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The Archive: Guys and Dolls is still rockin’ the boat 65 years after it started

Riding as Sarah Brown in Richard Eyre’s 1996 production. Photo: John Haynes Riding as Sarah Brown in Richard Eyre’s 1996 production. Photo: John Haynes
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The quality of Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser’s masterpiece, was acknowledged almost as soon as it opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre on November 24, 1950. With a cast headed by subsequent Tony laureates Robert Alda (father of Alan) as Sky and Isabel Bigley as Sarah, there was undiluted praise for the magnificent score which contained not a weak number within the 16 songs included in the stage version. There was equal enthusiasm for the book, the joint work of Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, who took the short story The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown and added characters from other sagas written by Damon Runyon, the inimitable chronicler of old Broadway.

In the dialogue, the writers seamlessly managed to preserve that curious Runyonesque blend of the stately and the slang. Certainly the book for Guys and Dolls knocks spots off most Broadway libretti and this may be one of the reasons for its lasting success. In many ways, Guys and Dolls’ palpable strengths make it the perfect musical for those who dislike musicals. The critic David Ewen puts his finger on the appeal of the show in The New Complete Book of the American Musical Theatre. “It is wonderful entertainment in which audience interest is never allowed to relax. Like different parts of a solved jigsaw puzzle, each part is made to fit neatly into the complete picture and is basic to the overall pattern.”

Ewen quotes Burrows in the publication Theatre Arts. “Nothing isn’t in there that doesn’t belong. We didn’t care about how a single number or a scene would go. We didn’t concern ourselves with reprising songs for no reason at all. We cared about the whole show and nothing went in unless it fit. Everything fits. That must be what makes it a hit.”

Guys and Dolls is not simply beautifully crafted; it is also unusually witty. It is a musical comedy, after all, although one is often hard pressed to see any sign of the comedic in what are described as musical comedies. There are no such doubts with Guys and Dolls. The writers follow a time-honoured Broadway tradition in contrasting a straight romantic couple (Sky and Sarah) with a character comedy couple (Nathan and Miss Adelaide), and the laughs flow steadily when the latter duo is on stage, particularly when Adelaide is attempting the kind of brittle dialogue that she has guilelessly lifted from the movies.

The original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls went on to collect five Tony awards in total and it then transferred to London, opening at the Coliseum a few days before the Coronation in 1953.

Siubhan Harrison in the role of Sarah Brown at the Phoenix. Photo: Paul Coltas
Siubhan Harrison in the role of Sarah Brown at the Phoenix. Photo: Paul Coltas

Two years later, the film version was released to the accompaniment of much head-scratching among the commentariat. In a move that was not atypical of Hollywood, producer Samuel Goldwyn had cast two apparent non-singers in Marlon Brando as Sky and Jean Simmons as Sarah and signed Frank Sinatra, one of the 20th century’s great vocalists, in the practically non-singing role of Nathan Detroit.

Happily, Goldwyn had the good sense to stick with Vivian Blaine from the original Broadway cast as Miss Adelaide. One explanation for the entire situation is that Sam Levene, the original Nathan, could barely sing a note and therefore the only number that was assigned to him in the first production was Sue Me, a duet with Miss Adelaide that required the kind of singspiel that Rex Harrison would later employ in My Fair Lady.

However, the ever-obliging Loesser duly wrote Adelaide for Sinatra and A Woman in Love for Brando, who apparently had some difficulty with I’ve Never Been in Love Before. Some witnesses spoke of on-set tension between the two alpha male stars. It must have been awkward for Brando to belt out Luck Be a Lady with Sinatra at his elbow while Sinatra reportedly refused to leave his dressing-room while “Mumbles” was still in his view rehearsing.

Loesser arrived at the opening night triumph of Guys and Dolls by an unusually circuitous route. In Hollywood from 1937, he’d originally established himself as purely a lyricist before adding composing to his talents in the mid-1940s. As such, he wrote a number of standards including Thanks for the Memory, which comedian Bob Hope enlisted as his anthem for the rest of his lengthy career, and Baby, It’s Cold Outside, which won Loesser the best song Oscar in 1949. In the previous year he had enjoyed his first Broadway success with Where’s Charley?, an adaptation of Charley’s Aunt, the venerable farce by Brandon Thomas. His later musicals The Most Happy Fella (1956) and Greenwillow (1960) failed to match the success of Guys and Dolls but How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961) restored him to favour.

One should also mention Loesser’s outstanding film score for Hans Christian Andersen (1952), with Danny Kaye as the Danish teller of tales. Danes were apparently mortified by Hollywood’s colourful treatment of their national bard but babyboomers will have fond memories of endlessly hearing Loesser’s songs on the Children’s Favourites request show on the Light Programme during the 1960s. Loesser’s version of The Emperor’s New Clothes is sheer brilliance, and is an ideal way for Kaye to display his tongue-twisting skills.

A dedicated smoker, Loesser died of lung cancer in 1969.

It was about this time that the National Theatre made an unexpected appearance in the Guys and Dolls story. In those days, Broadway musicals were not considered to be suitable fare for audiences in subsidised theatres, but Laurence Olivier, the National’s artistic director, was plainly determined to see Guys and Dolls on his stage, casting himself as Nathan Detroit and the late Geraldine McEwan as Miss Adelaide.

For either financial or health reasons, the production was cancelled but it remained in the ether on the South Bank and in 1982, the long gestation period of the National Theatre’s production of Guys and Dolls was justified at last. Richard Eyre’s outstanding revival with an unforgettable study in neon by designer John Gunter opened on March 9 in the Olivier to an overwhelmingly favourable public reaction, producing the kind of delirium that visits the theatre only rarely. Ian Charleson (Sky), Julie Covington (Sarah), Julia McKenzie (Miss Adelaide) and Bob Hoskins (Nathan) led the cast, which also included Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter, Bill Paterson, Barrie Rutter and David Healy. The latter, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, stopped the show at every performance with Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.

Eyre’s extraordinary achievement was rightly rewarded when he succeeded Peter Hall as director of the National Theatre and when the time came for him to step down, he then revived his production of Guys and Dolls in 1996 to a very similar audience reaction.

Since then, Michael Grandage directed Ewan McGregor as Sky, Jenna Russell as Sarah, Jane Krakowski as Miss Adelaide and Douglas Hodge as Nathan in a West End production at the Piccadilly in 2005.

Chichester Festival Theatre’s current revival has now transferred across town from the Savoy to the Phoenix and is also on the road.

The 65-year-old musical has apparently no thoughts of retiring and it seems as if it is more sprightly than ever, delighting audiences as thoroughly as when it first saw the lights of Broadway back in 1950. May it run forever.

Guys and Dolls is showing at London’s Phoenix Theatre until October 30, touring until June

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15

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