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American Musicals

The Wall Street Journal covers Broadway's Stand Up 'Guy'

Composer Frank Loesser, whose centennial is being celebrated all over the country this month (including an ongoing salute at the Oak Room featuring singer Karen Oberlin, and a gala concert Monday produced by the American Theater Wing) was the most quintessentially "New York" of the great Broadway songwriters—and not by accident.

Loesser, who died in 1969, is best remembered for four hit shows: "Where's Charley" (1948), "Guys and Dolls" (1950), "The Most Happy Fella" (1956), and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" (1962). The second and fourth are the most frequently revived—"Guys" was on Broadway just last year and "Succeed" is returning next season with Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter) making his Broadway debut—but the other two are also considered classics of the American Musical Theater.

As Ms. Oberlin observes in "Heart and Soul: A Frank Loesser Centennial Celebration" (continuing through June 19 at the Oak Room), Loesser was a peacock from a family of swans. His father and older brother were classical musicians, and they looked down on his work as, at best, an amusing waste of time. Loesser's love-hate relationship with the upper reaches of high art was revealed, Ms. Oberlin shows, in songs like "Then I Wrote the Minuet in G" and "Hamlet," which savage Beethoven and Shakespeare, respectively.


For many years, "Guys and Dolls" was the most consciously ethnic show on Broadway: The arch, convoluted rhythms of Damon Runyan's speech made all the characters into generic New Yorkers, but it was plain to anyone who looked that the gamblers were Jewish, the gangsters were Italian, and the cops were Irish. Loesser wrote what must be the first direct Yiddishisms ever heard in a Broadway love song: "Alright already, I'm just a nogoodnik / Alright already, it's true, so nu?" Even the title, "Sue Me," is a Jewish expression.


At the Oak Room, Ms. Oberlin's final song is "I Believe In You," which, as she notes, Loesser had originally written as a traditional boy-girl love song in "How to Succeed," but which became the show's climactic anthem of self-esteem and self-aggrandizement. In this respect, as well, J. Pierpont Finch, the show's Sammy Glick-like anti-hero, is also an archetypical contemporary New Yorker.