…by the sharp lapel of your checkered coat

Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat!

This delightful tweet from Linda Holmes sent me down the rabbit hole this afternoon exploring “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” and learning a little more about its composer, Frank Loesser.

“Sit Down” is a showstopper from the musical Guys & Dolls: the gambler Nicely-Nicely bullshits a temperance congregation into buying that he has been reformed after a religious epiphany in a dream. A context that isn’t as visible to today’s audiences, as both the early 1930’s in which the musical is set and the early 50’s in which it was staged blur together in the rear-view mirror, is that Dolls was a loving tribute to the outsize characters of a time past; it is a similar project to the 80’s movies/musicals that pay tribute to 50’s and 60’s styles, like Grease, Dirty Dancing, Footloose, American Graffiti, and Little Shop of Horrors. Most of Dolls is written in a sophisticated pastiche of Big Band and Swing-era jazz, and it’s a mark of success that so many songs from the musical have become standards. For story reasons, “Sit Down” also draws upon the densely chromatic close harmony choral style that you might be familiar with from Disney animated musicals like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or Dumbo, and the white gospel/tent revival style from a song like “In That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’.”

Frank Loesser was a truly fascinating American character. His father was a pianist and made his living teaching, but for whatever reason—reading between the lines here, some tough personality clashes—his father never formally taught Loesser. He was self-taught on several instruments on the incredible strength of his ear, but seemed never to develop his musical reading or writing skills. Still, I think all of that dense European classical harmony is shot through his music.

The first song of his that really came to my attention is “Inchworm,” from the movie musical Hans Christian Andersen. It has a beautiful childlike melody, and wrings so much sensuality from small and deceptively simple harmonic movements. [In addition to the many jazz and pop artists that covered it, it was a special favorite of David Bowie, who wrote, “Ashes To Ashes wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t have been for Inchworm. There’s a nursery rhyme element in it, and there’s something so sad and mournful and poignant about it. It kept bringing me back to the feelings of those pure thoughts of sadness that you have as a child, and how they’re so identifiable even when you’re an adult.“]

Loesser was always connected to music but had to make his way in the world from a young age and made his living as a young man in various creative fields like advertising and business. His first entrance into show business was writing jokes for Borscht Belt comedians, then started writing lyrics for other composers. It is astounding to me, given how fresh and unique his musical style was, that he was well into mid-career and his forties before he was able to compose and write lyrics for his own musicals.

The lyrics are great! Steven Sondheim singled out Loesser as having virtually perfect lyric writing technique, marveling at his ability to sound both conversational and stylishly playful in verse. Just look at that line I quoted in the title: “by the sharp lapel of your checkered coat”—those marvelous assonant plosive p’s in sharp and lapel and c’s in chekered and coat (by assonant, I mean the same consonant sound is repeated, and by plosive I mean that the consonant sound is made by a sudden burst of air). Those are the kind of words that demand to be sung, even if they weren’t also funny and charming and told a story.

But it’s the music that has been stuck in my ears all day. I love the way that the sopranos in the chorus keep going up the pentatonic scale to hit the high note at 1:16 in the first video, and the way the chorus builds a chord in the phrase after at 1:23. I love the surprising cadences that lead into the verse, the chordal motion echoing church hymns. For such a big company number, the verses are surprisingly slow and its an incredible role for somebody who has the energy to ham it up.

Other notable videos…

Walter Bobbie at the 1993 (94?) Tony’s

Just a murderer’s row of early 90’s talent, including J.K. Simmons, who is dead center and looking totally committed (this was even before his breakout role on Oz as a sadistic gay neo-Nazi), Nathan Lane, and Ernie Sambella (who would voice Timon and Pumbaa a few years after this performance).

Titus Burgess at the 2009 Tony’s


This was before Burgess’ breakout performance as Titus Andromedon on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and really shows off his incredible upper range. Worth it to watch the moment when he had to roll with switching the mics due to a technical malfunction on live TV!

Justin Keyes at the Guthrie Theater

I have a secret to admit—I’m not actually much of a musicals or theater person, very much an interested casual fan—, so I didn’t know what the Guthrie Theater was. If this is representative of the average quality of productions out there in Minnesota, though, I think I need to make a visit to Minneapolis. Fantastic singing, incredible costuming and choreography.

Clive Rowe on Great Performances


Rowe has a wonderful voice for this character (he does an incredible vocal trick at 2:02 that made my jaw drop). The tempo here is a little sleepy and takes a lot of energy out of the number, imho, but the orchestration is a little less swing-band and a little more Dixieland/hot jazz, which I thought was cool.

The Cast of Glee


Given the influence of Glee on theater kids, gay boys, and future Broadway cast members of my generation, I thought it was interesting that “Sit Down” was featured on the very fist episode of the show, showing how central it is to the American songbook.

Ashton Harris & The Hillsboro High School Players

This was far and away the best high school performance I found on YouTube. Ashton Harris did a great job here. If you look through other high school performances, you can see where the trouble spots for less-trained voices are: In the narration verses, a lot of the long belted notes are high in the range, so if the young singer does not have strong pitch control it is very easy to go sharp. The choruses are very lyric-dense for the soloist, the words come fast, the tempo is fast, adrenaline is cranking your heart rate up and throwing your internal clock off, everyone around you is singing at full volume so you can’t hear the pit very well, and the line is syncopated. Almost all of the high school soloists rush through “And the devil will drag you under” and end up a full beat ahead by the end of the choruses.

Frank Loesser with Frank Loesser

Here’s the man himself. He had a perfectly serviceable voice, and it’s interesting to hear this simplified solo piano reduction by the man who wrote it, it shows what he thought was the essence of the song, and which lines he liked to mug with.

…and one orthogonal connection.

Loesser’s other big Broadway hit was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which also has a faux-revival big production number, “Brotherhood of Man.” NBC inexplicably chose this number for their network promo in 2012, which I was introduced to by this tweet. It feels insane to see this chosen, given NBC’s institutional problems with sexism in leadership and the no less than 4 sexual predators featured in the casts here. Every segment has something hilarious to look at. [Also it’s catchy as fuck and I will pay you $10 to tell me what that insane dance move that Ken Jeong does is.]

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