NEW YORK — Jo Sullivan Loesser, the vivacious soprano who starred in Frank Loesser’s hit Broadway show “The Most Happy Fella,” married Loesser and, after he died, preserved his legacy with revivals, revues and recordings, died on Sunday at her home in New York. She was 91.
The cause was heart failure, her son-in-law, Don Stephenson, said.
Mrs. Loesser’s path to success personified the script for a Hollywood musical, following a plaintive if brief overture.
Jo Sullivan arrived in New York in the mid-1940s as a star-struck Midwesterner. After failing to win a scholarship to the Juilliard School, she paid her way through composition and music theory classes at Columbia by working at the Lord & Taylor department store.
She appeared on the radio competition “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” singing “Italian Street Song” from “Naughty Marietta,” but she lost to a harmonica duo.
After paying her dues as an understudy and a member of the chorus, she created the role of Polly Peachum in a concert version of Marc Blitzstein’s acclaimed translation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” in 1952. She reprised the role when a full-fledged theatrical version opened in 1954 at the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village.
Her big break came in 1956, when she auditioned for the part of the mail-order bride Rosabella in “The Most Happy Fella,” the operatic story of a May-December romance for which Frank Loesser wrote the book, music and lyrics.
As she started to sing, she later recalled, Frank Loesser closed all the windows in the room at the Warwick Hotel in Manhattan and exclaimed, “Boy, this kid sings loud!” After she got the part — she co-starred with the baritone Robert Weede — Loesser hung a sign backstage: “Loud is good.”
Reviewing “The Most Happy Fella” for The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson praised her singing and said she was “likely to break the hearts of the audience.”
Her romance with Loesser was similar to the one in the show: He was 17 years older. Shortly after they married, in 1959, Mrs. Loesser abandoned her show business career — “Frank was the real star of the family,” she once said — but not without some misgivings.
“Though I still had the longing to perform,” she told The Times in 1980, “it wasn’t appropriate because Frank didn’t want to come home at night to an empty house.”
She raised their two daughters and, after Frank Loesser died of lung cancer at 59 in 1969, she managed his music publishing company, Frank Music, until it was bought by CBS in 1976. (It was subsequently sold to Paul McCartney, but Mrs. Loesser retained creative control over her husband’s theater music and productions for Frank Loesser Enterprises.)
In 1977, feeling free of business obligations and with her daughters grown, Mrs. Loesser attended a party where Morton Gottlieb, a theatrical producer, urged her to return to singing — specifically, to perform her husband’s repertoire at the Ballroom, a restaurant and cabaret in SoHo.
She did, billed as Jo Sullivan, and her comeback was triumphant.
“Not since Barbara Cook made her cabaret debut at Brothers and Sisters almost three years ago has a voice with the range and projection of Miss Sullivan’s full-bodied soprano been heard in a cabaret,” John S. Wilson wrote in the Times.
In 1980 she was a producer of “Perfectly Frank,” a Broadway revue devoted to her husband’s music, and also appeared in it. Walter Kerr described her in the Times as “an astonishingly authoritative performer for all her chinaware delicacy.”
Elizabeth Josephine Sullivan was born on Aug. 28, 1927, in Mounds, a city at the southern tip of Illinois, to Hessie Boone Sullivan, a foreman for a Missouri lumber distributor, and Eileen Celeste (Woods) Sullivan, who sold cosmetics.
After graduating from high school, she was encouraged to pursue a theatrical career. She studied singing in St. Louis, where she played Dorothy in the Municipal Opera Association’s 1951 production of “The Wizard of Oz,” in which Margaret Hamilton reprised her role as the Wicked Witch of the West from the 1939 movie.
In New York, she was spotted singing in a nightclub and hired to understudy for the lead female role, Laurey, in “Oklahoma!” toward the end of its original Broadway run.
A few stage performances followed, including a role in “Let’s Make an Opera,” (about which Walter Kerr said, “Let’s not”) before she was cast in “The Threepenny Opera.” The Theater de Lys production was critically praised and, despite not being on Broadway, received a special Tony Award.
She studied at the Actors Studio, auditioned for dozens of parts and finally landed the female lead in “The Most Happy Fella,” which is where she met Loesser. Both were still married to others when they met.
The play ran for 676 performances, closing on Dec. 14, 1957. Afterward she gave Loesser a deadline: Marry her by May 1, 1959, or she would go back to work. They wed on April 29. He wrote across his datebook, “The Reign of Terror Begins.”
Mrs. Loesser is survived by a daughter from that marriage, Emily Stephenson, an actress and singer with whom she performed into the 1990s; two stepchildren, Susan Loesser and John Loesser; four grandchildren; and her longtime companion, Jacquin Fink. Another daughter, Hannah, an artist, died of cancer in 2007.