JO SULLIVAN LOESSER,
MUSICAL THEATER LEGEND AND "KEEPER OF THE FLAME" OF FRANK LOESSER CANON,
DEAD AT 91
JO SULLIVAN LOESSER passed away Sunday April 28th at her New York City home from heart failure. She is survived by her daughter, Emily Loesser Stephenson, son-in-law Don Stephenson, long-time companion Jaquin Fink, step-children John and Susan Loesser, and four grandchildren; Hallie, Fiona, Frank, and Beau. She was predeceased by her daughter Hannah Loesser, who passed away in 2007.
When Jo Sullivan, born and raised in Mounds City, Illinois, stepped onto the stage of the Imperial Theatre opening night of Frank Loesser’s legendary musical, The Most Happy Fella, she would realize a life-long dream of Broadway stardom.
Jo’s professional life began as an Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show “loser,” singing the “Italian Street Song” from Naughty Marietta, but finding herself eclipsed by two harmonica players called The Polka Dots. She persevered, and after being seen singing in a small Manhattan nightclub, was picked to understudy the lead role of Laurey near the end of the original Broadway run of Oklahoma!, then found herself back in the same theatre in the chorus of the ill-fated Sleepy Hollow. Another chorus job that year landed her in the Mike Todd musical, As the Girls Go, which starred Bobby Clark and boasted a superior Jimmy McHugh score.
Her first big break came when she was chosen to create the role of Polly Peachum in a concert version of The Threepenny Opera, with Leonard Bernstein conducting and Lotte Lenya starring, which in turn, led to the classic Off-Broadway production. “The Bilbao Song” (“The Bid-A-Wee in Soho”) was added for Jo and the great Lotte Lenya herself coached her in what to do with it. The Threepenny Opera eventually became an Off-Broadway landmark event. It ran 2,611 performances, but by 1956, Jo had left the show. She studied at The Actor’s Studio, and after auditioning “a hundred times” was given the leading role, Rosabella the waitress, in The Most Happy Fella. Jo’s performance was nominated for a Tony Award, but she found a greater gift that year. She met and eventually married Frank Loesser. Before and after The Most Happy Fella, she appeared in the City Center revivals of Carousel, Wonderful Town with Nancy Walker, Die Fleidermaus and Showboat, after which she retired to raise a family.
Seventeen years after the death of Frank Loesser in 1969, she returned to performing, appearing at The Ballroom nightclub in 1977. Jo continued to be a New York nightclub favorite, headlining at such prestigious Manhattan spots as The Russian Tea Room, The Ballroom, and Michael’s Pub, where she starred in 1991 in a 20th anniversary salute to the Broadway musical, Follies, written by her old friend, Stephen Sondheim.
In 1989, she fulfilled yet another dream when she introduced her daughter, Emily, to the New York stage, co-starring with her in the show, Together Again For The First Time, at the Kaufman Theatre. After that, they performed numerous times in concerts and theaters, including tours of Together Again and her late husband’s first musical, Where’s Charley? She and Emily added bonus tracks to Ben Bagley’s Painted Smiles CD of Frank Loesser Revisited, featuring several Loesser songs from their production Together Again. For DRG records, Jo recorded Loesser By Loesser, a compilation of both familiar and obscure Loesser tunes, performed by Jo and her family.
Above all else, Ms. Loesser was always instrumental in preserving and furthering her husband’s great musical legacy. It was Jo who suggested using a two piano arrangement of the score for The Most Happy Fella to Goodspeed Opera House, which led to an enormously successful production for Goodspeed in 1991 and a subsequent move to Broadway in 1992. She served as Artistic Associate for that revival as well as the fully orchestrated New York City Opera presentation earlier that same year. It was permanently added to the New York City Opera repertory.
In 1992, Jo was instrumental in getting Guys and Dolls revived on Broadway, which became a smash hit, won the Tony Award for Best Revival and became the longest running revival in Broadway history.
She also worked with DRG records to release An Evening of Frank Loesser, a collection of never –before-heard “demo” recordings that Loesser himself made for Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which incidentally, also had enormous hit revivals on Broadway in 1995 (starring Matthew Broderick), and later in 2011 (starring Daniel Radcliffe.)
For many years, Jo Sullivan Loesser was an active member of Board of Directors of The American Theatre Wing and The Actors Fund.
Funeral services will be private.