wander all over the room
And blow on some other guy's dice
So let's keep the party polite
Never get out of my sight
Stick with me, baby, I'm the fellow you came in with...
As we've noted before, Frank Loesser was the master of the monosyllable. Take the title song of Guys And Dolls:
When a bum buys wine like a bum can't afford
It's a cinch that the bum
Is under the thumb
Of some little broad...
Coming back after the instrumental on "Luck Be A Lady", Sinatra manages to intensify Loesser's monosyllables, replacing "fellow" with:
Stick with me, baby, I'm the guy that you came in with...
He stuck with the song, and the song stuck to him. And, if you ever saw him live, you'll know Sinatra liked to end with a roll of the imaginary dice and a triumphant cry of "Eleven!" That's the song, and that's Loesser and his crowning achievement, one of the greatest scores in the history of musical theatre:
~ Steyn's two-CD centenary salute to Frank Loesser with Mark and his special guests is exclusively available from SteynOnline. The show includes rare archive interviews from Loesser's composing partners, plus brand new live performances of "Heart And Soul", "On A Slow Boat To China", "The King's New Clothes", "Standing On The Corner" and a few nods to Guys & Dolls. It's available as part of our Broadway Double-Bill.
And don't forget, this weekend, in celebration of SteynOnline's eighteenth birthday, we're offering 18 per cent off not only that CD/book combo but all products right through Monday. Just shop as you normally would and the 18 per cent savings will be applied at checkout - and, if you're a Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter your special promotional code at checkout to receive even more savings on over forty books, CDs and other products.
If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we have a mini-companion, a Song of the Week Extra, on our audio edition of The Mark Steyn Show - and sometimes with special guests from Mark's archive, including Eurovision's Dana, Ted Nugent, Peter Noone & Herman's Hermits, Patsy Gallant, Paul Simon, Lulu, Tim Rice and Randy Bachman. And you can hear him play one of the most recent versions of "Georgia" on this show.
Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we've done the same for our musical features merely to provide some mellifluous diversions in the Land of Lockdown. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Herman's Hermits to Liza Minnelli; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's lyrics, John Barry's Bond themes, sunshine songs from the Sunshine State, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from looting, lockdown and 'lections.
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