Theatre yesterday and today



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Happy Thanksgiving … and Happy Anniversary to Guys and Dolls, which opened seventy years ago tonight on Broadway. Having recently directed it in summer stock in 2018, I can attest that its effect on our Plymouth, Mass audience was one of unadulterated joy. I marveled at how many of the jokes still played and even dared one actor in the role of Lt. Brannigan to make one nearly impossible line work; an ancient reference to a show that closed in 1923. “You look like the male chorus of Blossom Time” — and dammit if he didn’t score a big laugh!

The original production of Guys and Dolls (1950).

My first exposure to it was as a kid in the 1960s watching Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando as Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson on my parents’ black and white TV. I was instantly captivated by composer-lyricist Frank Loesser’s winning score, even if three songs were cut, and two were replaced with inferior ones (“A Bushel and a Peck” became “Pet Me, Poppa” and Brando warbled “A Woman in Love” instead of duetting on “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”). One entirely new one inserted was a solo for Sinatra, “Adelaide,” which is charming, but unnecessary.

Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine (the only one of the quartet to repeat her stage performance) in the film of Guys and Dolls (1955).

My experience with its stage productions began with a 1976 Broadway revival I saw while still at college (with an all-Black cast), followed by a London production in 1984, and then again on Broadway in 1992, in a loving restoration so successful it nearly ran as long as the original, falling fifty-eight performances shy of topping it. The strength of its construction and pitch-perfect score has never ceased to amaze me. I was in it as a teenager (a seventeen-year-old as the middle-aged Benny Southstreet) and got to see it many times as performed at my children’s elementary school where my nine-year-old son was Nicely-Nicely Johnson, and my seven-year-old daughter was Miss Adelaide (they were both FANTASTIC!).

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 when the New York Daily News called it “A perfect musical comedy!” And the famed 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.” Though New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson may have 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.”

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 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. It’s a mix of very formal speech (no contractions) and hilarious slang, an example illustrated best from the short story “The Idyll of Sarah Brown” (the basis of Guys and Dolls pulls its main storyline) when 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.”