GUYS AND DOLLS: THE GOLDEN AGE’S NEW GOLDEN AGER
By Peter Filichia
Turning sixty-five this week is one of the Broadway’s greatest musicals.
Indeed, some say it’s the all-time greatest.
Of course we’re talking about Guys and Dolls, which made its bow at the 46th Street Theatre on Nov. 24, 1950, not the 1992 revival heard here.
Many senior citizens who’ve reached this age wish they were in as good shape as this show. Proof positive of its worth is that no fewer than 159 productions are on tap between now and August, 2016 – not to mention ninety-seven productions of Guys and Dolls, Jr. – a one-hour abridgement for schoolkids — between now and March, 2017.
We have co-producer Ernest H. Martin’s wife to thank. She’s the one who decided to read a collection of Damon Runyon stories entitled Guys and Dolls. When Martin happened to mention to his partner Cy Feuer how his wife was spending her time, the title alone got Feuer excited.
The story that stuck out was “The Idyll of Sarah Brown,” named for the Salvation Army “soldieress” who happens to fall in love with her precise opposite: Sky Masterson, so nicknamed because the sky’s the limit when he bets. Feuer also liked crap game operator Nathan Detroit, and thought that this colorful character could figure into some romantic situations, too.
When Feuer and Martin told Frank Loesser that they’d secured the rights, the composer-lyricist, an inveterate Runyon fan, immediately said he wanted to do the score.
One can only wonder how this news struck the producers. Yes, the show they’d previously done with Loesser – Where’s Charley? – had been a hit, and was then en route to becoming the sixth-longest-running book musical in Broadway history. But let’s face it: Loesser’s work didn’t get raves. “A routine score” opined Ward Morehouse in the Sun. Brooks Atkinson of the Times – then the dean of drama critics — did have some nice remarks about Loesser’s work, but tempered them with “acceptable” and the word that everyone uses when he doesn’t want to say anything terribly critical or laudatory: “interesting.”
The producers also had to decide on a bookwriter. Another Runyon fan immediately showed interest: Paddy Chayefsky, then twenty-six years old and still years away from his Oscars for Marty, The Hospital and Network. Believe it or not, Chayefsky wanted to write the music, too, and repeatedly begged Feuer to give him both jobs. Finally, after many turn-downs, Chayefsky stopped asking, mad as hell, but determined not to take this rejection anymore.
Loesser did get the songwriting assignment; frequent Frank Capra writer Jo (It’s a Wonderful Life) Swerling landed the bookwriting job, but no plaudits from Feuer and Martin after they’d read it. Feuer thought the book needed more tension and came up with the idea of Nathan Detroit’s betting that Sky couldn’t get Sarah to go with him to Havana (back in a time when such a trip was easily accomplished). Swerling didn’t cotton to the idea, but the producers wouldn’t relent. Swerling fumed; Feuer fired. Alas, he’d had a contract that said he would retain first billing even if someone replaced him. Although both producers went to their graves insisting that Swerling had contributed virtually nothing, the man did stay on top of the billing and enjoyed a financial piece of the action, too.
The producers then went after Abe Burrows, who was then writing a hit radio series called Duffy’s Tavern (in which Duffy never appeared). They felt the characters that inhabited the watering hole weren’t far afield from Runyon’s. Burrows was reluctant, and Feuer had to do a sweet-talk job that would be worthy of a character in a future Feuer, Martin and Burrows musical: J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.
One reason Burrows said yes was the participation of George S. Kaufman, whom you’ve heard mentioned in “N.Y.C.” in Annie. Both men had been appearing as members of an early TV panel show called This Is Show Business and were enjoying each other’s company. So Burrows was thrilled when Kaufman was signed to direct Guys and Dolls.
Hmmm, why didn’t Feuer and Martin appeal to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kaufman to pen the book? Whatever the case, Kaufman did come up with one of script’s strongest ideas: Nathan has been constantly putting off nightclub chanteuse Miss Adelaide’s demand to be married for fourteen solid years.
This situation inspired one of the best moments in the show, one that you won’t find on the original cast album. It’s a reprise of “Adelaide’s Lament,” itself often considered the funniest show song of all time. Adelaide feels that the reason she’s so physically run-down is because she’s been getting the run-around from Nathan.
But in the second act, when she does the reprise, she sings to a much slower tempo, which gives us the time to see that the lady is really hurting. Although we’ve enjoyed Miss Adelaide as comic relief thus far, here’s where we come to truly care for her and want her to get what she wants.
The skillful way that Faith Prince sings this on the ’92 revival cast album may show why she received a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical. But she also had a good Nathan to play off of – one Nathan Lane, who seemed to be destined to do Guys and Dolls on Broadway. His real name was Joe Lane until he played Mr. Detroit in a stock production, became eligible to join Equity, found that another Joe Lane was already a member and honored his favorite character by adopting his name as his own.
Back in 1950, Broadway veteran Sam Levene was Nathan Detroit, but when his singing turned out to be less-than-stellar, Loesser cut two of his songs. One, “Traveling Light,” was dropped right before the premiere, with Levene learning of that decision in an unorthodox and (let’s face it) cruel way: Feuer held the overture and stood before the curtain on opening night to tell first-nighters that despite what their Playbills told them, “Traveling Light” would not be performed.
One wonders what Guys and Dolls would have been like in 1992 had those songs been reinserted. No, Nathan Lane is hardly a recording artist — there are no discs named Nathan Lane Goes Hawaiian or Nathan Lane’s Favorite Hymns – but the star who’s carried home two Tonys as Best Actor in a Musical can carry a tune, too. But you don’t mess with a masterpiece.
Lane’s two Tonys do not include Guys and Dolls; the star had to watch Gregory Hines of Jelly’s Last Jam take the prize. But Guys and Dolls was assuaged by a quartet of Tonys: Best Revival, Best Actress (Prince), Best Scenic Design (Tony Walton) and Best Direction (Jerry Zaks).
Note: Best Revival was its prize, not just Best Musical Revival. The Tonys hadn’t yet split the Revival category into Best Play Revival and Best Musical Revival; that wouldn’t happen for two more years. So Guys and Dolls technically beat thirteen other contenders that season and not just the three other musical revivals.
When we talk about great songs added out-of-town – “I’m Still Here,” “Edelweiss,” “Comedy Tonight” – let’s not forget “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York).” Believe it or not, it wasn’t in the show until well into the Philadelphia tryout. But the jaunty song is one reason – just one reason — why Guys and Dolls is one of the oldest established permanent smash-hits in New York — and everywhere else.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.