‘Guys And Dolls’ first opened at the 46th Street Theatre in New York on the 24th of November 1950 and became an instant hit, but one with staying power. On its first run, it went through a staggering 1,200 performances! And it was the fifth longest running musical on Broadway in the 1950s.
And the staying power of the musical is still very much in evidence today. ‘Guys And Dolls’ must be one of the most-produced musicals by amateur dramatic and musical theatre societies in the English-speaking world. As a testimony, I noticed a review on the web site of Columbia College, Chicago reviewing a production there as recently as last December.
The plot for ‘Guys And Dolls’ is based on the stories of Damon Runyon, especially ‘The Idyll of Sarah Brown’. But ‘Guys And Dolls’ was not written by Runyon himself. Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (broadcast media writers) actually put together the book, even though they had no previous experience of writing for the theatre.
The story is about Nathan Detroit, the organiser of an illegal crap game in New York. With the cops on his trail, Detroit has to find a new venue for his game and needs some capital to pay for it. So he makes a bet with master gambler Sky Masterson (played by Ewan McGregor) that he cannot make the next girl he sees fall in love with him. The very next girl just happens to be Miss Sarah Brown, the leader of a local Salvation Army kind of reform group, who also happens to be extremely attractive. Of course, Masterson falls in love with Sarah...
In fact, for modern audiences, the story is somewhat contrived, and I’m not sure it really has the same power as the original Runyon stories themselves. It’s enough to carry the show along and the writing is witty enough to keep the audience entertained. But the story alone is not where the magic of this musical really lies. It’s firmly centred on a considerable number of first-rate, hummable songs and melodies that have the ‘feelgood’ factor written all over them. These are songs with the rare quality of lasting endurance that have passed the test of more than 50 years of playing and replaying, and they’re still going strong with new generations of theatregoers. Quite simply, it’s a show with one hell of a score, brilliantly written by the inspired Frank Loesser (composer and lyricist).
In fact, I’d forgotten just how many really famous tunes were in this show – which is a sad reflection on when I saw it last, and the state of my rather dilapidated memory - ‘Luck Be A Lady Tonight’, ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’, ‘If I Were A Bell’ to name a few. And there are some exceptionally strong and beautifully melodic and moving ballads such as ‘I’ll Know’.
What’s a real surprise in this production by the Donmar Theatre team, is the sheer quality of Ewan McGregor’s singing. Although McGregor has a substantial reputation as an actor (and deservedly so in my opinion), I’ve never really thought of him as a singer. I was therefore expecting a performance along the lines of Rex Harrison in ‘My Fair Lady’, speaking the words to the songs, perhaps, rather than actually singing them. But McGregor’s singing is impressive and he wow’d the enthusiastic audience each time he burst into song. McGregor’s singing is not merely acceptable, it’s actually pretty damn good, though I wouldn’t say he should give up his acting role to cut several new solo albums just yet. But, his vocal skills are more than sufficient to put over these great songs in some style.
As for McGregor’s acting, well it was much as one would expect from a ‘serious’, quality actor. McGregor’s accent is not only authentic, but also carefully rehearsed and delivered. But he also looks like he’s having a really great time in the role, and this infectious enthusiasm certainly comes across to the audience.
The other main leads – Jenna Russel as Miss Sarah Brown, Douglas Hodge as Nathan Detroit and Jane Krakowski as Miss Adelaide – all provide complementary and convincing performances to support McGregor. However, I thought Douglas Hodge came over a little whimpish as Nathan Detroit, rather than the kind of likeable, but pretty strong, rogue that I imagine him to be.
As for the remainder of this large cast, they dance and sing themselves right into the top league of quality musical performances. The choreography is powerful and adept without being over-flamboyant. And there’s extremely rich ensemble singing, showing evidence of excellent musical direction and rehearsal. Backed up with stunning arrangements and strong playing from the orchestra, the actors and musicians really do justice to the inspired score.
A standing ovation from almost the entire audience at the end of this performance showed the depth of appreciation for this tight and well-honed production. But the high point was the ever-popular ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’ with Martyn Ellis in excellent voice as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, leading the company in a brilliant arrangement which had the audience applauding for longer than I’ve heard for some time – so much so, that even the cast seemed a little overwhelmed.
With a great score, highly memorable and hummable tunes and a great cast to bring it alive, this version of ‘Guys And Dolls’ will have your foot tapping for almost the entire duration of the performance, and you’ll certainly be singing your way home. A hugely enjoyable experience.
On a final note, if you’re interested in the stories of Damon Runyon, there’s an anthology entitled ‘Guys and Dolls: The Stories of Damon Runyon’ (published by Penguin Putnam Inc 1992 – still available).
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "McGregor's colourless Sky, who has none of the memorable, melancholic cool of Ian Charleson's definitive, 1982 Masterson, makes use of a small, inexpressive singing voice but scarcely wears the looks of a man surprised by love or even lust." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Utterly elating revival..this production looks to be a sure-fire winner." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "If only McGregor's singing voice matched his acting and his dancing, it would be a first-rate performance...musicals are about ecstasy and there are two moments when this show really hits the button..." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, " There is much to enjoy, passages when the show undoubtedly achieves lift-off, but it never quite achieves that sense of pure and continuous pleasure that Eyre conjured at the National....there are too many occasions in this production when the earth fails to move" BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "A visit to the Piccadilly will bring you terrific music, great fun, one or two excellent dance numbers and, at the head of a consistently decent cast, no less charismatic a figure than Ewan McGregor." LISA MARTLAND for THE STAGE says, "Extremely likeable production.....consistently nice and even joyful but rarely does one get the gut feeling that something exciting is taking place."