How 'Guys and Dolls' became a popular West End musical

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Ever wanted to join Nathan Detroit’s famous floating crap game, or watch Adelaide perform at her club, or follow Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown on their date to Havana? Well, you’ll soon be able to do just that at the Bridge Theatre. In 2023, the London venue is transforming into a Guys and Dolls immersive experience, plunging you into the world of the beloved musical — which will be staged in a completely new way.

The production is helmed by Bridge boss Nicholas Hytner, whose similarly immersive production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was a big hit at the theatre. He's also proven to be a dab hand with musicals: he directed Miss Saigon in the West End and on Broadway, and an acclaimed revival of Carousel while he was running the National Theatre.

So, what is the enduring appeal of Guys and Dolls, and what can we expect from this thrilling new immersive production? Read on for our definitive guide to Guys and Dolls.

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Welcome to Runyon’s world

We have one man to thank for the origins of Guy and Dolls: journalist and fiction writer Damon Runyon. He came from a long line of newspapermen, and he carried on the family tradition with his colourful accounts of baseball and boxing (he dubbed James J Braddock “the Cinderella Man”), as well as gamblers, hustlers and mobsters, particularly the shady characters who dominated Prohibition-era New York City.

Damon Runyon - 750 - LT

Runyon also became a renowned short story writer, creating his own distinctive style of language and dialogue – a colourful slang that became known as Runyonesque. His work is full of evocative names, like Benny Southstreet, Good Time Charley, Harry the Horse and The Seldom Seen Kid, while the women are slinky dolls and tough-talking broads.

Runyon’s stories were dramatised in 1949 in a radio show called The Damon Runyon Theatre (which later aired on CBS as a TV series too), and they became the basis of numerous films – including the Oscar-nominated 1933 picture Lady for a Day, the 1934 Shirley Temple-starring Little Miss Marker, The Lemon Drop Kid in which Bob Hope introduced the Christmas song “Silver Bells”, and 1942 film The Big Street with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball.

Guys and Dolls is born

A pair of Runyon’s short stories – Blood Pressure and The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown – inspired the Guys and Dolls musical. It essentially follows the travails of two romantic partnerships: Nathan Detroit, who runs an illegal crap game, and his long-time fiancée and nightclub singer Adelaide; and legendary gambler Sky Masterson, who takes a bet with Nathan that he can charm the severe Save-a-Soul Mission’s Sergeant Sarah Brown into having dinner with him.

Sky does get Sarah to agree to a date (for which he takes her to Havana) in exchange for supplying sinners for a revival meeting — without their attendance, the mission will close. However, Sarah is furious when she discovers Nathan using the mission to run his crap game, assuming Sky has tricked her. Sky bets everything to get the sinners he promised her, pleading for luck to be a lady, and the two women wind up comparing notes and deciding to take a gamble on their respective men.

The musical adaptation was the bright idea of producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin; composer and lyricist Frank Loesser was charged with bringing Runyon’s shady New York underworld to the stage. Jo Swerling produced the first version of the book, but it was rewritten by Abe Burrows, who did a much better job of integrating the songs into the story.

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By that point, veteran actor Sam Levene had signed on to play Nathan Detroit. He had very limited singing ability, so the team worked around that, giving Nathan just one song: his duet with Adelaide, “Sue Me”.

Similarly, Miss Adelaide was crafted around Vivian Blaine, who had originally been considered for Sarah Brown. They were joined by Robert Alda as Sky and Isabel Bigley as Sarah. The 1950 musical was an instant hit, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It transferred to the West End in 1953 and was similarly well received.

Guys and Dolls lives on

Guys and Dolls remains a popular musical, with numerous big names appearing in revivals. Richard Eyre mounted an impressive Olivier Award-winning version at the National Theatre in 1982 with a striking neon-lit design, and a cast including Bob Hoskins, Julia McKenzie, Ian Charleson and Julie Covington.

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The National Theatre then produced another hit revival in 1996 with Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Clarke Peters, Joanna Riding and Clive Rowe.

In 1992, Jerry Zaks won plaudits for his Broadway revival, led by Nathan Lane, Peter Gallagher, Faith Prince and Josie de Guzman, and Des McAnuff helmed another New York production in 2009 with Lauren Graham making her Broadway debut – although the latter had more of a mixed response from critics.

Concert performances included a 2014 Carnegie Hall run with Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, Patrick Wilson and Sierra Boggess, and a 2022 Kennedy Center concert with Steven Pasquale, Phillipa Soo, James Monroe Iglehart and Jessie Mueller.

The UK’s love affair with the show continued too: Michael Grandage helmed a West End version in 2005 with Ewan McGregor, Jenna Russell, Jane Krakowski and Douglas Hodge (and cast replacements including Patrick Swayze and Sarah Lancashire).

Guys and Dolls 2015 - 750 - LT

Guy and Dolls returned in 2015 at Chichester, then toured the UK and had another West End run, starring first David Haig, Sophie Thompson and Jamie Parker, and later Oliver Tompsett, Richard Kind and Rebel Wilson.

Of course, there was also the major Hollywood film adaptation of 1955, starring the somewhat incongruous quartet of Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Vivian Blaine. Three new songs were added, including “Adelaide” for Sinatra, and the film was generally praised, winning two Golden Globes and picking up four Oscar nominations.

Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Now, we’ll see the musical reborn yet again in 2023 at the buzzy London theatre. We know that you’ll be able to buy either seated or standing tickets, as with Nicholas Hytner’s previous Bridge productions of Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the standing tickets will place you right into the action.

Bunny Christie’s design will conjure up those familiar Guys and Dolls locations – the streets of Manhattan, the subterranean gambling rings and nightclubs, the mission hall, and the lively bar in Havana. Plus you’ll be able to hear all those wonderful songs up close: “Luck Be A Lady”, “If I Were A Bell”, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”, “Adelaide’s Lament”, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”, and more.

This is actually the first musical to be staged at the Bridge, although Hytner has helmed big hits in the past, like Miss Saigon, as well as directing operas. It will be incredibly exciting to see what he does with Guys and Dolls – make sure you book your tickets so you’re there to experience it all!

Photo credits: Damon Runyon, Sam Levene and Viviane Blaine in Guys and Dolls, Imelda Staunton in Guys and Dolls, Guys and Dolls in the West End in 2015 (Photo courtesy of Colorado Historical Society, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, photo by John Haynes, photo courtesy of production)

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