Wishing to turn from an uncertain, turbulent present to a gentler, safer past seems to be a common human trait. Though not possible in real life, it can happen for a few hours in the theatre. Guys and Dolls premiered in 1950, inspired by the late Damon Runyon’s 1932 short story collection of the same title. The show’s producers, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, reached back to a period (early in the Great Depression) that, while not gentle, was safely past and tinted with nostalgia.
Shortly after Feuer and Martin’s first Broadway hit, Where’s Charley? (based on Charley’s Aunt), Martin’s wife read Runyon’s Guys and Dolls and thought some of the stories could make a good musical (Cy Feuer, Ken Gross, I Got the Show Right Here [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003] 110).
Feuer called Frank Loesser, their composer-lyricist for Where’s Charley? Loesser agreed to do the new show and, aware that Runyon’s stories usually involve gamblers, wrote “Fugue for Tinhorns,” about betting on the horses. Runyon’s story, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” was chosen as the basis for the plot and Loesser continued writing songs as the producers searched for a playwright who could capture Runyon’s distinctive style. (Feuer 111, 112)
After considering and rejecting several writers, Feuer and Martin chose Jo Swerling, whose film credits included Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. However, Swerling’s script didn’t satisfy the producers. According to Feuer, this show about gamblers contained no bet. Feuer suggested a plot used in the 1933 play Sailor Beware: A dance hall beauty never gives anyone in the fleet a look. One of the sailors bets he can get her to kiss him; his shipmates bet he can’t. Swerling refused to borrow from someone else’s work and wouldn’t agree to finding his own variation because he didn’t share the producers’ view that a bet was essential. (Feuer 114)
Swerling agreed to withdraw provided he received a diminished royalty and the right to read the final script to determine what billing, if any, he should get (Feuer and Martin, Letter to the New York Times, May 31,1992). The producers eventually chose Abe Burrows to write the script. Burrows had been chief writer on the popular radio show Duffy’s Tavern, whose characters and humor were akin to Runyon’s.
Feuer’s explanation for disliking Swerling’s script is unlikely: Runyon’s story is loaded with bets, including Sarah Brown’s roll of the dice that leads to the happy ending. Burrows offered a different explanation: influenced by South Pacific the producers initially wanted a serious romance with some comic relief. Swerling fit that bill; his screenplays were mostly dramas plus a few romantic comedies. One evening long before he was hired, Burrows, Feuer, Martin and Loesser were socializing. Loesser played a comic song, not intended for the show. Burrows suggested that it would be perfect for Guys and Dolls. Martin sharply disagreed. (Abe Burrows, Honest, Abe: Is There Really No Business Like Show Business? [Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1980] 142). But the fundamental principle of Runyon’s Broadway stories is “that the softest hearts may be found beneath the latest fashion in bullet-proof vests” (Clark Kinnaird, ed. Runyon First and Last [Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott, 1949] 24). Eventually the producers realized the show needed to be a comedy.
When Burrows came on board in spring 1950, Loesser, who had been working since May 1949, had completed fourteen numbers. Working closely with Loesser, Martin, and especially Feuer, Burrows wrote the script so the story would lead into each song (Burrows 149).
For director, Burrows suggested George S. Kaufman who, in addition to three successful decades as a playwright and director, had a reputation for inspiring brightness in other people. The producers were aware he didn’t particularly like directing musicals so they approached Max Gordon, producer of several of Kaufman’s shows. Gordon heard Loesser’s songs, loved them and urged Kaufman to direct the show. It also helped that Kaufman and Burrows were currently appearing together on a television show. After reading the few scenes Burrows had completed, Kaufman commented, “Abe has the talent to make the material a lot funnier.” From Kaufman this was high praise. He agreed to direct (Burrows 150).
Though they were colleagues on television, Burrows, writing his first Broadway show, regarded Kaufman as his teacher and readily accepted his advice and criticism, spending much of the summer writing at Kaufman’s country home.
It was Kaufman who saw the need for a secondary story (Feuer 122). The producers chose two other Runyon tales: “Blood Pressure” for elaborations on Nathan Detroit’s floating crap game, and “Pick the Winner” for the idea of Nathan’s long-suffering fiancée, Adelaide.
The producers’ main casting concern was finding actors who would look authentic as Runyon gamblers. As Feuer put it, “We want people with bumps.” The supporting cast they chose looked right and could sing but few of them could act. Kaufman told them “Gentlemen, you’ve all been hired because of . . . the great way you look and the terrible sounds that you’re capable of making. We don’t want you to change anything. . . . Just read the lines and get off. Above all, no acting.” It worked (Feuer. 36).
Theatre and movie veteran Sam Levene was no singer but was otherwise perfect for the role of Nathan Detroit (Runyon had been one of Levene’s fans). Even Loesser agreed it was easier adjusting the music to his limitations than substituting a better singer who couldn’t act the part (Keith Gerabian, The Making of Guys and Dolls [Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 2002] 93-4). Levene is the reason this lead role has only one song, the duet “Sue Me.”
After four weeks rehearsing in New York, the company moved to Philadelphia in early October for final rehearsals and tryout. The show experienced the customary ups and downs of this period: a rocky first rehearsal with the sets and costumes; an upbeat next rehearsal with the orchestra—the cast buoyed by the music and the musicians’ laughter at the jokes.
At the “final” rehearsal the producers and Loesser felt the opening needed extensive cutting so another rehearsal was scheduled. Burrows resisted cutting but felt unsure; Kaufman wanted to let an audience see the show before making major changes. Arguments ensued. Burrows and Kaufman reluctantly worked on cuts and gave them to the actors. The final rehearsal before a small invited audience got practically no laughs. They had cut too deeply. The cuts were restored.
Opening night was a success. The show did big business during its Philadelphia run. At the second night the team saw genuine problem spots. The tryout was extended a week to work on them. One major change was a new Act Two opening. Loesser reworked a song he sometimes did at parties, “Take Back Your Mink.” In that final week, new costumes, props, and choreography were created. Performed on the last night in Philadelphia, “Mink” knocked the audience for a loop (Burrows 190–205).
As agreed, the script was sent to Swerling. Because Burrows had written every word, the Philadelphia playbill credited him as author. The producers got a telegram from Swerling’s agent demanding billing. Dismayed, they had to comply (New York Times, May 31,1992). Consequently, Jo Swerling always gets first billing as co-author.
Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway on November 24, 1950. Every review was a rave (Burrows 210). For the only time in his long career, Kaufman sat through the entire first-night performance of his own show (Malcolm Goldstein, George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theater [New York: Oxford University Press, 1979] 21).
After its Broadway run of nearly three years and 1,200 performances Guys and Dolls went on the road (Thomas L. Riis, Frank Loesser [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008] 110).
Helping to fix the show in the national consciousness, Samuel Goldwyn in 1955 released the movie version starring Marlon Brando (Sky), Jean Simmons (Sarah), Frank Sinatra (Nathan) and Vivian Blaine reprising her role of Adelaide. It was a box-office hit and received mostly good reviews. It has its own appeal, though Pauline Kael wrote: “The Broadway original is legendary; the movie provides no clue why.” Five songs were cut and Loesser wrote three new ones. Brando’s singing is the result of extensive splicing and lip-synching. Simmons’s singing was dubbed. Sinatra sang in his own style, infuriating Loesser by refusing to even hear any suggestions (Gerabian 128–29). Two strong links to the original are Blaine’s performance and Stubby Kaye’s reprisal of his role as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, who sings the show-stopper “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”
Guys and Dolls had a smash Broadway revival in 1992. After a New York Times article stated that Burrows was the show’s principal author, Swerling’s son wrote to the paper (May 3, 1992) claiming that Burrows only polished his father’s script. Feuer and Martin replied (May 31), reiterating that Burrows wrote the script that is on the stage.
Recognizing the special status of Guys and Dolls, Brooks Atkinson wrote that its creators “struck the rarest kind of Broadway gold: an example of both highly artistic and unapologetically popular creativity” (Riis 5).