Frank’s Famous Refrains

Frank’s Famous Refrains

Guys and Dolls Special Feature Part 2

frank-at-piano1The Music of Guys And Dolls

Few composer/lyricists in the history of musical theatre could craft a song like Frank Loesser. Frank is still widely regarded as one of the true “fathers” of American musical theatre, and nowhere is his musical gravitas more evident than in his masterpiece, GUYS & DOLLS. Not only is GUYS & DOLLS considered in most theatrical circles to be Frank’s greatest stage work, it has also been hailed by many a critic to be the quintessential (if not “perfect”) musical. Frank Loesser was a master of writing memorable, “catchy” musical refrains that worked in perfect tandem with the story he was telling. The unassuming elegance of his melodies and deftness with which he wrote them appear so simple, yet ironically, writing strong refrains that stick with the listener after they’ve left the theater is really anything but easy. The fact that he was able to create songs that still linger in our collective consciousness over the many decades is why his legacy transcends that of the everyday musical genius.

Frank Loesser and the Craft

Those who study the craft of composing for the musical theatre are usually first schooled in the technique of writing the very types of refrains that Frank helped codify. In fact, quite often, composition instructors will use songs directly out of the score of GUYS & DOLLS as “textbook” examples for students to analyze and study. The songs in GUYS & DOLLS are flawless in their structural, melodic, harmonic and lyrical construction. Two refrains in particular spring to mind as prime examples of Frank’s virtuosic skill in marrying these elements together: Luck Be A Lady and If I Were A Bell.

Luck Be A Lady

Luck Be A Lady (Sky Masterson’s Act Two tour de force) employs the following classic refrain structure: A-A-B-A. One doesn’t necessarily need to be a composer or a student of music theory to grasp how these structures work and why they are so effective. In this structure each “A” section represents a specific musical theme, often eight measures in length. While the lyrics of each A section are different, these A’s comprise essentially the same melodic and harmonic material each of the three times we (the listener) hear them. The arrival of the “B” section is the moment of musical departure from the A when we are greeted with new melodic and harmonic material, providing an enjoyable and crucial aural change within the refrain.

Shifting Tones

In order to complement and enhance this musical alteration, quite often the B section will also be accompanied by a shift in lyrical content or tone. In Luck Be A Lady the first A section encompasses the passage, “Luck be lady tonight; luck be a lady tonight; luck if you’ve ever been a lady to begin with; luck be a lady tonight.” In this remarkably economical eight measure span, Frank presents us with his main melodic and lyrical hook. He continues to solidify the theme in the second A section, takes us to an entirely new place melodically and lyrically in his B section (“a lady doesn’t leave her escort…”) and then brings us back home again with his final A (“so let’s keep the party polite…”). Harmonically, the refrain’s key signature modulates back and forth in half steps, and this subtle, incremental tonal shift helps to create dramatic tension as well as underscore Sky’s sly, smooth-talking, risk-taking demeanor.


If I Were A Bell

The other most popular refrain structure found throughout GUYS & DOLLS is a slight but noticeable variation on A-A-B-A; this second structure is notated as A-B-A-C, and perhaps the best example of this format occurs in the song If I Were A Bell (Sarah Brown’s tipsy solo when we see that she’s begun to fall for Sky’s charms). The biggest difference in this refrain structure is the use of a third section of new melodic and harmonic material – the C – which usually serves to give the refrain a sense of melodic, harmonic and lyrical closure.

Lyrical Closure

In the case of If I Were A Bell the first C section is “And if I were a watch I’d start popping my spring; or if I were a bell I’d go ding, dong, ding, dong, ding.” This C contains melodic and harmonic material that is reminiscent of (yet still notably different from) the rest of the refrain, which is why it is perceived with a sense of finality. Aurally, this refrain structure works its way into the listener’s memory in a unique way: a musical statement is made which is then followed immediately by a departure; then that original, familiar statement returns and finally leads us to a modified yet satisfying musical denouement. Frank also continually brings back his title hook (“If I were a bell I’d go ding, dong, ding, dong, ding”) in each and every C section so that this musical conclusion is accompanied by lyrical resolution as well.

Syncopated Rhythms

The other musical and lyrical components of the song work just as adeptly as the structure itself. The lilting, syncopated rhythms and the romantic, fluid harmonic motion of If I Were A Bell underscore and enhance Sarah Brown’s intoxicated and forthright admission that she has, in fact, fallen for Sky Masterson’s charms. This is a stark and noticeable contrast from the music we hear her sing earlier in the show. For example, in Follow The Fold Sarah is as musically stern and militaristic as can be (the melody, harmonic progressions and rhythms are as rigid and immovable as she is), and in I’ll Know, although the music hints of the impending romance that will develop between her and Sky, Sarah is still somewhat musically defiant. If I Were A Bell, on the other hand, is Sarah’s goofy, unfettered “release” and this release reveals itself in every element of the song.

The fact that the elements of these songs work so perfectly in tandem with each other and with the story of the show itself is by no means an accident. This is the meticulous work of a consummate artist at the top of his game. It’s no wonder that after 59 years, the refrains of GUYS & DOLLS still echo so effortlessly in our ears and that the show itself is still the iconic hallmark of American Musical Theatre.

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