With each major production, a new footnote is made in the history of Guys and Dolls. From the original Broadway production in 1950 to the most recent Broadway revival in 2009, the show has grown and morphed into this musical juggernaut. Though each version tries to tweak the show in some fashion, the core concept remains the same: tell the story truthfully.
The original Broadway production opened in 1950 at the 46th Street Theatre. Audiences at the time did not know what to expect when they took their seats that opening night. Besides the typical musical theatre fan, the audience would have been full of critics, ready to skewer the show should it not fit their sensibilities, and a lot of Damon Runyon fans, nervous of how the stage would treat some of their favorite characters. The Runyon fans had nothing to worry about, and the critics found little to nothing wrong. In his review of the original production, Richard Watts of the New York Post had this to say: “Guys and Dolls is just what it should be to celebrate the Runyon spirit, vigorous, noisy, humorous, tough on the surface and shamelessly sentimental underneath, filled with the salty characters and richly original language sacred to the memory of the Master, and a pleasure to all beholders” (Garebian 122).
As I mentioned previously, Feur and Martin put together an amazing team to work on the musical: Frank Loesser writing music and lyrics, Abe Burrows (eventually) writing the book, with George S. Kaufman directing, and Michael Kidd providing choreography. Once they had a story to work from, the arduous process of casting began. There were several theatrical veterans in the ranks of the cast, including former vaudeville stars Netta Packer and Pat Rooney, Jr. commandeering the roles of General Matilda B. Cartwright and Brother Arvide Abernathy, respectively (Garebian 90). But it was the leads and the supporting cast that really took hold of the production; the triumvirate of Stubby Kaye as Nicely, B.S. Pully as Big Jule, and Johnny Silver as Benny Southstreet fulfilled the production’s wise-guy quota. They made their characters much larger than life, and really tried to bring the Runyon experience to the stage. It is no wonder that besides Vivian Blaine, these three were the only cast members to reprise their roles in the film version.
The leads were a force to be reckoned with as well. Robert Alda, father of M*A*S*H star Alan Alda, took the romantic lead of Sky Masterson while his mission doll, Sarah Brown, was played by Isabel Bigley. The seminal part of Miss Adelaide was Vivian Blaine’s from the moment she was spotted by the producers:
Vivian Blaine was spotted by Feur and Martin…Fluffy-haired and blonde at the time, she was jouncing along on shapely leg, and although she was loaded down with packages, she looked cute…The actress turned her blue eyes to them and said how nice it was to see them again. Feur and Martin had disappointed her in Hollywood when she auditioned for the part of Sarah Brown. They had told her she was too strong in voice and appearance for the prim ingénue. Now she amiably put that out of her mind as she chatted politely with them…Then Martin said to her: “You know, you’d be wonderful as a honkytonk stripper.” “I beg your pardon?” “I mean, how’d you like to play the comedienne, Miss Adelaide?” “I’ll try anything once” (Garebian 94).
She joined Sam Levene as Nathan Detroit. Sadly, though Levene was the ideal choice to play the charming Nathan, he could not sing a note to save his soul. Loesser had written several solos and duets between Detroit and other characters. They now all had to be cut, much to the consternation of Levene. Instead, he was left with “Sue Me”, the fourth to last song of the show. With this, Levene could easily speak the song and leave the singing to Blaine.
The show played its previews in Philadelphia, and the theatre gods were watching down on the production. Scared of how the audience would react, he sat there a bundle of nerves. They seemed to love “Runyonland” and the opening ballet, but, as Keith Garebian explains:
He didn’t have to worry long, for the three horseplayers, Nicely-Nicely, Benny Southstreet, and Rusty Charlie, strolled to center stage with their racing forms, a solo trumpet in the orchestra plays the First Call heard before a big race. The audience shook with the laughter of “instant recognition,” and Burrows realized that they weren’t simply laughing at a joke-line but at the characters, milieu, and situation. At the final curtain, the audience went mad, shouting and screaming its approval. Turning to his wife, Burrows kissed her on the cheek and said: “We’re home” (114).
By the time the show reached the Great White Way, the critics had heard the hubbub from Philadelphia, and were waiting with baited breath. Thankfully, the show did not disappoint. Every review was a rave, and almost every critic agreed that the cast was the greatest asset to the performance (Garebian 123). The show ran for 1,200 performances, and went on to win 8 Tony Awards, including Best Actor (for Robert Alda), Supporting Actress (for Isabel Bigley), Director, Producers, Book, Composer and Lyricist, Choreographer, and Best Musical (Garebian 124).
Guys and Dolls would eventually open in England, with several members of the original cast: reprising their roles were Vivian Blaine, Sam Levene, Stubby Kaye, Johnny Silver, and Tom Pedi as Harry the Horse. Audiences over there loved it, clamored for more. Even when Blaine was booed on opening night, the entire audience turned on the small section that protested. There would be several West End revivals over the next several decades. The casts were always superb, and included such celebrities as Imelda Staunton (Adelaide), Bob Hoskins (Nathan), Ewan Macgregor (Sky), and Jane Krakowski (Adelaide).
Similar to many other musicals of the time period, a film version was destined to follow at some point. However, there were a number of problems that plagued the casting and filming process. First and foremost was the casting of smooth Frank Sinatra as not-so-smooth Nathan Detroit. Casting Sinatra meant that there needed to be changes to a lot of the music: songs that Nathan was never a part of were now predominantly his solos, including the title song, which was only Benny and Nicely on stage. Frank Loesser repeatedly got in fights with Sinatra over the proper way to sing the songs; sadly, Sinatra never budged, and he would later regret being involved with the film (Garebian 128). The other casting issue was Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson. Now, from an acting standpoint, Brando can easily pull off the smooth, roguish charm that was required. However, like Sam Levene, Brando could not sing a note to save his life. When it came time to record his songs, they did multiple takes in the studio, and they later edited them all together, stringing the correct notes together whenever they occurred (Garebian 130). The film made a considerable amount of money, but there were far too many changes made to the script and tone of the show. It seemed to lose a massive chunk of its humor.
1976 Motown Revival
The 1976 revival was the first big departure from the way the show had been done originally. Though under the supervision and guidance of Abe Burrows, the entire show was performed by an African American cast, and the show worked remarkably well. There were several changes made to the tone of the songs – “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and “I’ll Know” were considerably altered to more jazzy orchestrations while “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” was definitely a revivalist number now – and several lines were altered to reflect a more urban and less Jewish sensibility: in “I’ll Know”, Sky’s line before Sarah sings the chorus has been changed to “…You have wished yourself a real dumb character. A square thinking, pencil pushing type” (Cast Recording 3). The changes were necessary to make the changes in ethnicity truly fit; this was not a color-blind casting situation. The goal of the piece was to see if it would truly work without a white cast. And did it ever:
Putting aside the flaws of flimsy sets and sparse choreography, Gussow noted the “black” assets: the funkiness of Ernestine Jackson’s rendition of “If I Were a Bell;” the Duke Ellington accents in James Randolph’s version of “My Time of Day;” Robert Guillaume’s “deadpan and offhanded” Nathan, “somewhat in the manner of Billy Cosby;” and Ken Page’s Nicely-Nicely that turned “Sit Down” into a hand-clapping, tambourine-slapping gospel song, “a soul-stopper (two deserved encores on opening night) that almost obliterates the memory of the seemingly unforgettable Stubby Kaye in the original 1950 Broadway production” (Garebian 133).
Yes, there were changes made, but they never really distracted the audience away from the material. It also was a blessing to have Abe Burrow at the helm, making sure the changes were still faithful to his original script.
When it was announced that there was going to be another revival of Guys and Dolls, many worried as to how the show would fare. The original production and film were very consistent on how the material should be treated, and it was far too soon to do another production like the 1976 revival. Director Jerry Zaks had his own work cut out for him. Like the original production, he established a top-notch cast to play this amazing show.
Peter Gallagher claimed the role of Sky Masterson, and though a bit younger than Sky should be, he lent a suaveness and sultriness that was missing from Alda. It came to be very apparent why Sarah would fall for such a gambler. As his sparring partner, Josie de Guzman was Sarah Brown. Though she was not the original choice, after a difficult time with their leading lady, Zaks moved de Guzman up from the ensemble, and she had the spark that Sarah needed to go head-to-head with Sky.
Though Nathan and Adelaide are the secondary romantic couple, you would not have thought that after seeing the revival. Nathan Lane has become the perfect Detroit; most productions have their Nathan attempt to emulate what he does based on the recording and clips of the performance. He was a Nathan that could actually sing: “and in the ‘Sue Me’ number, usually done as a throwaway, he and his director found something dramatic. Lane revealed a Nathan sincerely struggling to convince Adelaide that he loved her, and his modulations into tenderness and affection were heartwarming” (Garebian 141). In addition, Faith Prince gave new life to Adelaide. She was not afraid to be sensual and hilarious at the same time.
The entire production looked as though it were a Technicolor cartoon. This was not your mother’s Guys and Dolls. There was still a strong sense of realism, but the entire design was a stylized version of New York, and it was a wonderful way of reinventing the show for a whole new generation.
2009 Revival (Des McAnuff)
Broadway had another brand new revival of Guys and Dolls just a few short years ago. Like the 1992 Jerry Zaks production, they sought to take a new look at the material. Sadly, the show floundered under the weight of the changes.
Though Runyon’s stories were written in the 1930s, the show always took place circa the year of the first production: 1950. In the new production, Director Des McAnuff made the decision to go back to the 1930s; gone were the bright Technicolor suits and colorful scenery. Instead, audiences were treated to a realistic and somewhat serious musical comedy. I believe the show can be done this way, but it needed a cast that could still treat Burrows and Runyon’s world with respect. That was not the case.
In the role of Nathan Detroit, McAnuff cast Oliver Platt. This was certainly not McAnuff’s best decision. Critic Ben Brantley summed it up in his review of the show: “…Mr. Platt never finds a sustained pattern of idiosyncrasies that would let him connect with Nathan (and the audience). His singing voice is agreeable, small but smooth, but it does not define a character. His hands often glued to the sides of his jacket, he has the stricken, nauseated expression of someone terrified of being fingered as an imposter” (New York Times). His Adelaide, as played by Lauren Graham of televisions “Gilmore Girls”, did not fare much better. According to several reviewers, there was no depth to her character. She stuck herself in the guise of a dumb blonde showgirl, and that goes against what Adelaide stands for.
The only characters that seemed to do well were Sky, Sarah, and Nicely. As Sky and Sarah, Craig Bierko and Kate Jennings Grant displayed a remarkable chemistry, and were pleasant enough in their singing. The showstopper was Titus Burgess as Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Contrary to Walter Bobbie in the Zaks revival, Titus was padded to make him as big as a house: just the way Nicely is depicted in Runyon’s stories. It also did not hurt that Titus has an amazingly powerful voice, and “Sit Down” was re-orchestrated as a massive gospel number. Sadly, the show did not last too long after the Tony Awards, closing after 121 performances (Ibdb.com 4).