Jo Sullivan Loesser, a Broadway actress who scored a Tony nomination for her performance in 1956’s The Most Happy Fella, married the show’s composer Frank Loesser in 1959 and after his death 10 years later devoted herself to the promotion of his acclaimed and popular canon, died Sunday of heart failure at her New York City home. She was 91.
Her death was announced by her family through publicist David Gersten.
Born and raised in Mounds City, IL, Sullivan began her professional career as a contestant on the early TV competition Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show (her rendition of “Italian Street Song” from Naughty Marietta lost out to a harmonica duo called The Polka Dots).
Soon, though, she was singing in a small Manhattan nightclub when she was chosen to understudy the lead role of Laurey in the original Broadway production of Oklahoma!, which by then was winding down its run.
She’d next be cast in musicals Sleepy Hollow and As Girls Go, but her breakthrough role was Polly Peachum in a concert version of The Threepenny Opera, conducted by Leonard Bernstein and starring Lotte Lenya. The staging led to the now-legendary Off Broadway production, with “The Bilbao Song” added to the show specifically for Sullivan’s Polly.
Her next milestone was the lead role of waitress Rosabella in The Most Happy Fella. She met and married Loesser — the musical’s composer, lyricist and book writer — eventually retiring to raise a family. Other stage credits prior to her first retirement included Carousel, Wonderful Town, Die Fleidermaus and Showboat.
Before he died in 1969 of lung cancer at age 59, Frank Loesser had become one of Broadway’s premier composers, his credits including a roster of soon-to-be classics, including, in addition to The Most Happy Fella, Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He was a prolific songwriter for Hollywood, as well, with hits including “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Heart and Soul” and a song that would come to be regarded by some as either a Christmas classic or a controversial relic of a bygone era, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
Sullivan Loesser returned to the nightclub stage in 1977, and over the next years would appear at the Ballroom, the Russian Tea Room and Michael’s Pub. In 1989 she co-starred with her daughter Emily in Together Again For the First Time at the Kaufman Theatre, the first in a series of concert and recording projects for the two, often performing songs written by Frank Loesser.
In the early ’90s, Jo Sullivan Loesser suggested that the Goodspeed Opera House use a two-piano arrangement for The Most Happy Fella (the popular production moved to Broadway in 1992). She served as Artistic Associate for that revival as well as the fully orchestrated New York City Opera presentation that same year. Also in ’92, Sullivan Loesser was instrumental in the Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, which would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Revival and become the longest-running revival in Broadway history.
Sullivan Loesser was a longtime member of Board of Directors of the American Theatre Wing and the Actors Fund. She is survived by her daughter, Emily Loesser Stephenson; son-in-law Don Stephenson; companion Jaquin Fink; stepchildren John and Susan Loesser; and four grandchildren. She was predeceased by daughter Hannah Loesser in 2007.
Funeral services will be private.