Notes on Guys and Dolls, the Greatest American Musical

Guys and Dolls Poster 500px

For my money, the greatest American musical is Guys and Dolls. Yes, we can agree on titles that are more historically significant, ones that are more socially relevant, more dramatic, pick your measure. But theater is a supremely collaborative art form, and craftsmanship its superior virtue. The “magic” of Broadway is what happens when dozens of artists practice their craft in real time, transforming even Andrew Lloyd Weber pap into something memorable. Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows achieved a kind of alchemy when they adapted Damon Runyon’s New York City stories – Guys and Dolls is perfectly structured, filled to bursting with great songs, one-liners, romance and a sprinkle of satire. It’s a beautiful framework for invention and inspiration.

Loesser’s songs distill Runyon’s comically stilted prose and complement it musically – no small feat. The lyrics are dense, packed with perfect rhymes; the tunes are distinct and as varied as the rhythms. There are comic laments and romantic ballads, distinct choral showpieces for men and women, and three legitimate showstoppers. The show is long but lean – it moves briskly and alternates between pure comedy and romance, solos and ensemble numbers. There are two show-within-the-show meta musical numbers, and several dance opportunities that encourage creative choreography.

I performed in Guys and Dolls when I was in ninth grade; I played Arvide, having inherited the role when the original actor dropped out. I didn’t understand the part, had no concept of an Irish brogue, and pretty much sucked. I was terrified of the scene where I had to kiss my “granddaughter” on the forehead – the actress was four years older than me. Our Adelaide was played by Tedra Cobb, in my memory a great comic actress and still a dear friend. (Fun fact, Tedra is currently running for the U.S. House of Representatives, NY-21; she’s entirely too decent for national politics, although that’s precisely what the country needs.)

Since high school, I’ve worked on at least three other productions of Guys and Dolls; I don’t consider any of them successful. It’s a deceptive piece – the good productions are so good they make it look easy. But the show is long. The dialogue requires a certain literacy on the part of the performers to carry the humor. The scene changes can be deadly. Still, this is one I keep wanting to return to, because it’s hard. (I once auditioned for a part in God of Carnage specifically because I thought it could be a train wreck.)

A brief digression about social politics and theater. Although many today aren’t familiar with Guys and Dolls, and thus have no idea about its greatness (that will probably change once a new movie adaptation re-introduces the material to suburban consciousness), what’s surprising is when people object to how the show treats women. Some will point to the title as demeaning, but the most obvious offense can be found in the show’s “striptease” number.

Take Back Your Mink is one of the show’s nightclub setpieces, performed by the chorus girls. The conceit, which would have played differently in 1950, is that the women are so offended by their boyfriends’ gifts of clothing in hopes of sex that they strip in protest. (The button on the joke is when they return to collect everything they’ve taken off, asking the audience “Wouldn’t you?”) Sure, this is problematic in 2018, the same way Loesser’s Baby It’s Cold Outside, a song I don’t like, can be. But step back.

Grease is a popular high school musical. The central romance in that show is between a virginal girl and a bad boy. He makes a half-hearted effort to become a jock, fails, then she tarts herself up to save the relationship. That’s mild compared to Disney musicals, which invariably feature conventionally beautiful women overcoming muteness, poverty, being poisoned (etc.) to win a man who contributes absolutely nothing to the relationship except his pre-existing wealth and blandness. And let’s not mention Beauty and the Beast or Phantom of the Opera, which both promote kidnapping as a romantic strategy, and rely on Stockholm Syndrome to seal the deal. If you’re going to protest gender and sexual politics in theater, there is lower hanging fruit.

Also, a counter-argument for Guys and Dolls might be offered. The show’s two female protagonists “win” and don’t have to change at all; their men are the ones who have to adapt. (In that sense, the show is way ahead of its time.) Another point might be that the show’s “sinner” men invariably respect women, both in direct language/demeanor and in how they talk amongst themselves. The title song is all about the lengths men go to for women – if you’re willing to forgive the term “doll,” it’s charming.

This weekend, New Hartford High School is performing Guys and Dolls. I advocated for the show, and I’ve been pleased with the process. My lighting students are doing next-level work, and for the first time I have two students on the fly rail. The set is really amazing – I expect applause when it is revealed during the overture. This will also be my daughter’s final effort as student stage manager; in all likelihood, the last time we’ll work together as creative peers on a show.

My favorite song is If I Were a Bell, which the straight-laced Sarah sings to Sky after she’s gotten drunk and started a nightclub brawl. (Although that description could imply something dark, Runyon’s G&D world is more like a Warner Bros. cartoon than a Fosse piece. New Hartford has also presented Chicago.) I love how the words and the melody interact, with clever metaphors for being slightly drunk and giddily lustful.

Ask me how do I that we’re fondly caressing
Pal, if I were a salad
I know I’d be splashing my dressing
Ask me how to describe this whole beautiful thing
Well if I were a bell
I’d go ding dong, ding dong ding!

Listen. The actress playing Sarah at NHHS performs this song as well as I’ve ever heard it, including professional cast recordings. It’s worth the price of admission and more – if you love musical theater, this jaw-dropping rendition alone makes the production a must-see.