Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Beating the Odds: How Guys and Dolls Conquered Broadway, America, and the World

by Gregory Kable

Part Two: America and the World, or My Time of Day

Frank Loesser rehearsing Marlon Brando and Edward Hopper's poignant Nighthawks (1942).
(www.mtishowspace.comwww.mtishowspace.com) (www.edwardhopper.net)
My time of day is the dark time
A couple of deals before dawn
When the street belongs to the cop

And the janitor with the mop
And the grocery clerks are all gone
When the smell of the rain-washed pavement
Comes up clean and fresh and cold
And the street lamp light fills the gutter with gold
That's my time of day.
How might we account for the incredible staying power of Guys and Dolls? Without question, its combined strengths of original plotlines, deft characters and arresting score are prime factors. But a wealth of other musicals without this show’s devoted audiences or longevity can boast of the same. Instead we can place Guys and Dolls among a handful of musicals which are quintessentially American in spirit and tone and which have become internationally beloved as unique affirmations of foundational principles. Even the briefest roster would include as diverse a collection as Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!, and Ragni, Rado and MacDermot’s Hair. Beyond their spectacular achievements as musical theatre, perhaps an answer lies in the social context for each of these essential classics, and Guys and Dolls can be productively approached from this direction as well.

Standing at the midpoint of the American Century, 1950 afforded a timely opportunity for assessing the nation’s trajectory. America had endured two World Wars and economic calamity, and the tide of modernism had been rising at a steady pace since the 20s with urban displacement of an agrarian society one decisive result of this transition. The life of Damon Runyon himself is one expression of the shifting dynamic.

Alfred Damon Runyan (the surname Runyon the legacy of a newspaper typo) was born, prophetically, in Manhattan, Kansas in 1880. Raised in Pueblo, Colorado, he became a newspaperman by the age of fifteen, covering sports, crime and courtroom beats as a star reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s publishing empire. Once settling in New York, Runyon brought both an outsider’s fascination with and Midwesterner’s critical eye to the epicenter of modern America. Following the Wall Street crash and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, Runyon found a new income stream in the fiction that would secure his legacy.

The Beggar's Opera (www.music.org)
The Granddaddy of Guys and Dolls and arguably the American Musical, is the 18th century English Ballad Opera, The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay (1728), a rollicking satire on human and social corruption with a gleefully depicted underworld serving as a funhouse mirror of respectable British society.

Gay’s innovation was to reset existing English melodies to new lyrics suitable to his needs. The method surprised and delighted audiences who could come in humming the tunes, undercut the heightened romance, heroic stature, and foreign languages of the dominant grand opera, and overnight established a vogue for vernacular musical entertainments, and the kind of “light” or comic opera that the Victorian team of Gilbert and Sullivan would further immortalize.

Never one to pass on dramatically sound existing material, German playwright Bertolt Brecht returned to Gay’s masterwork in collaboration with composer Kurt Weill for their adaptation entitled The Threepenny Opera. Premiering in 1928, this updated reboot would become one of the most important and influential musicals of the century. Although Brecht and Weill’s piece would fizzle on Broadway in 1933, finding delayed success two decades later in a landmark Off-Broadway production, its appearance in the 20s suggests that the vein of exploiting urbanism, and especially its criminal class for fun and profit was there to be mined.

(www.threepennyopera.org) The Threepenny Opera (www.last.fm)
The pointedness of Gay’s outrageousness and Brecht’s politics may be absent in Frank Loesser, but those predecessors would certainly recognize a kinship with their own experiments and the shrewdness of making such subject matter deeply pleasurable. “The proof of the pudding,” Brecht was fond of repeating, “is in the eating,” and Loesser’s audiences, like those of Gay and Brecht/Weill before him, clearly couldn’t get enough. As much as George M. Cohan, George and Ira Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had earlier in the century, Loesser’s Guys and Dolls would put its indelible stamp on our collective consciousness of what New York City is all about.

Guys and Dolls (www.playbill.com)
Thus, if Loesser and Abe Burrows engaged in the ongoing project of reshaping American mythology (the credited Jo Swerling withdrew from the project at an early stage but was contractually protected to be listed co-author), they built not only on the trifecta of Gay, Brecht, and Runyon, but upon another prominent figure of the interwar and postwar years.

Walter Winchell was ubiquitous in newspapers, radio and television from the 30s to the 50s helping popularize the same kind of punchy style and striking use of American idioms which characterized Runyon’s pieces, as well as (for better or worse) fueling the fixation on American celebrity, a focus which has ballooned to today’s gargantuan proportions. Like Runyon, Winchell retailored New York as the glorious, glamorous, gaudy heart of national culture, providing colorful ballast to the dreariness, predictability, and sacrificial ethos endemic to the Depression and the nation’s slow recovery.

Newsman and personality Walter Winchell offered relief from America's starker realties.
(www.britannica.com) (www.vintage-ads.livejournal.com)
Given both men’s high-profiles and their special delights, the Runyon-Winchell Manhattan became enshrined as the truth of the times. Their New York City was the bold, brash image the metropolis craved for itself, and consequently internalized as authentic memory. And from the opening sequence entitled “Runyonland”, Loesser and his collaborators recognize how full and loving a portrait of modern America was contained within this potent mix of outsized ambitions, sympathy and cynicism, and a promise of wish-fulfillment.

(www.spoonercentral.com) High times and bad times in period New York (www.britannica.com)
It is this heady air that is so blissfully captured in Guys and Dolls, preserving in equal measure the sentiment and snap of the American life. If transplanting pastoral romance to big city environs wasn’t exactly new, it still felt sincere enough to ring true given the historical moment of Guys and Dolls, coming just before the explosion of the suburbs transformed the national psyche once more.

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Guys and Dolls embodies both the hustle and wistful tenderness of the city, a union speaking to the intersection of an abiding faith in American innocence with our parallel drive for greater experience. Sky Masterson’s hymn to the city dweller’s senses of place and self introducing this essay is a disarmingly intimate turn so characteristic of Loesser’s whole. From start to finish his New York City is personified with as much devotion as any character—two of its defining features, the skyline and subway, literal signifiers of those brass rings of aspiration and mobility, the reach and the freedom that built and continue to inspire America. The zip and rush of the contemporary world offset the habit of trading in nostalgia, but Guys and Dolls still finds ample time for quietly reflective moments as in a painting by Edward Hopper. In this fusion, the piece’s emotional power is unforced, organic and satisfyingly earned.

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Glitz, gangsters and gamblers rubbing shoulders in Hollywood takes on New York.
(www.moviepostershop.com) (www.gettyimages.com) (www.antiquegamblingchips.com)
What, then, are some of Loesser’s life lessons musicalized in Guys and Dolls? Submitted for your approval is a Lucky 7 of extrapolations:

  • If the national character is equal parts passion, optimism and irony, Musical Comedy is one of its most perfect and telling expressions.
  • Virtue and vice are inextricably bound in a host of our enduring works, likewise sentiment and satire.
  • Similarly, all extremes of morality or sin threaten us with a diminished life. This is nowhere more pronounced than in the turnabouts following the show’s Havana interlude.
  • Our history is not one of constant upheaval. A peaceful progress can even be traced between our pastoral past and urban present.
  • American success and happiness are just as predicated on luck as on pluck. The Puritan work ethic isn’t everything. Timing and “chemistry” as Sky maintains, are also verities. In that respect, both Plymouth Rock and Las Vegas are key memorials.
  • Always take your best shot and err on the side of trust. If not, you might let a sizable windfall or precious chance at love pass you by.
  • On the flip side of that last injunction, if a wager seems too good to be true, decline it and happily avoid “an earful of cider”.

Vitality and Variety: Salvationists and Showgirls sharing Guys and Dolls' spotlight.
(www.pinterest.com/thesalarmyctri) (www.takemeback.to)
In these and other respects, Guys and Dolls endures as a musical monument to Whitman-esque ideals, showcasing our nation’s time of day in a one-in-a-million town in which one can’t help but hear and respond to America singing. In any sweepstakes of urban Americana it’s truly better than even money that Guys and Dolls finds a place in the winner’s circle.

(www.newyork-wallpapers.com)                                                  (www.allposters.com)

Guys & Dolls - onstage through July 25th.

Click here or call 919-962-7529 for tickets or more information.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Beating the Odds: How Guys and Dolls Conquered Broadway, America, and the World

by Gregory Kable

Part One: Broadway, or Luck Be a Lady

“All life is six-to-five against.”

As one of Damon Runyon’s signature aphorisms reinforces, it was never a sure thing. When producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin landed on Runyon’s fiction as the basis for a follow-up to their sole Broadway musical to date, 1939’s Where’s Charley?, based on the Victorian cross-dressing farce Charley’s Aunt, they immediately turned to the composer of that previous hit, Frank Loesser, who readily took to the gamble.

Doubtless, Runyon’s peculiar appeal, Prohibition-era tales steeped in such specificity, irony, and a droll objectivity accounting for their humor on the page, made them even more unusual a source for musical treatment than the Brandon Thomas chestnut. But adding to the uncertainty of the venture, Broadway exited the 1940s less invested in romance and fancy than a sober, searching realism. The towering dramas of post-WW2 America, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, blazed the path for such 50s classics as Come Back, Little Sheba, Tea and Sympathy and The Crucible. Reinforced by the sobriety of films like Gentleman’s Agreement, On the Waterfront, and the landmark movie adaptation of Streetcar. American art ushered in an era of grit and frankness whose collective glare confirmed the truth of Williams’ surrogate self in The Glass Menagerie, whose protagonist rhapsodizes, “nowadays the world is lit by lightning!”

Neon Wonderland: New York’s Times Square in the Age of Runyon.


Despite its position as a national institution in postwar popular culture, even the musical was not immune. Long considered a delightful diversion, the genre’s historical highlights were as significant for their relative rarity as for their trumping of standing conventions. Suddenly the musical had upped its game, as the 40s trended toward greater integration among the elements of a show (its story, songs, and staging) which retreated from traditions of freewheeling creativity toward a more contained verisimilitude. By the late 40s an unapologetic fantasy like Finian’s Rainbow, intersecting love stories, political satire and leprechauns, would stand as the exception that proves the rule—under the influence of the teaming of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the musical was increasingly honoring logic and probability. 1943’s Oklahoma!, followed by Carousel and South Pacific were heralded as the genre’s welcome and long-delayed maturation.

But not everyone was buying. The musical still suffered a lack of full critical acceptance. In his groundbreaking 1946 study The Playwright as Thinker, the formidable scholar Eric Bentley dismissed the genre wholesale as crude folk art succeeding on stage through the thinnest distractions of song, dance, and spectacle, in Bentley’s words, “embellishments on a scarecrow”, which summarizes his patronizing stance. But even Bentley would change his tune a decade later, including Guys and Dolls among a quintet of representative American Dramas in an anthology of works due respect and esteem, lionizing the piece both “the best of all musical comedies” and “an organic product of American life.” Like the Salvationists forming one half of the landscape of Guys and Dolls, Bentley became a convert.

Still, the accolades were in its future. In development, Guys and Dolls remained a wild card in a more regulated gaming environment, and its producers were doing what they could to even the board. Loesser proved an invaluable asset, writing prospective songs at the breakneck speed of a thoroughbred, while the thorny issue of a useable storyline seemed a bigger obstacle than initially thought. That pull of Rodgers and Hammerstein was strong, and the earliest concept for Guys and Dolls was a straightforward love story between two sharply opposed personalities (the most recent model being that hard-won romance between French planter Emile De Becque and Midwestern nurse Nellie Forbush in the Pulitzer Prize-winning South Pacific).

American Originals: Damon Runyon (1884-1946) & Frank Loesser (1910-1969)

(www.digitaldeliftp.com) (www.greatentertainersarchive.blogspot.com)

It took a dozen attempts to solve the problems with the book, before veteran comic Abe Burrows proved the perfect foil to that enervating tone of misguided sincerity. Burrows was an effortless match for the Runyon style, most notably in his beloved radio show Duffy’s Tavern which, like Runyon’s fiction, was long on locale, idiosyncrasy, and vividly vernacular characters and speech. It was Burrows who skewed the story toward comedy which paradoxically strengthened the romance. As with the complementary relationship between these structural features, Loesser and Burrows seemed as potently synchronous. For all of its sense of cohesion, Burrows was primarily fitting s story around Loesser’s completed tunes and lyrics, the antithetical approach to the unifying principle of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show. That the seams aren’t visible and the narrative and numbers dovetail so easily in and out of one another is a testament to the daring, artistry and imaginative breadth of both composer and bookwriter. The additions of the legendary George S. Kaufman as director and the robust Michael Kidd as choreographer only further sweetened both the pot and its prospects. Guys and Dolls opened in November 1950 and ran for an impressive 1,200 performances. Lady Luck had clearly descended and been charmed into turning all of those risks to rewards.

Rolling the Dice: The Colorful Denizens of Runyonland Sing and Dance on Broadway.

                  (www.oldscrolls.com) (www.bluegobo.com)

Those “six-to-five” odds from Runyon’s opening epigraph had been outpaced and the show paid huge dividends. Guys and Dolls became an instant classic, and Loesser the hottest property in town. A resurgence in Runyon’s work was one happy consequence (he had died in 1946), and Feuer and Martin’s reputations were secured. They would again team with Loesser and Burrows for the perennially popular How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1961. And in a turn of events worthy of a Broadway musical, this final collaboration would itself garner the Pulitzer Prize, capping the careers of its creators and further cementing the status of the genre. As only the fourth musical to win the coveted award to that point, it also again argued for the equality of musical comedy with that more serious minded form of the musical play. Just as in Guys and Dolls, it was payoffs and happy endings all around. Perhaps the impetus lay in that initial challenge of probable defeat calculated in Runyon’s “six-to-five” odds. As Runyon himself continued, that imbalance is “just enough to keep you interested.” Audiences have been enraptured ever since, and the show’s fervent gestation period mirrors that of the essential action of Guys and Dolls: shared leaps into the unknown with utopian hopes of reconciling conflicts, both instances speaking to and embodying “A Musical Fable of Broadway.”

Next Up: Beating the Odds, Part Two: America and the World.

See the PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory production of Guys and Dolls July 15-25.

Click here or call 919-962-7529 for tickets or more information.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Associate Artistic Director Jeff Meanza
Takes Guys & Dolls Back to Its Roots

Jeff Meanza counts his nine summers overseeing the Summer Youth Conservatory as “incredibly close to my heart” and “without a doubt my favorite part of what we do here at PlayMakers.” Jeff‘s managed the SYC program since its inception in 2007, presenting acclaimed shows like The Music Man, Oliver! and last year’s hit production of Hairspray. So, it’s only fitting that he crown his SYC experience by directing one of the all-time great musicals – Guys & Dolls.

Jeff says, “I love the source material of the original Damon Runyon stories. They’re great chronicles of New York life in the 1930s. One of the things I’m interested in tackling by directing this show is exploring the musical within that context of Broadway in its early heyday.

PlayMakers Associate Artistic Director, Jeff Meanza
Guys & Dolls is rich in its history, its sophisticated storytelling, and its gorgeous music.” – director Jeff Meanza 

“We’re creating a show driven by the deep need of the characters – gamblers such as Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit, show girls typified by Miss Adelaide, and other larger than life inhabitants of the Great White Way of that era – these are all people who are fighting in a high stakes game of life. To that end, we’ve taken it back to the time when the short stories were written, the 1930s, and this has inspired every element of our production. We think this gives it a fresh and exciting new lens through which we can enjoy and appreciate it even more.

“The scale of this show is gigantic. We have to capture the dynamic energy of New York as well as the intimacy of two love stories. The set and lighting will be evocative of the darkly glamorous world of 1930s Broadway, providing a noir-ish quality to the New York scenes. In stark contrast, the bright, vibrant world of Havana will be saturated with color and energy. The costumes are richly period and inspired by photographs from the 30s.

“Come to experience Guys & Dolls like you’ve never seen it before. We’ll have all the great songs and show-stopping numbers of the dazzling, iconic musical, but the characters will live and breathe as Damon Runyon created them.”

Join us when Guys & Dolls comes alive at PlayMakers July 15-25.

Click here for tickets or more information or call our Box Office at 919.962.7529.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A New Look at an Iconic Musical: Robin Vest’s Scenic Design for Guys & Dolls

Scenic designer Robin Vest returns to PlayMakers to create the set for Guys & Dolls. She’s an SYC veteran, having designed last summer’s colorful take on 1960s Baltimore for Hairspray. Her other designs for PlayMakers include the sets for A Raisin in the Sun/Clybourne Park and Shipwrecked! An Entertainment.

Robin says “The most exciting thing about designing this Guys & Dolls is that director Jeff Meanza chose to set it in the 1930s, when the original stories on which the show is based were written. This really gave me an opportunity to re-invent the Paul Green Theatre and forget my preconceived notions of a bright graphic 1940s-50s set (the period the musical debuted on Broadway).

“I started by looking at photos of Times Square in the 1930s and Bernice Abbott's book Changing New York, a collection of photos of all the neighborhoods of Manhattan, taken in the late 1930s for the WPA (FDR’s Works Project Administration).

“New York was a bustling place in the 1930s, but the spectacle of Times Square looks seedier. There's less neon with more signs made of light bulbs. I was also taken with the fact that there were American flags hanging from the lampposts up and down the streets surrounding Times Square. The Great Depression was a very patriotic time. We were choosing not to enter the war brewing in Europe and put our energies on healing the country.

“I needed a sort of glue to hold all these ideas together in the theatre space and that became the image of “the subway.” I started with the wall upstage housing the band being modeled after details of a subway car. Then, when I was looking for inspiration for the floor the 1939 subway map followed.

“We set out to make a collage effect that reflects the story, the time, and the energy of 1930s Broadway. When we go to specific locations in the play, such as The Hot Box Club or Havana, we light up signs or add small pieces, we don't do big changes.

“Anything can happen in New York. At any moment you can be anyone or find yourself somewhere new.”

Join us to experience our new look at Guys & Dolls - onstage July 15-25.

Click here for tickets or more information or call our Box Office at 919.962.7529.