Frank Loesser - A Cabaret Centenary by Karen Oberlin

by Rob Lester

Karen Oberlin
The very attentive lady with the gold earrings, seated at the cabaret room's ringside round table was smiling broadly, nodding, and clapping enthusiastically as song after song was unspooled in the show celebrating songwriter Frank Loesser's centenary. She laughed at the slangy "Hamlet" and the anecdotes, and leaned in during the number cut from The Most Happy Fella. As the opening night performance ended, she told all of us around her that she was going to tell her daughter that she must come the next night. The lady's positive response matched that of fellow audience members and the critics who have chimed in so far, but what's special is that this satisfied customer is the widow of the great composer-lyricist, Jo Sullivan Loesser, star of the original production of The Most Happy Fella and now "keeper of the flame," tenaciously guarding his legacy and how the material is treated. Singer Karen Oberlin's cabaret tribute, which runs through June 19th at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, was off to a flying start. Titled Heart & Soul after one of his songs so ubiquitous that even his oldest daughter Susan used to play it on the piano as an adolescent and never realized her dad had written it. (She wrote the biography about him, "A Most Remarkable Fella," a source for the informative patter.)

Before seeing the show with a packed audience, I had spent Memorial Day sitting in on Karen's rehearsal and, between tweaks and lights being adjusted, hearing Loesser lore from the singer, her musicians and director. Taking it from the top, special attention was paid to the opening number, "If I Were a Bell," from the most represented of the musicals in the writer's canon, Guys and Dolls—Karen includes a surprise extra chorus written for, but not included in, the stage or film versions. She loves doing the research and digging through the catalogue, and is especially excited to have a musical director/pianist—Jon Weber—who is just as eager to read up, dig in, eagerly look at old movies and video clips, and try new approaches to familiar tunes, but respect the original intentions. "He's as eager to climb into the canon as I am." One of their hopes for the show is to increase appreciation for the craft and range of this writer. Hearing so many different kinds of songs back to back in an evening, with some background stories, has an impact. "I think it will deepen their understanding about Frank Loesser as a songwriter," said Karen, who has included rollicking comic numbers, serious ballads, and pieces specifically written to character. "I think some young theater writers are in danger of under-appreciating what can be done so effectively," she observed, pointing out economic but emotional transitions in certain spots of these numbers and specific word choices. "He was meticulous." And she gave as an example the soft, breathy "w" sound with the word choices wonder," "welcome," "when" and "what" in the wistful "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

Jon enthused about some other aspects: "He wrote Guys and Dolls all about these rough-around-the-edges tough guys. There's nothing more endearing than hearing the tough guy be a soft touch. When these street-wise types sing a gentle ballad, it's ... " "Heartwarming!" chimed in Karen, and the two laughed and told me they've spent so much time together that they finish each other's sentences. One of those Guys and Dolls heartwarmers, "I've Never Been in Love Before," starts a love song medley. Songs from the point of view of those who have been in love before—and had some heartache—are also on the bill, such as "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year." Karen pointed out, "Using those big skips in the melody, Loesser brought out the longing in the lyric." Director Eric Michael Gillett fine-tuned moments and movements, and was pleased with the interpretations, telling me, "Karen's singing and acting the songs brings a clarity to them. Her intelligence makes the phrasing crisp, clear and clean. She plays the subtext. Being a consummate actress plus the 'period' sound of her voice makes her a quintessential interpreter of this work," he asserted about the singer who's been acknowledged by all three of the cabaret world award organizations, winning a Bistro Award, a MAC (duet category win, solo nominee) and as a finalist for a Nightlife Award.

The songs have stood the test of time, many continuously recorded or being rediscovered, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is headed for another Broadway revival. "Pretty good for a songwriter who said he didn't care about posterity," Karen pointed out. "He really spoke our language," added Jon, "It never sounds like poetry. It sounds like us—the way we speak to each other. I'm always astounded how he gets across a lot of information in relatively short phrase. Look at 'My Time of Day'—you get it in 16 measures." Jon's a big fan of this number about what the quiet city is like at around 4 a.m., the hour Loesser loved to start work. "It's pure action, though he's talking about the stillness." And the fact that the writer thought of this as his own personal chunk of time is emphasized by the notes chosen for the personal pronouns, Jon illustrated. "Listen to the words that get the longest notes: 'That's myyyyy time of day' and the end: 'share it with meeeee.'" Director Gillett also admires "the complexity of the work, musically and lyrically. It requires you to listen." (Bassist Sean Smith had to leave the rehearsal early for another gig, so I didn't get to note much of his rapport with the singer, except musically, and to watch their easy and charming interaction with their playful specialty number, "Snug As a Bug in a Rug" by Loesser/ Milton Delugg/ Matty Malneck, in 1939.)

Following her recent engagements at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, The Iridium, and the Metropolitan Room (all of which I've seen and enjoyed), and having recorded two albums, Karen Oberlin is, I think, at her radiant best here. I was a "most happy fella" drinking it all in—at rehearsal and the next night's well-received opening. Cabaret is in good hands with Miss Oberlin. So is Frank Loesser.

Karen Oberlin's Heart and Soul runs through June 19, Tuesdays through Saturdays, with two shows a night on Fridays and Saturdays, at the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel. Tedd Firth takes over on piano for the last five performances. For more information, see and

Photo: Benjamin Niemczyk

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