Happy Thanksgiving … and happy anniversary to Guys and Dolls, which opened fifty-six years ago tonight on Broadway in a production that it is safe to say has stood the test of time. Its 1955 Frank Sinatra-Marlon Brando movie version appeared on my black & white TV when I was a kid in the 1960s and I was instantly captivated by its winning score by composer-lyricist Frank Loesser. I saw it live for the first time on Broadway in a 1977 revival (with an all-black cast); then in London in 1984, and on Broadway again in the 1992 Jerry Zaks-Nathan Lane-Faith Prince production (which was so successful it ran longer than the original). The strength of its construction and pitch-perfect score has never ceased to amaze me. Having been in it when I was still a teenager (Benny Southstreet), and having seen it performed by children as young as seven years old (my own daughter as Miss Adelaide), it’s difficult to argue with the reputation of Guys and Dolls as the embodiment of a perfect musical comedy — a reputation that began with its opening night. “A perfect musical comedy”!, raved the New York Daily News.
Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene (Adelaide and Nathan) in Guys and Dolls (1950)
Depicting a group of rough and tumble characters, denizens of Times Square that probably only ever existed in a fairy tale, all sprung from the imagination of the short story writer and newspaper columnist Damon Runyon, a pal to everyone from sports greats such as Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey to criminals the likes of Al Capone. The language he invented for his collection of lovable losers with names like Harry the Horse and Liver Lips Louie was so distinct that the term “Runyonese” entered the lexicon and has never exited. A mixture of very formal speech (no contractions) and insinuating slang, an example of which is from the short story “The Idyll of Sarah Brown” (the basis of Guys and Dolls pulls its main storyline), where the gambler Sky Masterson offers this advice from his father: “Son, you are now going out into the wide, wide world to make your own way and it is a very good thing to do, as there are no more opportunities for you in this burg.”
Runyon’s stories and colorful types were a natural for the movies, and characters like Apple Annie in Lady for a Day (1933) and Little Miss Marker(starring Shirley Temple) in 1934 helped make them big hits. After Runyon died in 1946, the producers Ernest Martin and Cy Feuer set about collecting the right to many of his short stories, mostly from a volume entitled Guys and Dolls. The tale of Sarah Brown, a beautiful Times Square mission worker who catches the eye of an itinerant gambler, made for a promising start for the plot of their musical. Engaging Frank Loesser, with whom they had just collaborated on the Where’s Charley?, based on the late nineteenth-century British farce Charley’s Aunt, they had a composer with gifts as a lyricist in perfect harmony with Runyon’s wild ways of speech.
But their first choice for the book was less ideal. The playwright and screenwriter Jo Swerling was hired, but did not find himself like-minded among the headstrong ideas of Martin, Feuer and Loesser. It was decided to begin anew with Abe Burrows, a radio writer and early TV personality on game shows (or panel shows as they were then called) who had never before written the book to a musical. Burrows helped by bringing on board a friend and fellow panelist, George S. Kaufman, not only one of the leading playwrights of the 20s and 30s, but a brilliant director of such Broadway hits as The Front Page, Of Mice and Men and the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing (although Kaufman always took the more modest credit of “staged by” rather than “directed by,” for reasons I’ve never had adequately explained).
Speaking of the Pulitzer Prize, Guys and Dolls would have become only the third musical to win that award in 1951 (South Pacific had won it the previous year), but for the political climate of that time. As Abe Burrows had had a run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the Trustees of Columbia University overrode the selection and no Pulitzer for Drama was handed out that year. However, Burrows and Loesser would finally receive a Pulitzer when they won it for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying a decade later.
Guys and Dolls boasted a first-rate cast that included Vivian Blaine, Sam Levene, Robert Alda and Isabel Bigley (who both won Tony Awards as Sky and Sarah). It was a musical unique in its trajectory, since it did not suffer the usual pitfalls or birth pangs of similarly famous shows. It opened to rave reviews in its first out-of-town engagement in Philadelphia, but Kaufman, ever the perfectionist, continued to polish things until it positively glowed like a jewel. By the time it opened at the 46th Street Theatre on November 24,1950 to across-the-board rave reviews, it wound up with a long run of 1,200 performances, netting more than twelve million dollars, a fortune in its day.
Nathan Lane and Peter Gallagher (as Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson ) in Guys and Dolls (1992)
If you’ve never seen Guys and Dolls on stage and only know it from the film, that’s a situation that needs remedying. Now older and wiser, my opinion on it has changed over the years. It’s not really very good. Brando is miscast as Sky and you wonder why Sinatra didn’t play it instead of Nathan, in which he's miscast. So you owe it to yourself to seek it out in any stage production you can. I would like to say it never fails to delight and that it’s foolproof, except there was a very poorly received Broadway revival in 2009 that ran a little over two months, shocking in its ineptitude. I didn’t see it, but have seen enough of it, if you know what I mean. Viewing the clips make me think of when I put down a book, in full knowledge that going any further is going to be a waste of time. A recent London production was a far bigger success (and featured an American actor Richard Kind as Nathan Detroit), and with talk of its crossing the pond, Broadway may once again play host to one of the most gratifying shows in the musical canon. If that happens I, for one, couldn’t be happier.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is coming soon from Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/