Today is the anniversary of the birth of American songwriter supreme Frank Loesser. This would have been his ninety-ninth birthday. Loesser prospered writing songs for the movies, for the war and for Broadway. As John Bush writes in his Allmusic profile of Loesser, “it appears that Frank Loesser had several careers packed into his one life.”
Loesser wrote “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” in April 1942. It was only the second song for which he had written both the words and the music; the first had preceded it by three years. Yet it made him a celebrity. In her biography of her father, Susan Loesser writes: “Schoolchildren sang it in assembly; housewives hummed it while they ironed; the Office of War Information, concerned that the public might tire of it prematurely, limited its performance to once every four hours….The song sold over two million records and a million copies of sheet music.” Loesser enlisted in the Army the following fall.
Mark Steyn’s admiration of Loesser’s work is manifest throughout his 2000 musical history Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals Then & Now. Mark opened his Wall Street Journal review of a new study of Loesser with a distincty Steynian post-9/11 tribute:
Frank Loesser isn’t as famous a songwriter as Irving Berlin or Cole Porter, but, unlike them, he’s apparently responsible for this whole clash-of- civilizations thing. A few decades back, a young middle-class Egyptian spending some time in the U.S. had the misfortune to be invited to a dance one weekend and was horrified at what he witnessed:
“The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips . . .”
Where was this den of debauchery? Studio 54 in the 1970s? Haight-Ashbury in the summer of love? No, the throbbing pulsating sewer of sin was Greeley, Colo., in 1949. As it happens, Greeley, Colo., in 1949 was a dry town. The dance was a church social. And the feverish music was “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” written by Frank Loesser and sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban in the film “Neptune’s Daughter.” Revolted by the experience, Sayyid Qutb decided that America (and modernity in general) was an abomination, returned to Egypt, became the leading intellectual muscle in the Muslim Brotherhood, and set off a chain that led from Qutb to Zawahiri to bin Laden to the Hindu Kush to the Balkans to 9/11.
I’m a reasonable chap, and I’d be willing to meet the Islamists halfway on a lot of the peripheral stuff like burqas for women, nuking the Zionists, beheading the sodomites and whatnot. But you’ll have to pry “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from my cold dead hands and my dancing naked legs. A world without Frank Loesser and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” would be very cold indeed.
Mark also mentions “Loesser’s marvelously inspired opening to ‘Guys and Dolls’ — the ‘Fugue for Tinhorns.’” Mark observes that it “has a trio of gamblers each boasting that he’s ‘got the horse right here.’ In a way, it’s a brilliant musicalization of the source material — a ‘Broadway fugue’ is the perfect musical equivalent of the stylized vernacular Damon Runyon used in the stories that inspired the musical.” The clip of the “Fugue” below is from the film version of this greatest of American musicals. We saw a production of “Guys and Dolls” at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven a few years back and found it to be a show that still brings the house down.
Mark expresses regard for the Loesser study he reviewed, but it sounds like a somewhat academic affair. For those seeking a good introduction to Loesser outside the music itself, I strongly recommend A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life, the 1993 biography by Loesser’s daughter Susan.