Guys and Dolls - a history of the 'perfect' musical
It's that time of the year again when across every sector lists begin to appear of the 'top' items of the year, as well as a look ahead to what we can expect the 'best' to be in the next twelve months. Whilst 2015 has hardly been an exceptional year for new musicals in the West End, it has certainly been another strong showing for musical theatre revivals, thanks in part to the Chichester Festival Theatre, who continue providing the commercial West End with classic musical hits that bring a touch of class and old-school charm to London.
Whilst revivals can be seen by some as being opportunistic and an easy option for producers who abandon the risks involved with untested titles, they're also a necessary draw for audiences who want to spend money on something they recognise, or something that holds special significance to them for a variety of reasons. Chichester has recently provided the West End with revivals of Sweeney Todd, Singin' in the Rain and Gypsy, which have all been met with favourable notices, and its next transfer, Guys and Dolls, is certainly no exception.
In any list or run-down of most popular musicals, Frank Loesser's 1950 musical always features close to the top, and has a proven track record of being popular with both audiences and critics - two things that rarely align. Based on Damon Runyon’s tales of Broadway, the book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows brings together a number of stories into what many have called the 'perfect' musical comedy. The combination of a tight yet light-hearted book with an unforgettable collection of songs makes for a musical that is extremely difficult to criticise. It's a show that speaks to multiple generations, and is one that has soaked into our psyche, thanks to school and amateur productions, the iconic film version starring Frank Sinatra, and the wide reach of the score which includes standards such as "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat", "If I Were a Bell", "Take Back Your Mink", and of course "Luck, Be a Lady Tonight".
Despite frequent revivals on both sides of the Atlantic, it's a show that audiences continue to return to, as a brand name that constantly delivers. The characters are not only open to wide interpretation (Patrick Swayze, Ewan McGreggor, Bob Hoskins and Nathan Lane have all previously starred in the show) but provides challenging staging, design and choreography for all members of the creative team to enjoy. Whilst it hasn't been too long since the last West End production, this new production received excellent reviews in Chichester, thanks in part to a celebrated cast and fresh direction from Gordon Greenberg. The choreography was equally applauded, with both Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright coming together to provide uplifting numbers, including the impressive Havana sequence, which gave a fresh edge to the iconic score.
But has the show always been such a success? We took a trip down memory lane to look at the history of Guys and Dolls to see why it has been given the title of a 'perfect' musical comedy.
The original production opened at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) on Broadway and was met with enthusiastic notices as well as taking home five Tony Awards in 1951, including the award for Best Musical. Directed by George S. Kaufman, the celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning author famous for comedies such as 'You Can't Take it With You', it featured choreography by Michael Kidd with design by Jo Mielziner. The original cast included Robert Alda as Sky, Sam Levene as Nathan, Isabel Bigley as Sarah Brown, and Vivian Blaine as Adelaide. Opening in a season that included shows such as 'Flahooley', 'Paint Your Wagon' and 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn', it's clear to see how in context 'Guys and Dolls' provided a fresh and enlightened example of a solid book musical, with a light-hearted comic edge and proved to be such a smash hit.
Shortly after opening on Broadway the first London production was mounted at the London Coliseum, which at that time was used extensively for musical theatre productions. The original London cast featured Vivian Blaine, Sam Levene, Lizbeth Webb (pictured above) and Jerry Wayne. Whilst it didn't achieve the same level of success as the original Broadway production, it was met with enthusiastic audiences, giving post-war London a much needed dose of musical comedy, solidifying the 'golden age' of musical theatre imported from America.
Following a number of short-run City Center revivals, the first full-scale revival of the musical came in an all black production of the show which successfully ran at the Broadway Theatre. The score was slightly updated and featured new Motown-style musical arrangements by Danny Holgate and Horace Ott. Book writer Abe Burrows supervised the production which was directed and choreographed by Billy Wilson. The trend for reviving all black productions of musicals following the original run had begun the year before when David Merrick brought his hit show 'Hello, Dolly!' back to Broadway in a production that starred Pearl Bailey and Billy Daniels. The revival of 'Guys and Dolls' starred Robert Guillaume (the voice of Rafiki in the 'The Lion King') as Nathan Detroit, Norma Donaldson as Miss Adelaide, James Randolph as Sky and Ernestine Jackson as Sarah Brown, and showed that even in a new context the musical had all the makings of a hit.
Perhaps the most iconic revival of this hit musical came from the mind of Laurence Olivier, who had wanted to mount a production at the National Theatre in London, which was then housed at the Old Vic, back in 1971. The production was called off due to Olivier's ill health, but the project was picked up again by Richard Eyre in 1982 in what he called a 're-thinking' of the classic show. Using a heavily neon-lit set, new orchestrations and some impressive choreography, this revival broke all box office records and became an overnight hit. The cast included Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit, Julia McKenzie as Adelaide, Ian Charleson as Sky and Julie Covington as Sarah, and won five Olivier Awards, including the award for Best Musical.
The production transferred to the West End following a UK tour and continued to run until 1986. Ten years later, Richard Eyre revisited the production which ran at the National from December 1996 to November 1997, featuring Henry Goodman as Nathan Detroit, Imelda Staunton as Adelaide, Clarke Peters as Sky and Joanna Riding as Sarah. London had once again embraced this classic show, which felt classic enough to give a much needed dose of nostalgia, whilst at the same time feeling innovative and fresh against a changing theatrical context.
The most popular Broadway revival came in 1992 in a production directed by Jerry Zaks that was met with high critical praise along with eight Tony Award nominations where it went on to win four awards including Best Revival. The production starred Nathan Lane as Nathan Detroit, Peter Gallagher as Sky, Faith Prince as Adelaide and Josie de Guzman as Sarah and featured heavy revisions to the score as well as new orchestrations and dance arrangements. The cast really sold this production, and Nathan Lane was propelled further into the realms of Broadway royalty.
Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse Michael Grandage directed this star-studded revival which hit headlines thanks to Ewan McGreggor in the lead role of Skye opposite Jenna Russell as Sarah, Jane Krakowski as Adelaide, and Douglas Hodge as Nathan Detroit. Different in tone to the previous revivals, the production added the song "Adelaide" which Frank Loesser had written for the 1955 film adaptation. The production was greeted with strong reviews, especially for the leading performers, who over time included replacements such as Nigel Harman, Adam Cooper, Sarah Lancashire, Sally Ann Triplett, Claire Sweeney, Nigel Lindsay, Neil Morrissey and Patrick Swayze. A new generation were attracted to the show, thanks to inspired casting choices that helped it connect with audiences in a modern context.
The most recent Broadway revival showed that audiences won't automatically flock to even the most well-known title, and the production shuttered after mixed reviews, blaming the economic downturn for lack of ticket sales. The production starred Oliver Platt as Nathan, Lauren Graham as Adelaide, Craig Bierko as Sky and Kate Jennings Grant as Sarah. Tituss Burgess starred as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, delivering a strong vocal performance of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" which gave a new energy to the song. Des McAnuff and Sergio Trujillo's production was called "static" and "uninspired" by the New York Times and "tedious" by the New York Post, and it was generally agreed that the modern edge the production attempted with its design did nothing to enhance the material, and ended up doing it more of a disservice.
Don't miss your chance to see this iconic musical return to London's West End for a strictly limited period.