Jo Sullivan, Tony-Nominated Actress in 'The Most Happy Fella,' Dies at 91

Jo Sullivan Loesser, Musical Theater Legend-Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of David Gersten & Associates

She met her eventual husband, Broadway legend Frank Loesser, on the musical and was instrumental in preserving his legacy.

Jo Sullivan, who received a Tony Award nomination in 1957 for her performance in The Most Happy Fella, which featured a book, music and lyrics by her soon-to-be husband, Frank Loesser, has died. She was 91.

Sullivan died Sunday of heart failure at her New York City home, publicist David Gersten announced. 

After being spotted singing in a Manhattan nightclub, Sullivan was picked to understudy the lead role of Laurey Williams near the end of the original 1943-48 Broadway run of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! She also appeared in the 1948-50 musical As the Girls Go, produced by Michael Todd.

Her first big break came when she was chosen to create the part of Polly Peachum in a concert version of The Threepenny Opera, with Leonard Bernstein conducting and Lotte Lenya starring. "The Bilbao Song (The Bid-a-Wee in Soho)" was added just for her.

Sullivan studied at The Actors Studio and earned the leading role of the waitress Rosabella in The Most Happy Fella. She and Loesser first met during the production, and were married from April 1959 until his July 1969 death from lung cancer at age 59.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Loesser also wrote the lyrics and music to such Broadway classics as Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and collected a best song Oscar for "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from Neptune's Daughter (1949).

Before and after The Most Happy Fella, Sullivan appeared in City Center revivals of CarouselWonderful TownDie Fledermaus and Showboat, after which she retired to raise a family. She eventually returned to performing, appearing at the Russian Tea Room, The Ballroom and Michael's Pub, where she starred in a 20th anniversary salute to Follies.

In 1989, she introduced her daughter, Emily Loesser Stephenson, to the New York stage, co-starring with her in Together Again for the First Time at the Kaufman Theatre. They went on to perform numerous times in concerts and theaters, including in tours of Together Again and Loesser's first musical, Where's Charley? 

Sullivan was instrumental in preserving and furthering her husband's musical legacy, and it was she who suggested using a two-piano arrangement of the score for The Most Happy Fella to Goodspeed Opera House, which led to a successful 1991 production and a move to Broadway a year later.

Also in 1992, Sullivan was a big factor in getting Guys and Dolls revived on Broadway, where it won the Tony for best revival, in addition to securing wins for director Jerry Zaks and lead actress Faith Prince. Sullivan also worked with DRG Records to release An Evening of Frank Loesser, a collection of never-before-heard demo recordings that Loesser had made for Guys and DollsThe Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business.

Born on Aug. 28, 1927, in Mounds City, Illinois, Sullivan sung the "Italian Street Song" from Naughty Marietta on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts but lost out on the program to two harmonica players in an act called The Polka Dots.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include son-in-law Don; longtime companion Jaquin; stepchildren John and Susan; and grandchildren Hallie, Fiona, Frank and Beau. Her daughter Hannah died in 2007.

Funeral services will be private.