Guys and Dolls is one of the very few shows in the constantly active literature that features a book that was cobbled around an existing score. While Jo Swreling still retains a contractual credit as co-author, his book was jettisoned by the producers and it fell to Abe Burrows to write a new one, retaining most of Frank Loesser’s near-complete score. Though what we now know as the modern book musical was still gestating, this does explain certain book scenes that have material that might be sung, that isn’t; as well as certain songs that sneak into the story indirectly, or have unusual structural placement (i.e. how else does a charm moment like “Marry the Man Today” wind up as an 11:00 number?). But such is the alchemical mix of the original creative teams’ sensibilities that when the show is played effectively, even those of us who scrutinize musical theatre structure don’t think about it too much and just go with the flow.
What struck me most about director Des McAnuff’s new production of Guys and Dolls is that, for the first time ever, I spend the show thinking about the structural idiosyncrasies. And I had to ask myself why.
To be honest, I had entered the theatre expecting (from all I’d unavoidably heard) that this would be yet another example of Des feeling as if he has to put his mitts all over something that’s rock solid without him, just to make it his (as he did to the, if not rock solid, sound enough How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying [H2$], about a decade ago). But while there’s some degree of that—in the physical production’s scenic projections and an utterly superfluous choreographed prologue in which a silent dancer/actor meant to be Damon Runyon (author of the short stories that are basis for the show’s source material) himself, wanders through the city, observing and, presumably collecting material—McAnuff seems to be doing his best to play things straight. Straighter, in some ways, than Guys and Dolls has ever been played before. Not as extreme as slice-of-life, but with a certain conscious evocation of streetwise (if not exactly gritty) realism. It’s an imposed concept, but unlike all the hoo-hah in H2$, it isn’t distracting enough to keep you feeling the director’s touch as an intrusion.
Yet for most of the evening, Guys and Dolls seemed off, like orange juice mere hours after it has first started to turn. It had enough of the original flavor and body to be recognizable and was still somewhat potable, but it wasn’t as bright or as fresh as it needed to be optimally.
It took me most of the evening to figure out what was wrong, but eventually it dawned on me.
While you can (and must) play Guys and Dolls for real emotional stakes, you can’t play it for realism. Verisimilitude, yes, Realism, no. Damon Runyon’s New York is a mythical New York, no realer than Middle Earth or Brigadoon, and it brings with it its own set of expectations and obligations in order to come alive. The tough guy locution that often shies from contractions, the diction that has a leading lady say “poy-son” rather than “person,” the rhythm that makes a guy live up to his name when, responding to an inquiry about how things are going, he says, “Nicely-nicely, thank you,” without a noticeable break or comma between the two nicelys, all of these are as much an integral part of the piece as “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” And it doesn’t matter that you can “choose” to do without them, or to alter them—they come along for the ride anyway, in the spirit of the piece, like the aftertaste—what epicureans call the finish—of a really great recipe or wine. Like the kh sound in Yiddish that distinguishes a true speaker from a pretender.
Yet it is those small details that the director has decided to mess with; and though it’s a more subtle, arguably more human experiment than his attempt to rid H2$ of its 60s brand of sexism (which in truth existed mostly on the surface, with an undercurrent of, what was for that time, fairly hip social commentary), all it succeeds in doing is drawing conspicuous attention to the things that are missing. Additionally…it’s a half-assed concept because it can only be given a half-assed execution: too much in the text roots the proceedings in the origin tone, the origin sound, and doesn’t lend itself to the alteration—so the production has one foot quicksanded in tradition and another flailing for purchase outside the bubble that would otherwise protect it.
The casting, and commensurately the cast’s performances, are subsequently all over the place, with the supporting cast vacillating between lyric realism and cartoon cameo.
The disparity is less pronounced among the leads, but they still, all of them, come off more as temporary visitors to Damon Runyon’s world than bona fide denizens. Craig Bierko and Kate Jennings Grant as Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown have the best end of the deal because they have the “straight” romantic roles, which lets them explore some interesting new line-readings, but somehow you hear them as part of an exploration, not as fully internalized; Lauren Graham’s Adelaide has the potential for genuine greatness, and at times embodies an approach that’s original and hers, but, paradoxically, in being cut off from things like the conspicuous Brooklyn accent (which is embedded in the rhythm of the lines), she’s cut off from some of the role’s tool kit. (Though I have to add something else: where in Pal Joey, Martha Plimpton’s turn in a harder-edged version of a similar character seemed studied and self-conscious, Ms. Graham, likewise a newcomer to musicals, is almost dazzlingly unaffected, and seems very at home and natural in the medium.) Oliver Platt’s Nathan Detroit seems to personify the confusion of the production, exposing the poor fellow—Platt, I mean, not Detroit—in surprising ways. Not for nothing was he cast in the film Funny Bones as an unfunny son trying in vain to follow in his comedian father’s legendary footsteps. And it isn’t that Platt can’t be funny, per se: alone, his turn in The West Wing as White House legal counsel Oliver Babish proved he can turn a witty phrase with cadence-perfect timing—but Babish was an intellectual. Nathan Detroit is just a “dese, dem and dose” guy trying to find a place to hold a crap game, and Platt seems to be fighting a losing battle with his own intelligence.
Indeed, it may be the undercurrent of “Look how smart we’re being with this material” that’s the spoiling ingredient. When material is already smart, your best bet is to stay out of its way, lest you dilute its strengths by interfering. So many directors don’t understand that, or if they do, are afraid of it, and the fear is usually rooted in the auteur mentality that demands that somehow, some way, a distinctive signature be left. And tricky business, that: Compensating for different physical venues (Susan Schulman’s vest pocket Sweeney Todd) is one thing, because those challenges, at their best, force re-examination of the text’s original intent and investigation of ways to make that come through—and come through such that unavoidable physical, monetary and cast-size limitations are converted into assets. Accounting for more mature acting styles when a certain humanist narrative demands—the current South Pacific—is also valid, because in the end it’s only about better acting. (The Rodgers and Hammerstein organization occasionally leases out a film of the original London South Pacific from the 1950s as a template for staging. It’s a jaw-dropper. Even among the stars, the acting is phenomenally wooden and/or facile and/or musical theatre broad standard. Time has simply passed that kind of delivery by, the sophistication and pervasiveness of electronic media would render any attempt to replicate it seem like lesser competence.) But when you’re dusting off one of the few foolproof pieces in the canon for yet one more Broadway-style proscenium, ideally form should follow function and content dictate style; and Guys and Dolls pretty much tells you what it needs to be. Always has, always will. And if you deliver that, the irony is, you get your signature anyway. Just for being right.
True story: I know of an actor who auditioned for a major English language production of Guys and Dolls some years ago. He had played Nicely-Nicely numerous times regionally to great acclaim and with real character flair. He wasn’t one of the “usual suspects” or ubiquitous Nicely “specialists” who make a career of it; he just knew where Nicely lived, and when productions were casting, he was always the clear best choice. And sure enough, at the end of this audition, the watchers, most of them, were clearly aglow with admiration. The casting director led the actor out of the audition and said to him, “How does it feel to be on the A-list?” Days went by and the actor heard nothing. A smart enough veteran not to kid himself, he called his agent and said: "I don't have to be hit in the head to know that [the star director] didn't want me. But I'd sure love to know what happened." The agent checked on it. And according to reports, what happened was this. Back in the audition room, all eyes had turned to the star director expectantly. And all ears were flabbergasted to hear these words: “He’s too perfect for it. I wouldn’t know what to do with him.”
if leave him alone to do his thing and make you look like you
actually know what you're doing were a terrible idea…
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