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).|
My time of day is the dark timeHow 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.
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.
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)|
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)|
|Guys and Dolls (www.playbill.com)|
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.spoonercentral.com) High times and bad times in period New York (www.britannica.com)|
|Glitz, gangsters and gamblers rubbing shoulders in Hollywood takes on New York.|
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- 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.|
Guys & Dolls - onstage through July 25th.
Click here or call 919-962-7529 for tickets or more information.