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Guys and Dolls
A Musical Fable of Broadway
Some Thoughts on Damon Runyon: The Chronicler of Prohibilton Era Broadway's Hustlers, Gamblers and Showgirls By Elyse Sommer
What's playing at the Roxy?
I'll tell you what's playing at the Roxy.
A picture about a Minnesota man falls in love with a Mississippi girl
That he sacrifices everything and moves all the way to Biloxi.
That's what's playing at the Roxy
— the opening stanza of the show's title song as sung by Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny
Damon Runyon's Broadway is newly ablaze in neon. The flashing marquees and verticals of the Great White Way's movie and "burlesk" houses provide a glittering frame for this revival of Guys and Dolls, one of the few really great American musical comedies.
Oliver Platt as Nathan Detroit
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Braced by the terrific score by Frank Loesser and a devilishly clever book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, director Des McAnuff has prescribed a fast-moving environment for Damon Runyon's denizens of a certain ilk and of a specific time. In support, scenic designer Robert Like and video designer Dustin O'Neill have created a truly spectacular, fluidly panoramic vision of the Times Square area of New York City. But have they collectively served one of the greatest of American musical comedies? I believe only fitfully.
With its steel girders, considered as much an integral part of the big city as are the familiar buildings, streets, hangouts and haunts that pass before our eyes, this arena couldn't have been made more hospitable for those fabled dawn to dusk gamblers and con men who are always on the lookout for the all-night crap game. Five will get you ten that you will not see a production with more visual excitement this season. In Act II there is an awesome scenic transition from street to sewer for the big and brilliantly danced crap game that will blow you away.
Perched on three levels at the back of the stage, the orchestra, under the musical direction of Ted Sperling, revs up an audience that is quick to respond affirmatively not only to the musicians' visibility but also to the familiar and beloved melodies. The overture, enhanced with the sounds of the city, segues directly into the exhilaratingly staged opening scene that provides glimpses of "the devil's own city" a dingy pool hall, gambling den, and the interior of a bank wherein a robbery is in progress. Book-ended by the added on presence of Runyon (Raymond Del Barrio, who is also in the dancing ensemble) sitting at his desk typing out "Broadway Stories" the show is quickly turned over to the show's familiar characters.
It's a promising start for what turns out to be an otherwise disappointing and inexplicably humorless production. This great homage to those fabulously flamboyant flimflam men and their floozies was first produced on Broadway in 1950 to the delight of theatergoers who kept it going for 1200 performances. Two limited-run City Center revivals, one in 1955, the other in 1965, and the 1976 and 1992 Broadway revivals prove that this musical doesn't lose its sass or its fun. Well, not until now.
While many musicals tend to lose their luster, appeal, and popularity with future generations, Guys and Dolls has only to re-validate itself by right of its wit and charm. One can only wonder why acclaimed director Des McAnuff wasn't able to inspire his four key players to give more than merely perfunctory performances. You have to keep asking yourself, what was McAnuff after? In this production's favor are the supporting players who gratifyingly lift the show to a level above the barely acceptable. For the key performers who have been recruited to handle that hilarious vernacular and the great Loesser score there seems to be a concerted effort to play down the distinctive Runyonese cadences. Only a few in the company appear to be completely comfortable in the skins of these comically archetypal types.
Sadly, Oliver Platt as Nathan, Craig Bierko as Sky Masterson, Kate Jennings Bryon as Sarah Brown and Lauren Graham as Adelaide are the most egregiously distant from Runyon's oeuvre. Bierko, who made a big splash in the title role of a revival of The Music Man almost ten years ago, seems to be only half-heartedly committed to creating the kind of dapper, charismatic gambler who, against his better nature, falls in love with mission girl Sarah. It is one thing to be cool and suave and another to be uninteresting. Bierko does sing well enough as in the wistful "My Time of Day" and the more commendably energized "Luck Be a Lady."
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Platt who, despite his lauded prowess as a dramatic actor on stage (Shining City), in film (Frost/Nixon) and TV (The West Wing and Nip/Tuck) hasn't yet found the key to unlock the inherent humor that makes the questionably street-wise Nathan Detroit endearing. Too often looking lost and forlorn among the more admirably caricatured tin horns around him, Platt may yet find a hook on which to hang his unique talent, but as yet, he hasn't found it.
I wish I could say that Kate Jennings Grant got the calling to play mission girl Sarah Brown, but she turns in the kind of provisionally earnest performance that might have steered any number of typical Sarah Browns over the decades to "Follow the Fold" Grant, who was impressive as Bette in last season's of The Marriage of Bette and Boo, does yield nicely to the romantic demands of "I'll Know", "If I Were a Bell" and "I've Never Been in Love Before," the duet she sings with Bierko.
The ever-lovin' ever-fianced Adelaide is, perhaps, the character who everyone looks forward to seeing. What an opportunity is missed by Graham (who is making her Broadway debut) to make something special out of this sexy bundle of big town pulchritude and, in particular, "Adelaide's Lament." Always considered a sure fire show-stopper, the song, with its sniffles and sneezes, relies on the performer's ability to be comically poignant. No such luck. While no one expects Adelaide to be a carbon of either the role's sublime originator, Vivian Blaine, or the incomparable Faith Prince (in the 1992 revival), we do expect to be amused by this endearingly perennial show girl. We aren't.
Graham has her best vocal moment in the duet with Grant "Marry the Man Today." By then the audience has been sufficiently warmed up by the always rousing 11 o'clock number "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," led by the super-charged tenor Titus Burgess, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson. The reliable Mary Testa is plenty funny and gets laughs as General Cartwright helping to insure that "Sit Down. . ." remains as the musical's one sure-fire show-stopper.
As for the two tacky Hot Box extravaganzas, "A Bushel and a Peck," and "Take Back Your Mink," they have been choreographed with no particular invention by Sergio Trujillo amid the obligatory bumps, wiggles and squeals. Trujillo's choreography for the scene in "Havana" is more exciting and sexier, beginning and ending with the sight and sound of an airplane roaring over our heads. Costume designer Paul Tazewell has created some wonderful attire, particularly the men's snappy suits and a stunning dressing gown for Ms Graham.
Credit must go to director McAnuff for rounding up a fine supporting cast, notably, Jim Walton as Harry the Horse (catch the whinny in his laugh) and Steve Rosen as Benny Southstreet. These two guys display a genuine instinct for playing, among the assortment of gamblers, hustlers, and assorted sharpies, two of Runyon's most memorable characters. Jim Ortlieb sings with warmth the touching "More I Cannot Wish You." McAnuff, who helmed the huge hit The Jersey Boys, keeps the action on the big street flowing in the glow of Howell Binkley's extravagant lighting. All Broadway shows are a crapshoot, but Guys and Dolls, even with four leads who can't pull it off, is probably an odds-on favorite to win over another generation.
After 13 years with the musical Rent as a tenant, the Nederlander Theatre has been given a deserved face-lift. Workmen were still applying and smoothing wet cement outside the theatre at the Saturday matinee I attended. Inside, the freshly painted interior is notable for its pale green walls with gilded trim. The carpeting, a leafy pattern of soft brown tones, adds to the overall autumnal look. In the long tradition of Broadway houses, the seating remains comfy but cramped and the rest rooms even more so. Never architecturally palatial or distinctive, the Nederlander Theatre, nevertheless, continues its destiny as the only remaining Broadway theatre south of 42nd Street.
For more about Damon Runyon, see Elyse Sommer's essay following the production note.
Guys and Dolls, A Musical Fable of Broadway |
Based two stories and characters by Damon Runyon
Book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling
Music & Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Musical Director: Ted Sperling;
Directed by Des McAnuff; Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo; Assistant Director: Shelley Butler; Associate Choreographer: Jane Lanier
Cast: Craig Bierko (Sky Masterson), Lauren Graham (Miss Adelaide), Kate Jennings Grant(Sarah Brown), Oliver Platt (Nathan Detroit), Tituss Burgess (Nicely-Nicely Johnson), Glenn Fleshler (Big Jule), Adam LeFevre (Lt. Brannigan), Jim Ortlieb (Arvide Abernathy), Steve Rosen (Benny Southstreet), Mary Testa (General Matilda B. Cartwright), Nick Adams (Ensemble, Liver Lips Louie), Andrea Chamberlain (Ensemble, Agatha, Mission Band), Raymond del Barrio (Ensemble, Damon), Kearran Giovanni (Ensemble, Carmen, Hot Box Girl), James Harkness (Ensemble, Society Max), Lorin Latarro (Ensemble, Mimi, Hot Box Girl), Joseph Medeiros (Ensemble, The Greek), Spencer Moses (Ensemble, Rusty Charlie), Rhea Patterson (Ensemble, Hot Box Girl), Graham Rowat (Ensemble, Angie the Ox), Jessica Rush (Ensemble, Martha, Mission Band, Hot Box Girl), William Ryall (Ensemble, Calvin, Mission Band), Jennifer Savelli (Ensemble,Hot Box Girl), John Selya (Ensemble, Scranton Slim), Brian Shepard (Ensemble, Joey Biltmore), Ron Todorowski (Ensemble, Brandy Bottle Bates), Jim Walton (Ensemble,Harry the Horse), Brooke Wendle (Ensemble, Hot Box Girl ), Swings: Melissa Fagan, Benjamin Magnuson, Marcos Santana.
Scenic Design by Robert Brill
Costume Design by Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design by Howell Binkley
Sound Design by Steve Canyon Kennedy
Video Design by Dustin O'Neill
Hair and Wig Design by Charles LaPointe
Music orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin;
Dance arrangements by James Lynn Abbott
Vocal arrangements and Incidental Music by Ted Sperling
Production Stage Manager: Frank Hartenstein
Musical Coordinator: Michael Keller
Fight Director: Steve Rankin
Stage Manager: Kelly Martindale
Band: Conducted by Jeffrey Klitz— Associate Conductor, Jeff Marder, Concert Master
Violin: Lori Miller and Ming Yeh; Cello 1: Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf; Cello 2: Sarah Hewitt Roth; Lead Trumpet: Don Downs; Trumpet: CJ Camerieri; Trombone: Mike Davis; Bass Trombone/Tuba: Matthew Ingman; Reed 1: Tom Murray; Reed 2: Ken Dubisz; Reed 3: Mark Thrasher; Keyboard: Jeff Marder; Guitar/Banjo: Greg Utzig; Bass: Mark Vanderpoel; Drums: Steve Bartosik; Percrussion: Javier Diaz
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission
Nederlander Theatre 208 West 41st
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman
closing 6/14/09 after 28 previews and 113 performances.
For a background feature on Damon Runyon
- Opening (Runyonland) /The Company
Fugue for Tinhorns /Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie
Follow the Fold /Sarah Brown, Arvide Abernathy, Calvin, Martha and Agatha
The Oldest Established/ Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet, Nathan Detroit and Crap Shooters
Follow the Fold (Reprise)/ Sarah Brown, Arvide Abernathy, Calvin, Martha and Agatha
I'll Know /Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson
A Bushel and a Peck /Miss Adelaide and Hot Box Girls
Adelaide's Lament / Miss Adelaide
Guys and Dolls / Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet
Havana /The Company
If I Were a Bell /Sarah Brown
My Time of Day / Sky Masterson
I've Never Been in Love Before / Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown
- Take Back Your Mink / Miss Adelaide and Hot Box Girls
Adelaide's Lament (Reprise) / Miss Adelaide
More I Cannot Wish You / Arvide Abernathy
The Crap Game Dance (Crapshooter's Dance) / The Crapshooters
Luck Be a Lady / Sky Masterson and The Crapshooters
Sue Me / Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit
Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat / Nicely-Nicely Johnson and The Company
Follow the Fold (Reprise) / The Company
Marry the Man Today / Miss Adelaide and Sarah Brown
Guys and Dolls (Reprise) / The Company
Short story writers flourished during the 1930s and 1940s but Damon Runyon, one of this form's most prolific and successful practitioners, is not much read these days. Yet, his name has been integrated into our language. Colorful characters, especially if connected to gambling, petty theft or show business, are described as "Runyonesque" — and, thanks to the ever-revivable Guys and Dolls
which is very loosely based on two Runyon stories, "Runyonese" continues to be spoken and sung, not just on Broadway, but on high school, college and regional theater stages.
So who was the man who inspired book writers Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling and composer/lyricist Frank Loesser to turn , "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown" and "Blood Pressure" into a musical super hit? These stories, later collected in a book entitled Guys and Dolls,
weren't Runyon's first Broadway stories. They were written four years after the first, "Romance in the Roaring Forties," published in 1929 by Cosmopolitan
where many of his later stories appeared. The book was actually less Runyon than Burrows and Swerling for whom the "based on" was less a case of adaptation than writing in the Runyon style.
Alfred Damon Runyan i was born in 1884, in Manhattan— that's Manhattan, Kansas— and grew up in Pueblo, Colorado where he learned the newspaper trade from his father. It was while working at one of several Colorado newspaper jobs that someone printed his by-line as Runyon, which he decided to stick with. It was not until 1910 that he arrived in New York's Manhattan as a baseball and boxing reporter and underwent a further name change, this time the elimination of Alfred.
Even as a journalist his style was characterized by the slangy lingo that was eventually dubbed Runyonese.
But his punchy, low-brow sort of lingo came to full bloom through the characters in his short stories who made him one of the 1930s most popular humorists. These characters were wise in ways that had little to do with high-brow pursuits and any detours from Broadway's nightclub district were Brooklyn and the race track, not a college campus.
Tituss Burgess the current G&D's Nicely-Nicely Johnson notable for such Runyonese wisdom as "Deft will beat Daft any day of most weeks (except in leap year)."
Some favorite Runyon nomenclature: shiv for knife, snoot for nose; and, of course, girlfriends and wives were dolls, as well as Judies, pancakes and tomatoes. Most Runyon guys and dolls favored descriptive names over shorter, plainer ones. Nathan Detroit, Harry the Horse Thief, Nicely-Nicely, Good Time Charley, Dave the Dude and the Seldom Seen Kid represent just a small sampling of amusingly named Runyon guys.
The denizens of Guys and Dolls,
the musical, were inspired by characters who cropped up repeatedly in the Runyon fictional universe that celebrated the world of Broadway seeded by the Prohibition era. They humorously evoked the world of gangsters, gamblers, actors and hustlers. Their favorite hangout was a restaurant called Mindy's --as in Lindy's. G&D's Nicely-Nicely, whose choicer words of wisdom included "deft will beat daft any day of most weeks (except in leap year)," became the betting stake in an eating contest in "Piece of Pie" At times, Runyon's close friends served as character role models, a case in point being the mobster accountant Otto Berman who showed up in several stories as Regret, the horse player.
Whatever their connection to the author, the citizens of Runyon's world spoke a lingo that was a unique mixture of formal speech and colorful slang, usually in the present tense and with a complete disregard for contractions. A passage from a story called "Tobias the Terrible" is a memorable example:
" If I have all the tears that are shed on Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition ocean to the Atlantic and Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business. But I wish to say I never shed any of these tears personally, because I am never in love, and furthermore, barring a bad break, I never expect to be in love, for the way I look at it love is strictly the old phedinkus, and I tell the little guy as much."
Another Runyonesque gem is this tidbit from "Blood Pressure" in which a character named Charley comes across a pretty redhead: " At first I think she is a very cute sight indeed, and then I see something in her eyes that tells me this doll, whoever she is, is feeling very hostile to one and all."
Runyon's guys and dolls also landed their share of quick one liners, for example:
"Always try to rub up against money, for if you rub up against money long enough, some of it may rub off on you" ("A Very Honorable Guy" 1931); "I long ago came to the conclusion long ago that all life is six to five against." ("A Nice Price" 1935); " A freeloader is a confirmed guest. He is the man who is always willing to come to dinner ( "Free Loading Ethics" 1946).
From Page to Stage, Screen and Radio
Of course, the 1955 stage to screen transfer of Guys and Dolls
is the biggie here, with Vivian Blaine reprising her Miss Adelaide role, Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson opposite Frank Sinatra's Nathan Detroit. (Yes, Brando sings). It's still a late night TV and DVD favorite. But the musical that's now once again belting out its hit parade of songs, isn't the only one.
Runyon's "Madame La Gimp" was retitled Lady For a Day
for a 1933 flick directed by Frank Capra. It was remade in 1961 under yet another title, Pocketful of Miracles
, co-starring Bette Davis and Peter Falk.
Almost as famous as Guys and Dolls
was the 1934 film Little Miss Marker
, which made curly-top Shirley Temple a star. The title was the same as the Runyon short story on which it was based. Its characters are typically Runyonesqe: A grumpy book named Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou) who is given the adorable little Miss as debt collateral. Subsequent remakes included Sorrowful Jones
in 1949 (with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball), Forty Pound of Trouble
in 1963 (with Tony Curtis) and another Little Miss Marker
in 1980 (with Walter Matthau, Julie Andrews, Bob Newhart, Tony Curtis). But for DVD watchers the one to see is the one with Temple.
Lesser known screen adaptations include the twice filmed The Lemon Drop Kid
(1934 and 1951-- the latter starring Bob Hope); A Slight Case of Murder
(in 1938 with Edward G. Robinson and again in 1953 as Stop, You're Killing Me
); The Big Street
(in 1942, based on Runyon's " Little Pinks"); Butch Minds the Baby
(1942) and It Ain't Hay
( in1943 based on Runyon's "Princess O'Hara" ); and Money from Home
(a 1953 vehicle for Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis).
The Damon Runyon Theatre.
This series broadcast from January to December 1949, was a last gasp for the radio play. It dramatized 52 Runyon stories , including the G&D pieces, "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown & Blood Pressure.". Each featured a recurring character named Broadway to introduce each episode. Someone who was privvy to many of these stories, told me they represented the radio drama at its very best.
How Frank Loesser Made Runyon's Vernacular Sing
It's an enormous challenge to write a great show tune. It's even more of a challenge to introduce songs into a text written to be read, and being true to the writer's voice. As luck would have it, the man faced with the task of musicalizing Runyon's distinctive linguistic style was Frank Loesser. From the very beginning G&D turns this challenge into a triumph of text-and-music compatibility. "The Fugue for Tinhorns" that has Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie each singing "Igot the horse right here" is absolutely brilliant. And there's no let-down in catchy tunes that captures Runyon's flavorful style. "Adelaide's Lament" is a marvelously kvetchy
love ballad with a spoken lead-in that makes the rest of the ingenious rhymed Loeser à la Runyon lyrics tuneful yet feel almost spoken "I've Never Been In Love Before" and "Luck Be a Lady " are just a few more illustrations of how Loesser managed to Runyonize his tunes so that they not only embodied Runyon's characters but made them rich and tasty — like Lindy's cheese cake. And while the title song's opening "What's playing at the Roxy?" doesn't evoke memories of that once famous movie place, who cares? It's catchy as ever, with a stick-to-the-ear sound.
Runyon was still a newspaper man when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president and in that capacity wrote the lead article for United Press on the 1933 inauguration.
Several organizations in Pueblo, Colorado, where Runyon grew up have been named in his honor: Runyon Field, The Damon Runyon Repertory Theater Company and Runyon Lake.
Runyon enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in the Spanish-American War and while in the service, he was assigned to write for the Manila Freedom and Soldier's Letter.
Runyon was awarded the 1967 J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball journalism by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown and is a member of the International Boxing Hall Of Fame.
After Runyon died from throat cancer in 1946, his ashes were scattered from an airplane over Broadway by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and his friend, the columnist Walter Winchell, established the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.
Note: I am indebted to Wikipedia for much of the factual material in this essay.-- e.s.
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