• Guys and Dolls: One Night Only–Only at Carnegie Hall

    Carnegie Hall presents Guys and Dolls: One Night Only–Only at Carnegie Hall, starring Nathan Lane, Patrick Wilson, Sierra Boggess, and Megan Mullally as Miss Adelaide, with a fantastic all-star Broadway supporting cast. See the full cast and artistic team here.

    Read about Guys and Dolls composer Frank Loesser, the story, and the musical's storied history below.


    About the Composer

     

    Frank Loesser Headshot 200 WideFrank Loesser was one of Broadway’s crown princes from the late 1940s until his death in 1969. In that golden age of American musical theater, there was no dearth of competing claimants to the throne, not least Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who launched the musical on a new path with a string of hits that included Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), Flower Drum Song (1958), and The Sound of Music (1959). In their integration of music, lyrics, drama, and choreography, the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were light years away from the loose-knit song-and-dance entertainments of an earlier era.

    Loesser too was an innovator. The four musicals on which his reputation rests—Where’s Charley? (1948), Guys and Dolls (1950), The Most Happy Fella (1956), and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961)—all broke new ground while remaining true to Broadway’s traditional values of hummable melodies, sympathetic, real-life characters, and feel-good storylines. It’s probably no accident that he achieved his first breakthrough on the Great White Way with a musical adaptation of a perennially popular Victorian farce, Charley’s Aunt, in which Ray Bolger brought the house down as the cross-dressing title character. The show’s bestknown song, “Once in Love with Amy,” tapped a vein of authentically American innocence that was second nature to a member of the pre–World War I generation.

    Born in New York in 1910, Loesser had musical blood in his veins: His father was a distinguished piano teacher and his half-brother, Arthur, a concert pianist. As a boy, Frank discovered a talent for crafting lyrics, teaming up with songwriter friends and hiring himself out as a “song plugger” for music publishers. Eager to make his name as a composer, he struck out for Hollywood in 1937 and launched a lucrative career writing songs for films. In 1942, the same year he enlisted in the army, he struck gold with “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” which became a bestseller on records and in sheet music. But its homespun blend of piety and patriotism represented only one side of Loesser’s talent; he was equally capable of writing urbane, mildly risqué songs, like the Oscar-winning duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and wholesome music for family films like Samuel Goldwyn’s biopic Hans Christian Andersen (1952).

    By the early 1950s, Loesser’s songs had been picked up by a Who’s Who of big-name singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Marlene Dietrich, and Doris Day. Riding on the runaway success of Guys and Dolls, he set up his own publishing and production companies; the latter gave him a vicarious stake in such landmark musicals as The Music Man, The Fantasticks, and Fiddler on the Roof. In 1956, he scored another Broadway hit with The Most Happy Fella, a semi-operatic romance about a big-hearted California winemaker and his mail-order bride. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—a smart, satirical send-up of corporate ladder–climbing that opened in 1961—chalked up 1,417 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

    About the Book

    Guys and Dolls is based on short stories and characters created by Damon Runyon (1880–1946), the inimitable chronicler of Prohibition-era New York. As a writer for William Randolph Hearst’s New York American, Runyon had a front-row seat to Manhattan’s rough-and-tumble underworld, which he portrayed with candid and nonjudgmental affection. The fictional realm of “Runyonland” is populated by unforgettable characters with monikers like Hot Horse Herbie, Miss Cutie Singleton, Benny Southstreet, and Meyer Marmalade. Their native tongue is a colorful and riotously screwball patois known as “Runyonese,” of which the following—drawn from the short story “Blood Pressure,” one of the sources of Guys and Dolls—is a typical specimen:

    I do not wish to go to Nathan Detroit’s crap game; and if I do wish to go there, I do not wish to go with Rusty Charley, because a guy is sometimes judged by the company he keeps, especially around crap games, and Rusty Charley is apt to be considered bad company. Anyway, I do not have any dough to shoot craps with, and if I do have enough dough to shoot craps with, I will not shoot craps with it at all, but will bet it on Sun Beau, or maybe take it home and pay off some of the overhead around my joint, such as rent.

    Runyon’s “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” recounts the improbable love affair between an earnest missionary and a tough-as-nails hustler named Sky Masterson. The story was dramatized in 1949 on one of the weekly broadcasts of The Damon Runyon Theater radio series. Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin, the producers of Where’s Charley?, recognized its potential and invited Loesser to work up some songs to help pitch the show to investors. Only later, after clearing the dramatic rights with Runyon’s estate, did they commission screenwriter Jo Swerling—of It’s a Wonderful Life fame—to write a book for Guys and Dolls. (The show’s title, incidentally, comes from a collection of stories that Runyon published in 1931.) Swerling’s first draft was deemed insufficiently irreverent, however, and Abe Burrows, a popular radio comedian and later a renowned “script doctor,” was brought in to pep it up.

    Burrows later attributed the success of the book to the characters’ offbeat blend of vernacular and formal modes of speech; as he put it, “these bums act like they are written by Noël Coward.” Loesser had achieved a similar mix of high-brow and lowbrow elements in his songs. As a result, his lyrics meshed flawlessly with the Swerling-Burrows libretto, disguising the fact that the book was tailored to the (pre-existing) lyrics instead of the other way around.

    About the Musical

    Guys and Dolls opened to rave reviews at the 46th Street Theater on November 24, 1950, and ran for three full years. Despite its well-publicized birthing pains, critics agreed that the show held together perfectly. As Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times, “Everything falls into place easily as though the play had been created in one piece, and every song and actor were inevitable.” The cast featured Robert Alda as Sky Masterson and Isabel Bigley as Sarah Brown, with Sam Levene and Vivian Blaine playing Nathan Detroit avnd Miss Adelaide, respectively. After garnering five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Guys and Dolls had a successful run on London’s West End and was made into a 1955 film that starred Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, and Marlon Brando. It has been revived many times, most recently on Broadway in 2009.

    What is the secret of the show’s staying power? The slice-of-life human-interest appeal of the story; the enduring and endearing wackiness of Runyon’s low-life characters; and, above all, the irrepressible vitality of Loesser’s music and lyrics. He begins with a jaunty fugue in which three “tinhorn” gamblers place their bets on racehorses. Then, without skipping a beat, the muffled march of a missionary band is heard offstage; Sarah and her fellow missionaries enter to the tub-thumping strains of “Follow the fold and stray no more.”

    This pattern of seamless transitions, knitting together contrasts both musical and dramatic, continues throughout Guys and Dolls. True to Runyon’s originals, Loesser’s musical creations are characterized by an engaging mixture of cynicism and naiveté, sassiness and sentimentality. In tone and style, his songs range from the unadulterated cornpone of “A Bushel and a Peck” to the Runyonesque ribaldry of the lovelorn Adelaide’s “Lament” (with its decidedly unromantic refrain, “a person can develop a cold”) to the soaring lyricism of Sky and Sarah’s duet “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Loesser often plays fast and loose with Broadway norms, as when he prefaces the show’s rousing title song—not with a conventional lead-in, but with a quasi-spoken recitative recapping the news of the day. In what is perhaps the show’s signature number, “Luck Be a Lady”—written, surprisingly, before the show’s book existed—Loesser manages to express both the eternal optimism of the gambler and the devil-may-care ambience of the “oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.”

    —Harry Haskell

    © 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

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