April 23, 2004, 12:03PM

'Señor Discretion' finds its voice


D.C. premiere caps 35-year quest to put Frank Loesser's final musical onstage

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
Rival bakers Pancito (Shawn Elliott, left) and Hilario (John Bolton) become unlikely friends in Señor Discretion -- but Pancito explodes when he learns Hilario has his eye on the elder man's 15-year-old daughter.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In Señor Discretion Himself, the new Frank Loesser musical at this city's Arena Stage, an apparent miracle transforms an impoverished Mexican baker from town drunkard into town saint.

The real miracle is that Loesser's final show, unfinished at his death in 1969, has finally come to life onstage, giving audiences one last score from the incomparable composer-lyricist of such Broadway classics as Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Señor Discretion's world premiere is a tribute to the determination of Jo Sullivan Loesser, the songwriter's widow and the guiding force behind the project's improbable resurrection. The production culminates 2 1/2 years of work by Charles Randolph-Wright, whom Jo Loesser picked to direct it, and Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza -- the Latino theater artists known as Culture Clash -- who revised and completed the script.

"I've always believed it would be produced," Loesser says. She has worked toward that goal for decades, but past attempts always stalled. "It had to wait until I found the right talents to do it."

Based on a short story by Budd Schulberg, set in the sleepy Mexican town of Tepancingo, Señor Discretion tells of Pancito, the hard-drinking baker whose life hasn't been the same since his wife's death.

When Hilario, an eccentric new arrival, pursues Pancito's 15-year-old daughter Lupita, the indignant father's campaign to defend her virtue results in some admittedly far-fetched misunderstandings that convince townspeople that Pancito is a prophet and saint. A trio of scheming priests, recognizing the need for a miracle to revitalize the town, sustain the deception.

Loesser worked on the show from November 1965 to March 1968, leaving an unfinished draft with about two dozen songs (some just fragments), 250 pages of script and a lengthy preamble advising potential collaborators on how to approach the material. Schulberg, best-known for his debut novel, What Makes Sammy Run?, took a crack at shaping a workable libretto in the early 1980s, but after a reading in 1985, the project slipped back into limbo.

In 2000, Jo Loesser, who controls the rights to her husband's shows and keeps close tabs on major productions, attended Arena Stage's Guys and Dolls and was taken with its direction by Randolph-Wright, an associate artist at the theater. She called, they became friends, and she soon sent him a surprise package.

"I opened it," he says, "and there was this enormous manuscript with the letter Frank left about how to read it. It was a journey into the man's mind. I fell in love with the show. This is a great story with great heart."

But Randolph-Wright knew the material needed extensive revision.

The curandera (Doreen Montalvo) watches over the town of Tepancingo

"I wanted a Latino playwright to do it," he says. "While I was doing a project in San Francisco, I noticed the Culture Clash were doing a show there, and I immediately thought, 'These are the guys.' I called Jo out to see their show." Jo Loesser met the three and warmed to their work. Soon they, too, were hooked on the promise and challenge of Señor Discretion.

"They saw the possibilities," Randolph-Wright says. "All of us who are artists of color struggle to tell a story that's universal and yet has our culture in it. And here was a chance to do that."

"It's our chance to make history," says Montoya. "The opportunity to complete his last show is pretty important. I think he simply ran out of time. He left spaces in the show -- dot, dot, dot. We're filling in those dots."

Señor Discretion is a change of pace for the satiric comedy trio formed in San Francisco's Mission District on Cinco de Mayo in 1984. Montoya, Salinas and Siguenza usually write and perform their own shows about everyday life in a particular city, based on their interviews with residents. Siguenza performed his stage biography ¡Cantinflas! at Houston's Alley Theatre in September. He says he will return for an encore run at the Alley this fall and plans to bring his fellow Clashers for the trio's Alley debut.

"We've had our ups and downs," Siguenza says of Señor Discretion. "We hit a wall sometimes and thought we couldn't go any further."

"It's not a revival, and it's not a new piece," Salinas says. "It's a rebirth of something that has waited in a vacuum for 35 years. We're striving to be faithful to the story and to Frank's voice."

The prospect of a "lost" Loesser score tantalizes fans of the Great American Songbook. Arguably the most distinctive and versatile of the great Broadway and Hollywood songwriters, Loesser created witty music as well as witty lyrics, as in the sly Standin' on the Corner. No one captured vernacular speech in song so well, as typified by his Oscar-winning Baby, It's Cold Outside. He started in Hollywood as lyricist for such hits as I Don't Want to Walk Without You (with Jule Styne) and Two Sleepy People (with Hoagy Carmichael). He began composing his own music with the World War II smash Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition and showed increasing sophistication with his string of postwar standards, including On a Slow Boat to China, Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year and the holiday perennial What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

Loesser made his greatest mark on Broadway. Where's Charley? (1948), the Tony-winning Guys and Dolls (1950), The Most Happy Fella (1956) and the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning How to Succeed (1961) were solid hits -- and each completely different from the others. Loesser never repeated himself. While the Loesser oeuvre is golden, it's not vast: the four hits, one commercial failure admired for its score (1960's Greenwillow) and one ambitious disaster that folded out of town (1965's Pleasures and Palaces). Hit Broadway revivals of Guys and Dolls, Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in the 1990s and Knopf's recent publication of a splendid Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser confirm that the appeal of his work remains strong.

"I'm excited Señor Discretion has finally reached the stage," says Robert Kimball, musical theater historian and co-editor of Knopf's Complete Lyrics series. "The score is well worth hearing. The main songs have sincerity, charm and quality." If Broadway doesn't bite at the show, Kimball speculated it could make its New York premiere in the Encores concert series. "It's exactly the kind of project Encores should be doing."

"Jo is doing great things for the (Loesser) catalog as a preserver and presenter," says Michael Price, executive director of Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House, which specializes in neglected shows. "If every heir approached the responsibility as she does, it would be fantastic."

Goodspeed will stage Loesser's Where's Charley? this summer. Another fan of Señor Discretion's score, Price had considered the show for Goodspeed but couldn't solve its book problems. After more regional stands, Price suspects the show will find a New York berth -- "not in one of the regular Broadway houses, but at a special, nonprofit venue."

Jo Loesser -- who as Jo Sullivan starred in the original Most Happy Fella and married its composer three years later -- is overseeing two London projects for 2005: a Guys and Dolls revival, and a stage version of Loesser's best-known film musical, Hans Christian Andersen, with a new book by Maury Yeston (the composer-lyricist has turned book-writer for the occasion.) Now in her 70s, she relishes the role of keeper of the flame.

"I just want to make sure," she says, "that when people say Rodgers and Hammerstein, when they say Cole Porter -- that they also say Frank Loesser."

While praising Señor Discretion's "timeless innocence," the Culture Clash trio appreciates the streak of irreverence in Loesser's humor. "We've built on that, especially with the three priests," Siguenza says. The three had planned to play the priests but soon realized they had enough to do with the writing. They have cut the original script by more than half, reshuffled scenes, deleted characters, added the curandera (a shaman who watches over the village), written much new material -- and, lately, cut heaps of that.

"Putting a show up for the first time," Randolph-Wright says, "you have to be allowed to stumble and fall. Jo has allowed us that. Unlike other family members who have inherited and run an estate, Jo was and is an artist."

All were determined to use only music and lyrics Loesser wrote for this show, neither borrowing from other scores nor assembling a greatest-hits evening. This was not to be "a new Loesser musical" in the sense that Crazy for You was "a new Gershwin musical" -- that is, a new script stringing together a parade of standards.

"But it's tricky," says Randolph-Wright, "because as the script is rewritten, as you add or change characters, you need a song there, and it's difficult when you don't have the composer around to write it. We've had to work with what he left." Where a solo was needed for Pancito late in the show, the team relocated a first-act number (Pancito's Song). Merging two fragmentary numbers from other scenes created a key solo for Martin, Lupita's idealistic teacher. The exception to the no-borrowing rule is What Is Life?, pulled from Loesser's little-known Pleasures and Palaces to become a trio for the roguish priests.

Another guiding principle is authenticity, from mariachi influence in the orchestrations by Larry Hochman (Broadway's Jane Eyre and A Class Act) to the folkloric choreography by Doriana Sanchez, who directed Cher's farewell Living Proof tour. The cast is predominantly Hispanic. Mexican flavor permeates the score, though several of its key numbers are pure Broadway. The score peaks in the soaring Cannot Let You Go, the second-act duet of Lupita and her love interest, schoolteacher Martin.

"It's a big romantic Broadway ballad," Montoya says, "and I love it just the way it is. Mexicans can have romance, too. Frank usually was more the wise guy, but his songs here are very sentimental, heart-on-the-sleeve."

In the theater's lobby, after the final preview performance, Randolph-Wright and Culture Clash are excited and exhausted. They're pleased at how far the piece has come, yet aware of improvements still to be made. Montoya sees the need for another cut and worries the curandera has become "omnipresent."


The collaborators plan to keep polishing the work through two or three regional stands, and mention Houston's Alley as a strong possibility. All seem to regard discussion of the show's New York potential as premature at this point -- though Loesser inevitably mentions Broadway as her ultimate goal.

Short-story author Schulberg, 90, attended a preview. Asked about the project's unusually long gestation, he said, "Some things you can't rush."

The collaborators see Señor Discretion as an autumnal work, in which a mature protagonist

Jo Sullivan was starring in composer Frank Loesser's Most Happy Fella on Broadway when this picture was snapped in 1956. They wed in 1959.
photo: Bettmann/Corbis

makes peace with his place in the world and ensures the happiness of his two daughters. If intended by Loesser as his farewell, these artists feel honored to complete it and deliver it to audiences at last.

"The show out there onstage is the show I saw when I read the script. I absolutely feel it will have a life after this production," Randolph-Wright says. "But if it doesn't, I'm thrilled and proud that we've taken this piece people said couldn't happen and we've put it onstage.

"I've directed the premiere of the last Frank Loesser musical."