Guys and Dolls Program Notes

Richard Rodgers (1902-1979): Overture to Oklahoma!

When the Theatre Guild approached Richard Rodgers about converting Lynn Riggs’s play Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical, he consulted his partner, Lorenz Hart. Hart wasn’t interested, so Rodgers turned to Oscar Hammerstein. They tried several titles: Swing Your Lady, Cherokee Strip and Yessirree before settling on Away We Go for the preview performance in New Haven in 1943. 

For the Boston performance, Rodgers and Hammerstein renamed it Oklahoma! and made other changes, so that the New York opening, on March 31, 1943, held promise. By intermission, they knew they had a hit. The show broke all existing musical comedy records, running for five years, nine months, and some 2,248 performances.

Besides the title tune, the hits from the show included “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “The Farmer And The Cowman” and “I Cain’t Say No.”

Richard Rodgers: Waltz from Carousel

Fresh from their success in Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II regularly met with producers Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner for what they called “the Gloat Club.” Their next project involved converting Ferenc Molnár’s play Liliom into a musical. The original setting of Budapest was changed to Maine, and the show was re-titled Carousel.

The musical opened at the Majestic Theatre in New York on April 19, 1945. At the time, Oklahoma! was still playing across the street at the Saint James Theatre. John Chapman in the Daily News called it “one of the finest musical plays I have ever seen.”

Instead of the conventional overture of the show’s tunes, Carousel begins with a pantomimed dance scene now called the “Carousel Waltz,” in which the main characters are introduced. The show also includes the songs “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Jule Styne (1905-1995): Overture to Gypsy

Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, Gypsy was a project of producer David Merrick and actress Ethel Merman. Choreographer Jerome Robbins was interested, as was Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book. After composers Irving Berlin and Cole Porter declined, Robbins approached Stephen Sondheim to write the music. However, Merman wanted Jule Styne, and Sondheim was persuaded by Oscar Hammerstein to write only the lyrics.

The musical opened in New York on May 21, 1959 and ran for 702 performances. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times said Merman “gives an indomitable performance, both as actress and singer.” Frank Rich wrote that “Gypsy is nothing if not Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to King Lear.”

Gypsy’s songs include “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” “Together (Wherever We Go),” “Small World,” “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” “Let Me Entertain You,” “All I Need Is the Girl,” and “Rose’s Turn.”

Frank Loesser (1910–1969): Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls was the brainchild of producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, who thought Damon Runyon’s short stories could be adapted as a musical. They hired Frank Loesser as composer and lyricist, and George S. Kaufman as director. The first version of the show’s book was deemed unusable, so radio comedy writer Abe Burrows was asked to write a new version. By then Loesser had already written much of the score to the first version. As Burrows later recalled: “Loesser’s fourteen songs were all great, and the [new book] had to be written so that the story would lead into each of them. Later on, the critics spoke of the show as ‘integrated’. The word integration usually means that the composer has written songs that follow the storyline gracefully. Well, we accomplished that but we did it in reverse.”

The musical premiered at the 46th Street Theatre in New York on November 24, 1950. It starred Robert Alda as Sky Masterson, Sam Levene as Nathan Detroit, Isabel Bigley as Sarah Brown, and Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide. The reviews were enthusiastic. “It’s the perfect musical comedy” said the New York Daily News. Variety called it “one of the funniest and melodious shows in seasons. Everything about it seems practically perfect.” Kenneth Tynan called it “The Beggar’s Opera of Broadway.”

The show ran for 1200 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It would have won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but Abe Burrows’s troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), prompted the Trustees of Columbia University to veto the selection, and no Pulitzer for Drama was awarded that year. A 1955 film adaptation starred Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine.

In the first act, three gamblers, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet, and Rusty Charlie, argue about a horse race (“Fugue for Tinhorns”). Meanwhile, the Save-a-Soul Mission band, led by Sarah Brown, call for sinners to repent (“Follow the Fold”). Needing money, Nathan Detroit, who runs an illegal floating crap game (“The Oldest Established”), makes a wager with Sky Masterson, a gambler who bets on anything. Sky must take a doll of Nathan’s choice to dinner in Havana, Cuba. Sky agrees, and Nathan chooses Sarah Brown. Sky promises Sarah he will bring the mission “one dozen genuine sinners” if she will go to Havana with him. She refuses. Sky sings about falling in love (“I’ll Know”). Nathan visits Miss Adelaide performing her nightclub act (“A Bushel and a Peck”). She has consulted a book that says her chronic cold is a psychosomatic reaction to Nathan’s failure to marry her (“Adelaide’s Lament”). The gamblers observe that guys will do anything for dolls (“Guys and Dolls”). The Save-A-Soul Mission band passes by, but with no Sarah. Nathan realizes that he has lost the bet. In Havana, aided by a bit of run, Sarah kisses Sky and proclaims that she is enjoying life for the first time (“If I Were A Bell”). They return to New York at four in the morning (“My Time of Day”), and admit that they’re in love (“I’ve Never Been in Love Before”).

In Act II, Adelaide is performing her act at the Hot Box (“Take Back Your Mink”). Nathan has stood her up again (the crap game) and returns to her book for comfort (“Adelaide’s Second Lament”). Sarah consults her grandfather, who advises Sarah to follow her heart (“More I Cannot Wish You”). Meanwhile, a new bet is brewing. Sky offers the gamblers at the crap game a thousand dollars against their souls. If he wins, they must all attend the prayer meeting at the mission (“Luck Be a Lady”). He wins. Nathan tells Adelaide he’s on his way to the revival meeting. She does not believe him. He tells her that he loves her (“Sue Me”). At the Mission, the gamblers join in (“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”). Sarah and Adelaide commiserate and resolve to marry their men anyway, despite their need of reform (“Marry the Man Today”). Several weeks later, Sky and Sarah are married; Sky is playing in the mission band. Nathan has opened a newsstand and has promised to marry Adelaide at the mission. (“Guys and Dolls” Reprise).

In his book, Broadway, Brooks Atkinson described Guys and Dolls as “a masterly achievement in the new tradition–music, story, characters, acting, and direction pouring out of the same crucible. Musical dramas with nobler themes have been less perfectly composed than this breezy legend of an underworld derived from some of Damon Runyan’s stories. Less original writers…could have romanticized the gamblers into Bohemians. But the genius of Guys and Dolls was to portray them without glamour, and the genius of Loesser was to characterize them musically with candor and relish. There was not a commonplace or superfluous song in the score.”

~ Program Note by Charley Samson, copyright 2017