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About the Playwrights: Guys and Dolls

By Rachelle Hughes

Like any wildly successful musical, it took a talented team of artists to create the musical Guys and Dolls. With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, this collaboration of a story of gangsters, gamblers, and missionaries in New York City became a Broadway and film success.

Frank Loesser

Frank Loesser was a Broadway and Hollywood music phenomenon. Born June 29, 1910 into a musical New York household, Loesser wrote his first song “May Party” at age six. He would go on to write over 700 songs in his lifetime and become the musical darling of Hollywood and Broadway during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Although his father was a well-known pianist and piano teacher and his older half-brother a celebrated concert pianist and music critic, Loesser refused classical musical training under his family’s tutelage. His musical passion was pop, and he taught himself how to play the harmonica and piano in his teens. He was the musical black sheep of his family. After dropping out of college he turned to non-musical pursuits first to support himself. He spent time as an advertising salesman, as a process server, and as city editor of a newspaper. Eventually his experience with writing led him to write sketches, songs, and radio scripts.

In 1931, Loesser teamed up with future composer and Juilliard president, William Schuman, to write his first published lyric “In Love with a Memory of You.” In the mid-1930s he continued to build his musical resume by singing and playing piano in nightclubs and writing lyrics for music by Irving Actman. Their collaboration and contribution to the very short lived Broadway show The Illustrator’s Show helped Frank land a Hollywood contract with Universal and then Paramount. Loesser would go on to write the score for over sixty films over three decades.

When World War II broke out, Loesser was assigned to Special Services where he wrote lyrics for camp shows with composers such as Harold Rome and Alex North. During his wartime pursuits, he would compose the music and write the lyrics to his wartime hit “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” He seemed to have a soft spot for his Special Service days. NPR.org’s article “How to Succeed in Showbiz: The Frank Loesser Story” quoted Loesser as saying. “I guess like plenty of other people, I can’t think of songwriting, or much of anything else, without thinking of the war, too. When I hear firsthand accounts of what our fighting men have done, well, being a songwriter, I immediately think of trying to tell their stories in song" (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128115247).

After the war, Loesser had his first Broadway success when he wrote the score for the Cy Feuer-Ernest Martin Broadway musical version of Charley’s Aunt, called Where’s Charley (1948). The musical ran for 792 performances. Suddenly, Loesser was more than just a pop music Hollywood sensation. He followed up Where’s Charley with Guys and Dolls (1950) that boasted such musical classics like “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” and “Luck Be a Lady” and went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. He spent the next four years writing the music and the book to what he called, “an extended musical comedy,” The Most Happy Fella (1956). In 1961 Loesser had another epic success with his score and book to the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The musical won the Pulitzer Prize and seven Tony Awards. It also starred his second wife, Jo Sullivan.

Loesser was first married to actress Lynn Loesser who helped him solidify the success of his famous song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” which he wrote for them to sing together at Hollywood and New York parties.

He died in 1969 from lung cancer. His life was filled with an unrelenting pursuit of music and theatre from a young age until he died. His way with words and music shaped entertainment during his career. “You know, he had this slang that he picked up—the way people spoke,” said his youngest daughter, Emily. “But he was also able to make it into poetry and worthy of music. And that’s what he could do really well.” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128115247)

Jo Swerling

Born in 1897 in Berdichev, Ukraine (what was then part of the Russian Empire), Swerling and his parents came to America as refugees of the Czarist regime. Swerling started his writing career in the early 1920s as a journalist working for newspapers and magazines including Vanity Fair. Swerling eventually shifted his journalism career to playwriting by teaming up with the Marx Brothers to write their stage show Street Cinderella. He also wrote the screenplay for their first comedy short film Humor Risk (1921). Supposedly Groucho hated it and the film was never released (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0842485/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm).

Swerling wrote both the book and lyrics for his first major Broadway success in 1927 with New Yorkers, which ran for fifty-two performances. His next Broadway play had even more success. The original comedy Kibitzer, co-written with Edward G. Robinson, ran for 120 performances in 1927. After his initial foray onto Broadway, Swerling took a long hiatus from the stage to become a screenwriter for Hollywood. But first, two of his plays were adapted for film. In 1929 Universal adapted The Understander into the movie Melody Lane, and Paramount released The Kibitzer in 1930. Swerling was then hired by Colombia Pictures and his first screenplay was for Frank Capra’s Ladies of Leisure (1930). He worked on several other Capra films including It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). As a screenwriter, Swerling wrote or participated in over sixty screenplays. However, his only Oscar nomination was for Pride of the Yankees (1941). Swerling’s final screen credit was in 1961 for King of the Roaring ’20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein.

However, it was not until Swerling returned to his Broadway roots that he would experience his greatest success. The classical musical Guys and Dolls that he co-wrote with Abe Burrows ran for 1200 performances, and he and Burrows won the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Musical.

Jo Swerling died on October 23, 1964 at seventy-one.

Abe Burrows

Abe Burrows may have started his career as a Wall Street runner and accountant, but his destiny pointed toward the entertainment world. During a period of more than four decades he would make his mark in radio and television and on Broadway as a radio humorist, songwriter, pianist, playwright, stage director, and panelist. His two most memorable contributions and accolades came from his collaboration with long-time friend Frank Loesser on their Broadway successes, Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961). Once Burrows entered the world of entertainment he was always busy working on some project.

Born in New York City on December 18, 1910, Burrows was the oldest of three children. Burrows’s father often took his son to see Vaudeville shows and thus a love for comedy and entertainment must have been born, although it took a while before Burrows found his true career passion. He attended City College and graduated from New York University in 1931. After a series of jobs at Wall Street and as an accountant and with his Dad’s wallpaper and painting business, Burrows met comedy writer Frank Galen in 1936, and they started writing jokes for night clubs and radio shows. In 1941 he began a five-year stint as the head writer for Ed Gardner’s popular radio show Duffy’s Tavern. During this time he got the chance to work with entertainers like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Veronica Lake, and Tony Martin.

In 1945, Burrows spent a short but mostly unproductive time with Paramount. He soon found himself back in radio performing his own songs (“I’ll Bet You’re Sorry Now, Tokyo Rose, Sorry for What You Done”; “Darling Why Shouldn’t You Look Well-Fed”; and “The Girl with Three Blue Eyes,” for instance) at Hollywood parties and as a guest on CBS programs. In 1948 he had his own Abe Burrows Show, a fifteen-minute weekly comedy written and directed by himself. Burrows’s Broadway career began when he was asked to polish or finish up the script started by Jo Swerling to Guys and Dolls. It was his first venture into Broadway and immediately garnered him his first Tony Award for Best Musical with Swerling. During that time he also got to work with friend and fellow songwriter Frank Loesser of whom he said, “He always could write songs. They burst out of him! How, or why or where? I don’t know how you can ask that. What makes an artist, even a Van Gogh or whoever? The stuff was pouring out of him, it was always there. He read a lot, he asked questions a lot, he knew a lot. He was fascinated with words, the way I am” (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0123242/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm).

Burrow’s Broadway career also included several directing credits including What Makes Sammy Run? (1964), Cactus Flower (1965) which was authored and directed by him, Forty Carats (1968), and Four on a Garden (1971). Burrows was also a well-known script doctor, although he downplayed that role.

Burrows was married twice, first to Ruth Levinson and then to Carin Smith Kinzel. In his later years he struggled with Alzheimer’s disease and died in 1985 from pneumonia.






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