The French wheel

Today, a tale of two Franks: Sinatra, who’s being written about a lot, due to his being born a century ago today; and then there’s Loesser, whom I need no excuse to write about, as he’s my favorite songwriter. And when the two Franks met…kaboom!

But first, a digression related to “two franks.” “Two franks” is usually what I have for lunch on Thursdays. (As a child, I often made it a Three Dog Night, and the eponymous rock group was indeed an influence. A vinyl disc of theirs, and one by the Beatles, were the only rock albums I had as a kid. When called upon to write rock, as sometimes happens, I go to that well.) Such is my love of the tubular meatstuff, recently announced to be a carcinogen. In fact, when my doctor pronounces me healthy at the conclusion of my annual physical, I’m always in shock: “Wait: I DON’T have cancer? How could that be?” Seems like I’m the beneficiary of some cruel cosmic joke: younger friends of mine, proponents and exemplars of healthy eating and exercise, are now fighting the disease.

And Frank Loesser died of cancer at 59. (Gee, when will he stop talking about cancer?) His wonderfully personable widow, Jo Sullivan, has extended some effort to removing positive references to cigarettes in his lyrics. The other night I felt conflicted singing Two Sleepy People to my daughter – “Here we are, out of cigarettes” – and went subito pianissimo on the word.

Frank Sinatra loved cigarettes, too, and you’d think, the two men having that in common, they’d be good friends. Or: Sinatra certainly loved good songwriters, a more obvious reason to bond. But the two Franks hated each other. And this had much to do with the thing everyone mentions as Sinatra’s greatest strength: his phrasing. Now, here I’m going to tell you what anybody would tell you: If you’re interested in knowing how to sing, get to know Ol’ Blue Eyes and pay particular attention to what he emphasizes, where he puts pauses, which notes get a heap of gorgeousness and how silence is used. There’s your master class. Sure, it’s a delicious sound he produces, but I’m more impressed by how he acts the lyric, the emotional truth, how words get played for meaning.

When it came time to film Loesser’s career-making hit, Guys and Dolls, Sinatra should have been a dream come true as Nathan Detroit. After all, he had a good sense of humor, and something of a smart aleck persona. My uncle, who just turned 89 (and Guys and Dolls is his favorite show) told me that the Damon Runyon stories on which the show is based were thinly (or thickly) disguised portraits of actual gangsters Runyon observed in organized crime syndicates like Murder, Incorporated. Runyon cleaned up their actions – they’re just gamblers, even if Big Jule’s kind of scary – and added a lot of humor and style. And the Broadway musical is a further, entirely successful, effort to make gamblers-based-on-killers palatable to a Broadway audience. Sinatra’s storied connection makes him perfect casting.

But shouldn’t he have been Sky Masterson? Sky has the soaring ballads, I’ll Know, I’ve Never Been In Love Before and My Time of Day. That role was given to a bigger star, the biggest, then, Marlon Brando. Loesser had to scrap two of the songs and replace them with one, easier-to-sing, and decidedly Brandoesque (“crazily gaze”) ballad, A Woman In Love. My father tells me Sinatra was thought to have less sex appeal at the time, but film historians – a group given to exaggeration – tell us that Sinatra was very upset he’d been given the smaller role. He was in a foul mood during filming.

Now let’s look at the history of Nathan Detroit through Loesser eyes. In the design of the musical, both male leads are equal parts, and Nathan was given a wonderful introductory number called Traveling Light.

I love the line at the end of the bridge, “Guess I left my heart in my other suit.” The world doesn’t know this song because the stage show, directed by George S. Kaufman, cast Sam Levene as Nathan and he couldn’t sing the song. The film reversed the problem – a Sky who couldn’t sing, a Nathan who could – and I’m sure Loesser looked forward to Sinatra at last giving voice to his Nathan Detroit.

But Frank Loesser was rather particular about how he liked his songs to be sung. He was so frustrated in his efforts to get soprano Isabel Bigley, the original Broadway Sarah Brown, to sing the way he wanted, he slapped her in the face. Realizing he’d done something awful, he apologized and soon presented her with a bouquet of flowers. Neither party spoke of it again. Now, on the film, he was dealing with a bigger singing star with a bigger ego who may have had mafia connections. And he didn’t like Sinatra’s phrasing! There could be no slapping, to be Frank, but there were so many heated arguments that Loesser never bothered to see the film and Sinatra vowed never to sing a Loesser song again.

As you may already know, there is no one on earth who has sung the film’s new song for Nathan, Adelaide, more than I. When I listen to Sinatra do it, I hear the little mistakes that would drive a Loesser man crazy. But don’t forget he already had a chip on his shoulder for being cast in the smaller part. (This, too, is an ego-fed misconception: the parts are equal.)

Eventually, though, Sinatra lifted his Loesser ban and recorded Sky’s number, as if to stick it to the movie-makers, as if to say “Here’s what you missed out on by not casting me as Sky.” The recording, Luck, Be a Lady, is so associated with Sinatra that music fans are stunned to find he doesn’t sing it in the film. But it’s gotten a lot of airplay, making a fortune for both Franks.

It isn’t fair; it isn’t nice

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One Response to The French wheel

  1. Peter J Casey says:

    I’m so glad you write these things, Noel! It’s as if you have a little list of requests I wrote and sent to you, when I have done neither.

    ‘Three Dog Night’ never made me think of franks before, and now it always will.

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