Theatre yesterday and today



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Whenever discussions crop up over which Broadway musicals can be determined as the greatest of this most American of art forms, Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows' Guys and Dolls is always right at the top. Not only is its tone, in both song and speech, perfectly suited to its source material; that of the lives and loves of Damon Runyon's low-life (and yet comically well-spoken) gamblers, but it's one of the funniest books ever written. Dubbed "A Musical Fable," it succeeds in creating a world that is fanciful and believable—no easy trick. Productions continue to crop up ceaselessly since it first premiered in 1950, performed in elementary schools from Maine to Alaska, as well as by top theatre companies the world over.

Pat Rooney, Robert Alda and Isabel Bigley in Guys and Dolls (1950).

Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene as Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit (1950).

One of the reasons for that is because of how much of a crowd-pleaser the show is; as well-constructed as a precision Swiss watch. Currently, I am directing it at the Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth, Massachusetts, returning here for my fourth summer in a row, with a cast drawn from many of the major college theatre programs throughout the country. Just yesterday, when the actor playing Big Jule arrived for rehearsal wearing a Guys and Dolls t-shirt from a 2013 production he was in, I asked the cast if he and I were the only ones to have previously performed in the show. I was met by a show of a dozen hands (about half the company), all of whom had done it before, everywhere from summer camp to college.

It also impresses me no end how much this young cast already loves and appreciates the show, considering that none of them were born before 1992 (the same year of the first Broadway revival of the show which starred Nathan Lane and Peter Gallagher—so successful that it surpassed the run of it is first production). It is testimony to the timelessness of Guys and Dolls that in 2018 its humor is anything but stale. Are there some jokes that are going to be tough to get over sixty-eight years after they were first written? Sure. But the same thing can be said of Shakespeare (and his jokes are a lot older). But unlike Shakespeare, surprisingly few of Burrows crackling one-liners have passed their expiration dates.

Though not as innovative as Showboat or Oklahoma!, due to the sheer excellence of its book and score, Guys and Dolls has taken its rightful place as a masterpiece, equal to those achievements. As the lyricist Fred Ebb once told an interviewer, "It was the first musical I ever saw [at age eleven] and, naturally, I thought it was the best musical I ever saw. And nothing I've seen in the interim has done anything to diminish my opinion." Instantly recognized as an important contribution to the American musical, New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson stated it best, when he wrote in his opening night review "we might as well admit that Guys and Dolls is a work of art."

Miss Adelaide singing "A Bushel and a Peck" to Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls (1950).

Guys and Dolls began with Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, the producers of Loesser’s first Broadway musical, Where’s Charley? When they saw in Runyon’s stories the notion of a musical, they immediately turned to Loesser. Zeroing in on one main story, The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown, book writers came and went, none of whom grasped the special qualities that made Ruynon's stories so unique. Hollywood screenwriter Jo Swerling wrote an entire first act, but it was decided that it too lacked the specificity of language, as well as the humor that was already evident in the songs Loesser was composing.

Abe Burrows was a busy man when the Guys and Dolls team approached him to write what would be his first book to a musical. Having become famous for writing dozens of episodes of Duffy's Tavern, at one time one of the most popular radio programs in the country, he was an inspired choice. As he himself wrote in his autobiography, Honest Abe: "The people on that show were New York muggs, nice muggs, sweet muggs, and like Runyon's muggs they all talked like Ladies and Gentlemen." Burrows took on the challenge of crafting a story around the songs Loesser had already written, all while staying truthful to Runyon's inimitable way with phraseology. Under that difficult task, Burrows succeeded better than anyone could have imagined (himself included). Though with George S. Kaufman hired as director, Burrows had the invaluable contributions of one of the finest comic minds in the business. Together (along with Loesser's endless ideas for songs and gags), Guys and Dolls was that rare show: a hit from its first Philadelphia performance in its out of town tryout.

Jo Swerling, to his dying day, felt robbed of what he considered his rightful share of credit for his work on Guys and Dolls. But the simple truth is that Abe Burrows didn't use Swerling's book, a fact corroborated by the show's entire creative team. But Swerling demanded his name be listed as co-author in all ads and programs, as well as receiving royalty points for all future productions, which now go to his heirs. I mention this only because in giving Burrows his proper props, I am being faithful to how it went down nearly seventy years ago.

Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows (1961).

I've always felt that Guys and Dolls, due to the nature of its superb craftsmanship, was indestructible, and that there could be no such thing as a bad production. Unfortunately, it became all too true that a statement like that would one day prove false when a completely misguided Broadway revival opened at the Nederlander Theatre in 2009. I won’t mention the names of the poor actors who struggled under such tone-deaf misdirection, but I have no problem citing Des McAnuff as its perpetrator. Why this director felt a need to reinterpret such rich material, thinking he could “improve” Guys and Dolls with showy tricks and bizarre projections, is beyond me. The reviews were horrendous and it closed quickly (but not quick enough), inflicting enough damage that it'll easily be another ten years before anyone has the courage to remount a new Broadway production.

In the meantime, if any of you are reading this and will be in the vicinity of Boston between July 5th through the 21st, consider driving the extra 45 minutes south to Plymouth and catch Guys and Dolls at the Priscilla Beach Theatre. I promise I have no tricks up my sleeve ... and it'll be better than aces back-to-back!

Rehearsing “Luck Be a Lady” for Guys and Dolls, opening July 5th in Plymouth, MA.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at