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Guys and Dolls - Notes on a Broadway Classic

Updated on January 16, 2015

“Hitman”: Frank Loesser and Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls showcases a pogrom of low-life, high spirit hoodlums that eventually affirm the value of friendship and romance. The musical’s plot ALSO features gangsters and “ne’er do wells.” That is to say that the individuals responsible for composing and staging the award winning musical themselves resemble the “usual clientele” of the Hot Box; its initial production as frenetic and “fly by night” as one of Nathan Detroit’s crap games.

After discarding composer Jo Swerling’s disappointing book, Lyricist Frank Loesser turned to Abe Burrows (the two originally met at an all-night party) to populate the musical with the idioms and idiosyncrasies of its other worldly underworld. Burrows’ revision proved triumphant enough to secure the direction of George S. Kauffman (Animal Crackers, The Solid Gold Cadillac) and his usual Broadway “backers.” Loesser and Burrows would, of course, continue to refine the score and lyrics up until opening night; responding to each other with new songs and scenes like “jazz riffs” that resulted in one of the great integrated musical books of all time.

Casting and rehearsals exhibited an equal measure of ambiguity; a mixture of catastrophes and flashes of genius. Potential Hot Box girls were instructed to screech “Help! Help Me!” before their auditions to secure the appropriate nasal quality for a back alley chorus liner. B.S. Pully (Big Julie) gave his audition late; he had been in prison for several weeks. Loesser tested the quality of “The Old Established” with a unique criteria; he would express satisfaction so long as he could hear the cast at the ice cream shop around the corner from the 46th Street Theater. One of the production’s most infamous moments came when Loesser slapped Isabel Bigley (sister Sarah) for “drying up” during her solo (he would eventually apologize with flowers and a diamond bracelet but the story has become synonymous with the original production and Loesser).

Despite such suspect practices, Guys and Dolls proved both a critical and commercial success. Its plaudits deriving as much from its sentimental aire as its artistic acumen. Loesser once proclaimed, “I’m in the romance business.” The proposition seems problematic in the face of such anecdotes, but understandable in light of the musical’s more profound themes. Loesser’s hoods and molls endear themselves because of their indomitable codes and mooning adoration for each other; they prove that if ethical standards and true love can emerge in the most unlikely places, they can emerge in all places at all times; even when such undertakings seem little more than a “crap shoot.”

Guys and Dolls - The Oldest Established

Broadway Guys: “Articles of Conduct” in Guys and Dolls

Even criminal cartels exhibit some degree of internal organization; they “police” themselves absent any external authority to check their actions. Such mores precede even “pirate codes” and other less famous rules for conducting nefarious activities. For Damon Runyon, it was the “honor” among the thieves he trafficked with that lured him out of the safe confines of his provincial origins, towards the gambling and racketeering dens of turn-of-the century New York. He became enamored with the sometimes overt, sometimes subtle “laws” associates like Arnold Rothstein and Otto Berman deployed to insure the safety of even illegal distribution of goods and services.

Such men were known as “Broadway Guys” because they lived outside the law; having been convicted, even acquitted, of all manner of larceny, extortion or homicide, these men no longer bore allegiance to their society. As Pulitzer Prize recipient Jimmy Breslin says in his biography on Runyon: “No decent outlaw would dare stop for a red light or pay for a newspaper. A citizen could squawk and call on the services of the police, but the code of an outlaw forbade him to call the police or use civil regulations under any circumstances. Anything done to an outlaw was considered a personal dispute.” It is plain to see why the denizens of Loesser’s Guys and Dolls treat infractions like “welching on markers” and “interpolating dice” with such sobriety; wise guy wisdom says that sans “fair” play, a crap shoot could quickly degenerate into a shootout.

While it may be arguable whether a criminal caste like Nathan Detroit and his commune of con artists exhibit good citizenship, they certainly display at least inclinations towards ethical conduct. Certainly the dynamic between “living outside the law” and “right living” is not alien to many believers. This is not to compare Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson to the apostles Peter and Paul (although the latter also had their run-ins with the law). Such ethical standards, however, demonstrate an important aspect of Runyon’s characters; that even hardened criminals can receive redemption. Whether Broadway Guy or follower of “The Way,” true love saves in ways that cannot be achieved by merely following the law. Perhaps the most inviting idea one may extract from Loesser’s musical is the possibility that everyone can find refuge from their sins and true love waits patiently for those that seek deliverance.

Guys and Dolls - Luck Be A Lady

Luck be A Lady: Games of Chance in Guys and Dolls

Card shark, scamdiccaper, double bumper—it is little wonder why Damon Runyon’s characters have remained so durable in live musical theater; the application of lyric and melody do not so much transform their street lingo as evolve an already heightened speech. But the value of Loesser’s musical derives not from translating the lingo of gambling into performance. Rather, Guys and Dolls remains a fixture of professional and amateur production due to the extension of gambling as a metaphor for fraternity and human affection.

All games of chance exhibit three essential qualities—wager, expectation and “odds”. The wager describes the amount or “stake” each participant bets against a competitor. The expectation refers to the degree an outcome can be predicted by each participant. Finally, the “odds” designate the agreed upon likelihood of either outcome. For example, the phrase “house always wins” references that in casino gambling, the “odds” are legally arranged to always favor the proprietor. Each of these components may be found within the relationships driving the story of Guys and Dolls; that Nathan is unwilling to stake the rest of his life on a single girl; that no one expects Sky to fall for the very dame he’s marked for a con; that the “odds” of such a mismatched pair seem a decided long shot. Instead of rendering the characters unsavory or ignoble, however, games of chance reveal the inner turmoil and sympathetic qualities of each character.

On the surface, for example, a number like “Take Back Your Mink” resembles a nightclub act, including the obligatory undress and teases. These propositions, though, play to artificial expectations. The song actually uncovers Miss Adelaide’s fourteen year stake; a desire for a traditional, arguably prudish, standard of love. Likewise, Sky Masterson’s prayer to Lady Luck should be read as more than a strike against the odds. Sky prays with sincerity, causing amusement and (perhaps more importantly) sympathy in the audience. The “miracle” of the sequence lies in its capacity to show how both inveterate and redeemable Sky’s situation.

The dynamic between chance and fate is regarded as one of the oldest found in live theater. Whether one considers the circumstances of Runyon’s characters pre-determined or incalculable does not alter their power to show that, in love, there are no guarantees. But, if love does qualify as one of life’s games of chance, then Guys and Dolls also shows that our stakes are well worth the odds.

We'll See What the Horse Can Do!

Break a leg with your next performance. I sincerely hope these provoke a thoughtful conversation between yourself and like minded performers. In the meantime, I look forward to your kind feedback and hope you'll check out my other Hub Pages related to the performing arts and drama.


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