Theatre yesterday and today



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In Friday's column, I explored what has made Guys and Dolls such a perennial, and why it is still considered (after nearly seventy years) to be close to the top of the list of the greatest Broadway musicals ever written for the stage. It's a combination of factors, for sure: a winning score and extremely funny book, with juicy roles for four co-leads, who all wind up married in lovable love stories. But how did the first actors to play such iconic parts as Miss Adelaide, Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson and Miss Sarah Brown find themselves cast back in 1950? Well, see ... it sort of went like this:

Finding actors who could easily pull off the patois of Damon Runyon’s blend of low and high class dialect was a very specific order. The first to come to mind was Sam Levene, who made his Broadway debut in 1927 in a short-lived melodrama titled Wall Street, but later had far better showcases for his talents, appearing in such hits as 1932’s Dinner at Eight, by Edna Ferber and George S. Kauffman; George Abbott and John Cecil Holm’s Three Men on a Horse in 1935 (playing a New York gambler not unlike Nathan Detroit), and Allen Boretz and John Murray’s Room Service, in the leading role of Gordon Miller (1937). Born Scholem Lewin on August 28, 1905 in Russia, Levene always had a rough-around-the-edges quality that served him well throughout a prolific career, that included originating the role of Al Lewis in Neil Simon’s hit comedy The Sunshine Boys (opposite Jack Albertson). He also played in numerous films as early as 1936, when he recreated the role of Patsy in the movie version of Three Men and a Horse. He would go on working on stage and on film until near to the end of his life, with his final role in 1979 in … and justice for all, in which he appeared with Lee Strasberg and the film’s star, Al Pacino.

Sam Levene, in The Killers, one of the two dozen film in which he appeared, between 1936–1950.

Levene brought a much-needed expertise to Guys and Dolls, since he was the only one of its four leads who had previously appeared on a Broadway stage. Vivian Blaine, a wonderful actress, spent the early part of her career in Hollywood, which is where she first auditioned, not for Miss Adelaide, but for Miss Sarah. The producers thought she was too strong in voice and appearance for the prim ingenue (and they were right). But a month or so later, when Blaine was in New York City walking down West 54th Street, the producers spotted her, although at first they almost didn't recognize her, as she was now a newly-dyed blonde. Now looking more like an Adelaide, she re-auditioned for Loesser and won the part, proving irreplaceable when she was the only one of the original foursome to repeat her performance in the 1955 film version. Blaine was so committed to the role that she developed her own psychosomatic illness, exactly like Miss Adelaide. "I had a cold the first six months of the show," she said. "But it was all in my mind."

Vivian Blaine as a cover girl.

Robert Alda was an actor who got his start as a singer and dancer in vaudeville, then later in burlesque. In 1945, he got his big break when he was cast as George Gershwin in the 1945 film Rhapsody in Blue. It marked Alda's screen debut, and though the film was a hit, it failed to bring him bigger and better roles. By the time of Guys and Dolls, he didn't have much going on and was grateful for the chance to play Sky Masterson, in what at age thirty-six, would be his first Broadway show. His suave manner and excellent singing won him the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. He is, of course, the father of Alan Alda, who managed to play Sky himself in summer stock, years before he became a household name.

Last hired (only three days before rehearsals were to start) Isabel Bigley was a mere twenty-two when she landed the role of Miss Sarah. Her only previous experience was when Richard Rodgers personally picked her as Laurey for Oklahoma's! much-anticipated London premiere. As big a hit as it was in New York, Bigley wound up playing in it on the West End stage for three years. For Guys and Dolls, her Broadway debut, she earned the Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony. A lead in Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1953 Me and Juliet followed, but then after that, Bigley devoted the rest of her life to her wealthy husband Lawrence Barnett's philanthropy. Married fifty-three years, until her death in 2006, the Barnetts were responsible for giving away millions and millions of dollars for a host of charitable causes.

Robert Alda and Isabel Bigley as Sky Masterson and Miss Sarah (1950).

Lastly was the casting of Stubby Kaye in the supporting role of Nicely Nicely Johnson. Based on a character in the Runyon stories, Nicely is described as a thin man, yet a prodigious eater. When Kaye auditioned, he had been touring the country and doing U.S.O. shows around the world, in an act featuring him performing songs and impressions, billed as "An Extra Padded Attraction" (he weighed more than 275 lbs). Abe Burrows has written that the idea of Nicely being played by someone of Kaye's stature wasn't in the cards, but he had such a charming quality (and strong tenor), that with his casting, a prerequisite was set that a heavyset man would be the standard forever after. That's only partially the case, as somehow Burrows must have either forgotten (or possibly never seen), a Henry Fonda-Lucille Ball movie titled The Big Street. Released in 1942, it was based on a Runyon story titled Little Pinks, and featured the character of Nicely Nicely Johnson, played by Eugene Pallette, an actor (like Kaye), of unmitigated girth.

A Tale of Two Nicelys: Stubby Kaye and Eugene Pallette.

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