The musical that is Guys and Dolls is thought of by many as being the very epitome of, even the perfect, musical comedy. After opening its opening night on Broadway in 1950, the show ran for an amazing 12,000+ performances. The awards just kept on coming for the production, over its nearly 70-year history, including:
Practically refusing to go quietly into that good night, Guys and Dolls has been revived a fair number of times – including a movie adaptation starring the legendary Marlon Brando (who else?). Numerous stars of both stage and screen have been associated with the musical, including:
Among many others. One of the places that Guys and Dolls was most frequently revived is in the United Kingdom – including an all-black production with a change of setting.
Guys and Dolls, set in a mythical version of Damon Runyon’s, it is a romantic comedy with something of an oddball slant. The protagonist and gambler, Nathan Detroit, is trying his hardest to find the funds to set up the largest craps game in the city while trying to stay ahead of the boys in blue. While Nathan is doing this, his Girlfriend and club performer, Adelaide, is getting rather annoyed at having been engaged for 14 years with no church in sight.
Detroit ends up turning to fellow gambler Sky Masterson for the cash that he needs, but Sky is slightly distracted by the attractive but straight-laced missionary, Sarah Brown.
Guys and Dolls takes the onlooker to some very different locations, from the bright lights of Times Square to the cafes of Cuba by the way of Havana, and even down into depths of New York City’s sewer system. However, as these things usually for, everybody ends up right where they are meant to be.
The brassy, now immortal score of Frank Loesser is without a doubt what makes Guys and Dolls the immense crowd-pleaser that it has always been – regardless of iteration and reimagining. A large cast of both the ensemble and star cast flavours a genuine treat to witness. There is no recommended age limit for the viewer, as it is more than suitable and indeed a treat for everyone of all ages.
The West End premiere of the production opened at the London Coliseum in 1953, on the 28th of May which was just a few days before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. The production this time around ran for an incredible 555 performances which also included a Royal Command Variety Performance.
Sam Levene and Vivian Blaine reprised their Broadway roles starring as Nathan Lane and Miss Adelaide respectively. Robert Alda didn’t come back as Sky Masterson in the first production in the UK, with Jerry Wayne taking the role instead. Taking the role of Sarah Brown was Lizbeth Webb, who was the only principal player that was British and she was chosen by Frank Loesser himself.
The London Coliseum run, outstanding as it was, was not the first stop on the UK tour – that honour went instead to the Bristol Hippodrome with an 8 run performance where it opened on the 19th of May and closed on the 25th of the same month.
Laurence Olivier, yes that one, had wanted to play the part of Nathan Detroit and he started the rehearsals for a London revival that was pencilled in for 1971. This would have been for the National Theatre Company, which at the time was based at the Old Vic. Sadly, Mr Olivier fell ill and he was forced to stop, ultimately ending his revival of the famous role, before it started.
Richard Eyre was at the directorial helm 1982 for a major revival at the National Theatre in London, a revival that he labelled a “rethinking” of the comic musical. This time around the production was nothing short of resplendent, featuring as it did an award-winning, neon light lit set, inspired by the 1979 book Let There Be Neon, by Rudi Stern. To accompany this re-working there was also a brass orchestra, that was innovative but vintage – odd, perhaps, but it worked brilliantly.
As if that wasn’t enough to set it apart, David Toguri’s choreography was immense – in every sense of the word… the tap-dance finale was performed by the entire cast, not just the principles. Opening in 1982, on the 9th of March, the production was an instant success and ran for close to four years, breaking all manner of box office records along the way.
The original cast of this remarkable revival included:
As well the box records, the production also earned 5 Olivier Awards, including one each for McKenzie and Eyre as well as a Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Hoskins.
In October of 1982, Bob Hoskins was replaced by Trevor Peacock, Charleson by Paul Jones and Covington was replaced by Belinda Sinclair. The following year, Imelda Stainton replaced McKenzie, and Fiona Hendley replaced Sinclair.
After the show closed, temporarily, for a run of the poorly received Jean Seberg on Broadway, Guys and Dolls returned to London’s National Theatre in 1984, from April through to September. After a UK wide tour, the production was moved to the West End and the Prince of Wales Theatre – running from June ‘85, to April ‘86.
Two reunion performances, with very nearly the whole original 1982 cast and musicians, were put on at the National Theatre as a tribute to Ian Charleson who died in the November of 1990. The dress rehearsal alone was packed out and tickets for the two performances sold out immediately. Proceeds were given to the new Ian Charleson HIV clinic at the Royal Free Hospital and Charleson scholarships at LAMDA.
There were several revivals following the two tribute performances, but the very last one (so far) occurred across 2017 and 2018 and featured an all-black cast, which was the first all-black Guys and Dolls production, at least in the UK. Opening in December, 2017 on the 2nd, and was given an extension to run until February 27th, 2018 and Royal Exchange in Manchester. The cast:
In this version of the, by now, insanely famous production, the backdrop is pre-war Harlem – 1939, to be more precise – with the musical score referencing gospel and jazz. The critics loved everything about this production, from the relocation, the music and of course the sense of spectacle that Guys and Dolls was known for almost above all else.
Ann Treneman of The Times said in her review – “Whoever had the idea of moving this classic musical from one part of New York to another bit, just up the road, needs to be congratulated…”.
It is, without a shred of doubt, pretty clear that Guys and Dolls will always be remembered as an amazing piece of theatre – even now, 70 years later and, we think, well into the future.