Though I started this post with the intention of it being a Mercoledi Musicale I realized that there was no way I could have it ready for Wednesday. So I decided to change the name of the post to better reflect what I wanted to do. And coincidentally Friday was the birthday of the composer/lyricist of today’s show: Frank Loesser.
Bob Fosse called Guy and Dolls “the greatest Broadway musical of all time” and it has been claimed that it is the “most perfect” musical by more than one pundit. Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book is fast, funny, and has just enough sentiment to take away any seediness that may lurk around these sometimes less than “honest” citizens of Times Square. And I honestly don’t think Loesser’s score has one lyric or melody that doesn’t fit perfectly. And he gave us at a good half-dozen songs that became standards: If I Were A Bell, Luck Be A Lady, I’ve Never Been in Love Before, Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat, amongst others.
This “musical fable of Broadway” is set in Damon Runyon’s mythical Times Square after WWII and introduces us to a cast of colourful characters: Sarah Brown, the upright, uptight “mission doll,” out to reform the evildoers of New York; Sky Masterson, a big time, high-rolling gambler who woos her on a bet and ends up falling in love; Adelaide, the nightclub performer whose chronic cold is brought on by the fact that she’s been engaged to the same man for 14 years; and Nathan Detroit, her “devoted” fiancé, always hustling to find a spot for his infamous “oldest, established, permanent floating crap game in New York”.
Though Frank Loesser grew up surrounded by classical music – his father was a distinguished classical piano teacher and his brother a renowned classical pianist – he had no formal training. He taught himself the piano and harmonica and favoured – to his father’s dismay – popular music. But listening to his Broadway scores the classical influence is definitely there. Take for example the opening number: Nicely Nicely Johnson, Harry the Horse, and Benny Southstreet start the day by comparing the racing forms with … a fugue!
The part of Miss Adelaide (she doesn’t have a last name!) was created for Vivian Blaine when it was decided she was just a little too brassy to play the “mission doll”. And thank god they did. It gave the show two memorable numbers: I Love You A Bushel and a Peck and what is often referred to as the “perfect cominc song”: Adelaide’s Lament.
It’s fortunate that the otherwise disappointing film version featured two of the original performers: Stubby Kaye (Nicely, Nicely Johnson) and Blaine.
During the brief Philadelphia try-out Robert Alda swore that “Forty of the 41 shows were completely different. In other words, we continuously were making changes.” Isabel Bigley, who was the final choice as Sarah, recalls the phone ringing in her hotel room at 1:00 in the morning. It was Loesser with a song he wanted to try out. They rehearsed until 05:00 and the put it in the matinee. It got a standing ovation and went on to becomes one of those standards.
Tipsy on “Cuban Milk Shakes” and in love after their evening in Havana Sarah lets loose on how she feels about Sky.
Sarah confess to her Uncle Arvide, who also works at the Mission, that she is in love with Sky. Arvide, a religious but practical man, sings this lovely little ballad and urges her to follow her heart. On Broadway it was sung by Pat Rooney Sr, a well known Vaudevillian. At the time Rooney was 70 and had a restricted voice range but Loesser wrote to that range.
Sam Levene (Nathan Detroit) signed on to the project before a word or note was written though he told them he couldn’t sing from the get-go. Burrows insisted that he wrote the role with Levene’s distinctive voice in his head. He wanted a “real New York Jewish accent” for his small time gambler and no one else would do. Loesser composed around Levene’s inability to carry a tune and as a result Detroit only has one “song”. It is said that never once in the over 1,600 performances he gave over the years did Levene ever sing in tune.
One of the many big mistakes of the movie version was to replace Levene with Frank Sinatra. Sam Goldwyn’s excuse was that “”You can’t have a Jew playing a Jew, it wouldn’t work on screen”! So Burrow’s middle aged New York small time Jewish gambler became a slick young Italian con man. Fortunately there is an early TV clip of Blaine and Levene doing “Sue Me”.
Every well made Broadway show of the period needed that 11 o’clock number that would come near the end of the show (11 pm!) and wow the audience. More often than not it would be a star-turn but in the case of Guys and Dolls its Nicely Nicely Johnson, a minor character, and the chorus at the mission to warn us to “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat”. Sky wins a bet at Detroit’s crap game and all the gamblers are delivered to the prayer meeting at the Save A Soul Mission. Urged (?) on by Big Julie Nicely gives testimony.
As I mentioned Stubby Kaye repeated the role of Nicely in the film but as brilliant as he was it didn’t capture that 11 o’clock spirit that he gave it on stage. This performance with Gavin Spokes, with a modern orchestration, from the 2016 UK revival certainly does.
Of course being both a fable and a Broadway musical it has a happy ending. Detroit gives up his crap game and buys a news stand, and more importantly finally cures Adelaide’s cold. Sky marries Sarah, gives up gambling and joins the Mission.
And as the entire cast reminds us at the finale:
Call it dumb, call it cleverGuys and Dolls – Frank Loesser
Ah, but you can get odds forever
That the guy’s only doing it for some doll
Some doll, some doll
The guy’s only doing it for some doll!
The word for July 30th is:
Lickerish /ˈlik(ə)riSH/: [obsolete adjective]
late 15th century: alteration of obsolete lickerous, in the same sense, from an Anglo-Norman French variant of Old French lecheros.
As happens with words it’s current meaning is a little more like lecherous.