Twenty-two years ago a revival of the beloved musical Guys and Dolls captured the affection of theatergoers in New York. The smash hit more than somewhat restored Damon Runyon’s vision of Broadway in our hearts and the production was lovingly captured in this profile by Ross Wetzsteon for New York Magazine.
Wetzsteon was a journalist, critic, and editor in New York City for 35 years. From 1966 until his death in 1998, he worked at the The Village Voice as a contributor and editor, and for several years as its editor-in-chief. During his tenure at the Voice, Wetzsteon oversaw coverage of everything from politics to sports, but his abiding interest was the theater. For 28 years, he was the chairman of the Village Voice Obie Committee, responsible for bestowing awards for excellence on Off- and Off-Off Broadway artists and writers. Wetzsteon also contributed articles to New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Playboy, The New York Times, Inside Sports, Conde Nast Traveler, Mademoiselle, and many other publications. He edited several anthologies, including The Obie Winners in 1980 and The Best of Off Broadway in 1984. He also wrote the preface to a collection of playwright Sam Shepard’s works, Fool for Love and Other Plays, and he was the author of Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960. He also wrote a memorable profile of Dick Young and this winning portrait ofMorgan Freeman.
Dig in to his account of “The Great New York Show.” Reprinted here with permission from Wetzsteon’s estate.
Michael David got the call in the middle of a meeting at the Dodger Productions office at 1501 Broadway. Delicate negotiations had been going on for months, the rights were notorious for being the most closely held in show business, and several other producers were anxiously awaiting the same call. “This is Biff Liff,” the caller said. “I’m sitting here with everybody—and we’ve decided it’s yours.” David thanked Liff, quietly excused himself from the meeting, walked down the hall, poked his head into his partners’ office, and, holding back for a few more seconds the surge of joy that would have everyone in the company popping champagne corks within minutes, announced as calmly as he could, “Well, we’ve got it.”
Faith Prince got the message at a pay phone on the corner of 75th Street and Broadway. Holding a bag of groceries, she called home to tell her fiancé she was having some packages delivered. “Your agent wants you to call,” he told her, so she stuck in another quarter. “The role’s been cast,” her agent said. “Who got it?” she asked nervously. “Someone named Faith Prince.” She started whooping at the top of her lungs. Everyone on the sidewalk looked at her like she was a lunatic, but she didn’t care—she wanted that part.
Nathan Lane got the call the week he opened on Broadway in On Borrowed Time and in the filmFrankie and Johnny. A gossip column had reported months earlier—long before he’d even auditioned—that he’d already been cast, and every time a news item about the show appeared, his name seemed to be linked to it. “The director’s office kept calling to apologize and tell me it was premature,” he says. “But when I finally did read for the part they finally did call to say I had it, I screamed for a minute or two, then said to myself, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you can’t fight public opinion.'”
Peter Gallagher also got the call long after reading about himself in the papers. “I kept hearing I was the guy,” he says, “but that just made me nervous, because in the past that always meant I wasn’t the guy.” But when his agent finally called with the good news, he could only say “Oh, my god” and reflect that he had just a few last-gasp days of freedom before the Spartan existence of rehearsals began. “I also remember the color of the phone and my mouth hanging open,” he says, “but other than that, I went completely blank.”
No one called Jerry Zaks. They were all waiting for his call. The project had been so closely associated with his name for years that most theater people erroneously assumed he’d been in on the deal from the first. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to do it,” says Zaks. “But I kept hedging. People’s expectations were so high. I began to feel intimidated. I kept thinking, what they’re really saying is,‘Don’t mess it up.’ But finally I decided either to do it or shut up about it, so I called Michael and said yes.”
Michael David knew how Jerry Zaks felt—it even got to the point where he hated it when people excitedly congratulated him on landing the rights. “Just one thought kept going through my mind,” he says. “We can only screw it up.”
* * *
Michael David didn’t screw it up; Jerry Zaks didn’t screw it up; the cast didn’t screw it up; choreographer Christopher Chadman and set deigned Tony Walton and costume designer Paul Gallo didn’t screw it up—no one screwed it up. And when, on the night of April 14, a press agent chased a New York Times truck for four blocks, managed to grab a copy of the next morning’s issue, saw the picture on the front page over the caption MISS ADELAIDE AND NATHAN DETROIT RETURN, turned around and raced back down 45th Street toward the Martin Beck Theater, dodging traffic, waving the paper over his head, screaming “We did it!”, they all realized they hadn’t just successfully staged a revival of Guys and Dolls, they’d given reverent rebirth to an icon of the American theater.
“The cherished Runyonland of memory is not altered,” said the Times, “just felt and dreamt anew by intoxicated theater artists. No doubt another Broadway generation will one day find a different, equally exciting way to reimagine this classic. But in our lifetime? Don’t bet on it.” Bells were ringing at the other dailies, too. “My heart sings, my soul roars, and I feel tingly good all over,” raved the Post. “This is a revival to treasure,” said the News under the headline WE GOT THE SHOW RIGHT HERE. And from Newsday: “Everyone always says Broadway’s a crap shoot, but this Guys and Dolls is as close as the theater gets today to a sure thing.”
The show became such a sure thing, in fact, that Phantom of the Opera no longer holds the record for opening day sales. By the time the box office at the Martin Beck Theater finally closed at 10:15 p.m. April 15, more than two hours later than usual, and phone orders were shut off at midnight, the take had reached $396,709.50, breaking the Phantom record by more than $35,000. By the end of the week, sales had topped the million-dollar mark. Adding these figures to a $1.7-million advance sale makes the Dodgers feel a bit better about their $5.5-million budget, and they are anticipating a run of perhaps five years.
In the days that followed the opening, it became clear that the revival of Guys and Dolls was not just a show but one of those pivotal events in the city’s history around which coalesce facts and fancies, statistics and hopes, newly discerned trends and long-repressed aspirations—in short, a phenomenon. The show has radiantly renewed the love affair between New York and the Broadway that for decades was a symbol of the city’s vitality and in the past several years has mirrored its “decline.”
“We were made the foster parents of an icon,” says David, recalling the problems in producing the revival. There was the steady stream of tough questions Jo Sullivan Loesser (Frank Loesser’s widow) asked of potential producers, the difficulties of casting such iconographic roles, the trauma of replacing the leading lady of a $5.5-million show two weeks into previews, the sudden wave of anxiety upon realizing, only ten days before the opening, that the show hadn’t yet come together—no, that wasn’t a sure thing at all. There were times when everyone involved would have been satisfied if the reviews had simply said “Can do, can do.” What were the odds that the producers would roll the dice and have not only a megahit but in Faith Prince and Nathan Lane two “star is born” stories in a single show?
* * *
In 1950, the Roxy was still open, and Klein’s, and Rogers Peet, and you could still find action at the Jamaica Raceway. On Broadway, South Pacific, Call Me Madam, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes were playing to packed houses—at $6.60 tops. In Times Square, you could still see, in George Jean Nathan’s words, “the cheesecake-eating, crap-shooting, bookie haunting, sartorially inflammatory riffraff of the bedizened highway of Runyon’s fancy.”
On November 24, a new musical called Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Leosser and book by Abe Burrows (based on a story by Damon Runyon called “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown”) opened at the 46th Street Theater. And in the Daily News, John Chapman wrote: “Here is New York’s own musical comedy—as bright as a dime in a subway grating, as smart as a sidewalk pigeon, as professional as Joe DiMaggio, as enchanting as the skyline, as new as the paper you’re holding.”
Frank Loesser’s father was a classical piano teacher who hated popular music, so some of the first music the young boy set to words was the clickety-clack of the elevated train that ran past their apartment windows. But in Guys and Dolls, Loesser, who had flunked out of City College and worked for a time as a newspaper reporter before turning to music, recalled the classical forms his father so loved. He brought Bach to Broadway in “Fugue for Tinhorns” (“I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere”), and Handel to his mock-solemn hymn-cantata “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York.” The city’s paradoxical vision of itself—innocent and cosmopolitan, courtly and corrupt, naïve and cynical—found renewed energy in Loesser’s gorgeous score and Burrow’s vivid book.
Abe Burrows was the eleventh writer to tackle the project. A radio and TV writer with no previous musical comedy experience, Burrows almost instantly solved the problems with the book. Working fabulous characters from several stories by Runyon, “the Boswell of Broadway,” into a plot line as old as Shakespeare, he created double love stories, one sentimental (between a high-rolling gambler and a sergeant from a sort of Salvation Army), the other comic (between a high-minded lowlife and the nightclub floozy to whom he’s been “engaged” for fourteen years). Since Burrows was a Times Square denizen himself, he gave the show a bustling pace and sidewalk wit that brought Runyon’s 42nd Street knights and adenoidal chorines to life in a kind of urban idyll.
Just one example of Burrow’s snappy sophistication: Miss Adelaide had originally caught her famous cold from stripping in her nightclub act, but he decided her ailment should be the psychosomatic symptom of Nathan Detroit’s resistance to marriage—and a solid number was transformed into a showstopping classic, “Adelaide’s Lament.”
Guys and Dolls ran for 1,200 performances and won a ton of Tonys—musical, score, libretto, Robert Alda for actor, George S. Kaufman for director, Michael Kidd for choreography. (Trivia question: Which actress from the original production won a Tony? No, not Vivian Blaine, for her performance as Miss Adelaide, but Isabel Bigley, for her performance as Sarah Brown.) The show would have won a Pulitzer, too, but the Columbia trustees, alarmed by Burrow’s recent run-in with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, refused to ratify the drama committee’s nomination. Another intriguing fact about the original is that Sam Levene, who played Nathan, couldn’t sing a lick and said so. Burrows refused to believe this until Levene started to sing to the writer in the middle of a crowded midtown restaurant. Burrows, after a stunned pause, grimly agreed with Levene.
* * *
Sold to the movies for a then-record $11 million, the musical was sluggishly directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and glamorously but crassly cast by Sam Goldwyn. Stubby Kaye, Dan Dayton, and Johnny Silvers got the film off to a rousing start with their tinhorn trio, but Jean Simmons quickly brought the show to a halt with her conventional good girl performance as Sarah. Frank Sinatra, who might have made a perfect Sky Masterson, made a perfunctory Nathan Detroit. As for Marlon Brando, for whom Loesser wrote the relatively undemanding “Your Eyes Are the Eyes of a Woman in Love”—well, Loesser actually liked his singing but found his acting lackadaisical and couldn’t bring himself to sit through the entire movie, especially when he learned that Goldwyn had scrapped several of his songs. Burrows fared just as badly—as Orson Welles told him after an early screening, “Abe, they’ve dropped a turd on every one of your lines.”
Loesser was pained by the experience of the movie, and because of that, Jo Loesser—who met and married Frank when she starred in The Most Happy Fella—has kept a tight rein on the rights. She has shrewdly allowed the numberless high school and amateur productions that have kept the show a legend in people’s memories but she has carefully monitored the commercial productions that maintain its mythic Broadway reputation.
“We considered several producers on and off over the years, all well respected,” says Jo Loesser—”we” being herself; Harold Orenstein, the lawyer for the Loesser estate; Burrow’s widow, Karen; and Biff Liff, who manages the Burrows trust. “The main thing we wanted,” she continues, “is that it be played the way it was written. I mean, even down to that line about two pairs of pants—no man buys two pairs of pants with a suit these days, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s what was in the script, and that’s the way it was going to be done.”
In Crazy for You, the “new” Gershwin hit, George-and-Ira standards have been loaded in from a half-dozen other shows. “That’s exactly what I didn’t want,” says Jo Loesser with some heat. She recalled a producer wanted to revive one of her husband’s earlier shows, Where’s Charley, and asked for “more songs.” “More songs?” says Jo Loesser. “Why did he want to do it if he didn’t like the way it was? So the things I was looking for with Guys and Dolls had everything to do with not making arbitrary changes. I was more concerned with the right director than the right star.”
If Jo Loesser was as far as possible from a “Just send me the check” guardian of her husband’s legacy, Michael David and his Dodger colleagues were ready to write out whatever cheeks it took to do the show properly. “We do our damnedest to produce things with some sense of continuity,” David says of the Dodgers. Starting out Off Broadway at the Chelsea Theater Center in the early seventies, David’s producing background includes Allen Ginsberg’s Kadish and Jean Genet’s The Screens, not exactly Harry the Horse country. But after such shows as Candide, Big River, and Secret Garden, they felt “we’d paid a high enough tuition to say we’d learned how to do a big musical.
“When we learned that the rights for Guys and Dolls were going to be made available,” says David, “we got in line. Producing is a lot like fishing—you set out a number of lines and rush to the one that gets a bite.” David met several times with Jo Loesser at her apartment on the Upper East Side, and with other rights holders at the Russian Tea Room, and the Music Theater International, and the Dodger office. “The meetings were comfortable, I’d even say collegial,” he recalls, and while they weren’t exactly grilling, “everybody asked about everything—who’d direct, who’d be in the cast, what we planned for the road, how many violins we’d have in the pit.”
David and his colleagues had their own ground rules. They wanted an ensemble cast rather than a show driven by a few stars. “Remember that rumor that Tom Selleck wanted to play Sky Masterson?” he asks with a rueful grin. They didn’t want to do a cutting-corners production but the best one they could manage, and they didn’t want to fall back on a road show to recoup any losses. (A road show isin the works; it will visit some 35 cities beginning in September.) “In a sense, it was financial lunacy,” David says. “It’s almost a law around this office not to use the word ‘revival.’ No revival has ever played over two years, most under one year. And with the budget we were proposing, well, we were flying in the face of reason.”
* * *
Jo Loesser was impressed. “But then, I was impressed by almost all the proposals,” she says. “In fact, Michael and his group came in fairly near the end, and we almost gave it to another person.” For all of David’s careful presentations, her decision finally came down to something that had never even crossed his mind. “I remember seeing him at meetings of the Tony-administration committee,” she says. “I watch people very carefully at those meetings. I liked him. I liked the things he stood for. And I guess what I really liked,” she says with a laugh, “is that he always voted for the same things I voted for.”
“The more I hoped we’d get it, the more the Guys and Dolls virus or narcotic or whatever it is began to take over my life,” says David. “And then the minute we got it, I almost felt trapped. What I mean by that,” he explains, “is that when you’ve made a deal like this, when you’re given the guardianship of one of the most singular works in the musical theater library—well, you can’t be sort of honorable. It’s a privilege, sure, but it’s also an enormous responsibility—a responsibility to do it as fresh and yet as respectful as possible.”
“Fresh and respectful”—that’s the responsibility that was handed over to Jerry Zaks when he was signed on as director. Zaks had to find the delicate poise between vivid restating and slavish reenactment. “Well,” Zaks says with his usual brisk ebullience, “no one ever came to me if they wanted Shakespeare on roller skates, and yet the one thing I never want to be accused of is predictability.”
Zaks is the most audience-oriented director in the business, but when he began work on Guys and Dolls, he first had to please an audience of one‚ Jo Loesser, who wasn’t about to fade away just because the contracts had been signed. Though easygoing and affable, Zaks does have a few rigid rules—no outsiders in rehearsals and no comments on the actors’ work from anyone but him. “Even a compliment can be destructive,” he says, “if it makes an actor self-conscious.” But after sitting through the first run-through and after seeing several early previews from the last row, Jo Loesser had plenty of comments, written out in copious notes.
One thing in particular annoyed her—in the scene in which Sky Masterson bets Nathan Detroit he can’t tell what color tie he’s wearing, Nathan wasn’t wearing a blue tie, as in the original, but a polka-dotted tie, as in the movie. Jo Loesser made it pointedly plain she wanted that blue tie back. “And she was right,” admits Zaks. “Polka dot was trying too hard to be funny.”
Zaks listened respectfully to all of Jo Loesser’s suggestions—this wasn’t Eugene O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta, embalming her husband’s work; this was a woman as passionately committed to precision as he was. “They got it right back in 1950,” he says, “so I’d be awfully stupid not to be guided by that.” David agrees: “The more we worked on it, the more amazed we were by the thought the creators obviously put into it. Almost every time we considered even the smaller changes, we discovered they wouldn’t work as well as what was there—they’d already figured that out.”
Still, Zaks has tinkered with the text. In the original, for instance, Nicely-Nicely comes in with a bag of groceries in Act One, Scene Seven, and Zaks spent hourstrying to make the moment funny. He finally realized that it was easy for the tubby Stubby Kaye of the original to get a quick laugh and that since they’d cast a thinnish actor, it was no longer funny. Out went the scene. You’re right, said Jo Loesser. Out.
“Maybe your watch is fast,” says one of the Salvation Army-type soldiers to the general as it seems the sinners aren’t going to show up after all. “That line never got a single laugh in previews,” says Zaks. “I became obsessed with finding out why. Finally I found the answer—a couple of the soldiers laugh uproariously at the line and the general whirls on them, and that’s when the audience laughs. It’s just the tiniest thing, of course, but this material doesn’t have any weaknesses—if something doesn’t work, it’s our fault, not the creators’.”
Zaks experienced an epiphany of sorts a couple years ago, when he was looking through a book of Tony Walton illustrations. “Guys and Dolls was already firmly lodged in the back of my mind,” he recalls, “but when I saw what Tony could do with a brush—I already knew what he could do with a set—I had this sudden sense of the look that would work, the kind of quick-dissolving unity he could bring. And from that moment on, the show wasn’t just a fantasy, it was alive. And when I told Tony, he went crazy. All he could talk about for hours was bold colors.” The sets by Walton are a Valentine to Jo Mielziner’s originals; Long’s costumes, a shriek of Technicolor; and Gallo’s lighting, a brash blaze—honoring the creators not by imitating their work but by saluting it.
Zaks interviewed several choreographers before signing Christopher Chadman. “I asked them to do presentations at the Broadway Dance Center showing me their version of Runyonland,” he recalls. “And Chris had exactly the style I wanted—energetic, sexy, and with a strong sense of storytelling.”
But the success of the show was hardly preordained. Up until ten days before opening night, in fact, Zaks was afraid they might be rolling snake eyes. “The difference between clicking and not clicking is often infinitesimal, and too much wasn’t clicking,” he recalls.
* * *
They’d already gone through a traumatic cast change, replaced Carolyn Mignini with her understudy, Josie de Guzman, when it became apparent during early previews that the chemistry between Sky and Sarah was fizzling. They realized the tempo was way off on several numbers—the legendary Pat Rooney Sr. number “More I Cannot Wish You,” for instance, had to be slower, but the preceding number had to go faster. And the opening ballet between the overture and “Runyonland” wasn’t working; it was out, it was back in, it was out again. Finally Chadman fixed it days before opening night. It’s now a mere 90-second scene instead of the original seven minutes, but an enchanted 90 seconds, a bridge that allows the audience to cross over into “Runyonland.”
But worst of all, the actors were uncomfortable in their costumes, stiff on the set, stunned by the lighting. “No one was bold enough yet,” says Zaks, still sweating at the memory. (This was especially true of Peter Gallagher, say those who saw early previews.) “No one was matching the energy of the design; no one was stepping forward and taking charge. Then,” says Zaks, “at the last moment they all did.” And from the moment Benny Southstreet (J.K. Simmons), Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Walter Bobbie), and Rusty Charlie (Tim Shew) open the show with the “Fugue for Tinhorns,” orchestrated and sung, as is all the music, with a kind of luminous brassiness, the audience ecstatically inhabits Runyon’s Times Square dreamscape.
Meticulous tinkering is only a small part of Zak’s genius—as theatergoers well remember from such shows as Anything Goes, Lend Me a Tenor, and Six Degrees of Separation. Comic precision, narrative conviction, ensemble performance—those are the signatures of the Zaks style.
“Jerry pulled a lot out of me I didn’t know was there,” says Prince. “He’s the greatest director I’ve ever had at breaking down comedy and finding out why things work or don’t work. He gives a ton of notes. Everything’s under a microscope. He’s so precise. So specific.” Those are the words most people who have worked for Zaks invariable use. “I’m very intuitive myself,” says Prince, “so after he makes the smallest change, I go backward for about three performances—but then I go further.
“Just one small example. In the carnation scene, where I say how I’ve been engaged for fourteen years and at last we’re getting married and the next line is, ‘Time certainly does fly.’ People were laughing, but not very much, until Jerry had me speed up the first sentence and slow down the second one.”
That little Marilyn Monroe squeak in her voice? Prince brought that to the role herself, “but Jerry monitors it very carefully to make sure I don’t overdo it.” She also sings in two slightly different voices, she says, one for Adelaide the nightclub floozy, the other for Adelaide the character, “a very cutesy Kewpie doll at the Hot Box, a very strong woman in her personal life. Linda Wier in Newsday was the only critic who wrote about that. She said I go for a ‘cross between Betty Boop and a dainty lady trucker,’ and that really nailed what I’m trying to do.”
Prince tries to avoid the two-dimensional in other areas as well. “One of the reasons for the huge success of this show is that it’s not about a chandelier or a helicopter, it goes back to the human part of theater. Adelaide isn’t just a doll letting things happen to her, she’s a complicated and centered character with a lot at stake. She and Nathan have a terrific sex life—it’s not even referred to, but it’s there. And yet she’s also very proper, very respectable in her way. She’s had a good upbringing, and for a woman to be unmarried at that time—well, she’s finally had it with Nathan; it all avalanches on her at once; those 48 hours are the most crucial time in her life. We’re playing the comedy of all this, obviously, but what really makes it work is that the comedy comes out of the drama. And Adelaide wins! We’ve made this journey with her and she wins!”
* * *
Vivian Blaine. The name keeps coming up when people talk about Prince’s performance. As one theatergoer puts it, “This is the year Vivian Blaine finally wins her Tony.” “It’s funny,” says Prince, “the way people keep saying I’ve got her down when I hardly knew who she is. My family gave me the movie for Christmas, but I barely watched it, and some of her songs are cut anyway.” And that voice with the Blaine-like accent? “I’m from Virginia. I don’t know where I got this accent, but it probably has more to do with my sister-in-law than it does with Vivian Blaine,” says Prince.
If Faith Prince seems to have emerged from nowhere, Nathan Lane has been a familiar and favorite face to New York theatergoers for close to a decade, especially in his endearingly grouchy and hysterical performances in The Lisbon Traviata and Lips Together, Teeth Apart. At 21, and then called Joe Lane, he first played Nathan Detroit at Cedar Grove’s Meadowbrook Dinner Theater in New Jersey—”The all-children’s version of Guys and Dolls,” Lane says wryly. But it seems there was another “Joe Lane” in Equity, so the young actor had to make a quick decision. Off the top of his head, he chose the name of the character he was playing: Joe Lane became Nathan Lane. “My family still calls me Joe,” he says, “but when my mother’s mad, she’ll call me Nathan in quotation marks.”
Lane talks about laughter as a matter of “grave concern.” “One of the primary rules of comedy is that the stakes are high. You have to immerse yourself in the character as if you were in Peer Gynt or Long Day’s Journey. Sure, somewhere in your head you’re aware of the technical side, too—and Jerry’s the captain of a very tight ship that way—but all the while you’re mining a scene for laughs you’ve got to base it on real truths.
“I think of Nathan as a small businessman,” Lane says. “He ekes out a living, but he can never get ahead of himself. He’s aware that what he does for a living is illegal, but he feels he’s providing a service to the community. It’s a rough crowd, but he’s a decent person—it’s just that he has this crisis to deal with, finding a place for his crap game.”
But the key to his characterization, Lane feels, is “how deeply Nathan cares for Adelaide. By today’s standards, I suppose you’d have to say they have a very successful relationship. When she finally stands up to him, he realizes he can’t live without her. And when she accuses him of not loving her, he gets mad—not funny mad but really mad. It’s absolutely crucial that I show the depth of his love—otherwise it’s just jokes.” “Comedy?” Lane asks with a rhetorical flourish. “It’s not about getting laughs, it’s about telling the story.”
Josie de Guzman’s story has a Runyonesque twist of its own—fired as a supporting actress in the season’s biggest flop, Nick and Nora, she became a leading lady when another actress was fired from the season’s biggest hit. “I went through a lot of difficult emotions,” she says, “but many great actors have been fired in this business. I was in good company in both cases.”
Her take on Sarah Brown? Like Prince she stresses strength, and like Lane she stresses love. “To me, the key moment in establishing her character is when she first meets Sky. It’s important that though she’s flustered she knows his number and stands up to him as his equal. She has strong conviction, she believes in the Mission and in saving souls, and unless I bring out that side of her, his conversion at the end doesn’t make any sense.”
Peter Gallagher and his wife danced to “I’ll Know” at their wedding, but he hardly knew the show itself until after he was cast. The movie? “I looked at parts of it,” he says, adding with wry self-deprecation, “I didn’t see much benefit in comparing myself to Marlon.” But Zaks had him in mind virtually from the beginning. “Peter has that combination of macho and sensitivity that’s just right for the part,” he says.
In the Sky-Sarah plot line, says Gallagher, an important transformation occurs: “A guy and a doll save their souls.” In Gallagher’s view, Sky isn’t just a guy who looks smooth tilting his fedora, “he’s a gambler who loves the long shot.” In fact, he’s even a kind of modern-day Orpheus, descending into the sewer to bet his life and find redemption.
* * *
There’s something ineffable about the way the success of Guys and Dolls has captivated the city’s imagination, something far beyond the arrival of one more don’t-miss show. Most members of the company—still a bit dazed from their raves—attribute the Guys and Dolls phenomenon to nostalgia for a time when criminals were colorful and the sex wars ended at the altar, or to the desire of audiences to feel good during bad times, or to the recapture of Broadway from the special effects spectacle of the Brits, or just to the fact that it’s a damned good show.
These are all part of it, of course, as are a number of other trends and events—the angry cynicism about electoral politics, the sense of paralysis about the city’s vanishing amenities, the ill-concealed West-of-the-Hudson contempt for our “helluva town,” and even the John Gotti trial, its audiotapes sometimes sounding as if they’d been written by a latter-day Runyon.
There’s no Nicely-Nicely Johnson hanging out in Times Square these days, no Harry the Horse, no Angie the Ox. There’s no cop on the beat tipping his hat as you take a 4 a.m. stroll past the drug dealers and transvestite hookers and pause to window-shop for porno sleaze. Runyon was born in Kansas, after all, and his Times Square was a fantasy even in 1950.
But for better or worse, New York’s vision of itself has always been linked to its vision of Broadway. Raucous, romantic, feisty, gallant, cutthroat, and softhearted, “people with bumps,” as producer Cy Feuer instructed the casting director of the original Guys and Dolls. “Fine, upstanding, dishonest people,” as Jimmy Breslin wrote of Runyon’s New Yorkers—for all his sentimental distortions, that kid from Kansas sure nailed us.
No fanfare—it’s only a show—but in this “musical fable of Broadway,” as Guys and Dolls is subtitled, the denizens of “the devil’s own city” find a kind of redemption and perhaps the transfixed theatergoers at the Martin Beck feel they’re hearing the faint first note of the overture to their own hopes that their sinful city can find a kind of rebirth.
[Photo Via: Masterworks Broadway]
here are few things that remain constant in life, but for me one of them is this: Stephen Sondheim’s work has touched me for more than half a century. It did so when I was first listening to records as a child, when I didn’t know his name or much else, and it does so right this minute, as songs of middle-aged regret like “Too Many Mornings” and “You Must Meet My Wife” are randomly shuffled into my headphones by iTunes. It’s unusual to remain so loyal to a single artist. We tend to outgrow our early tastes and heroes. It’s even more unlikely to have that artist materialize in person and play a crucial role in one’s life—as Sondheim first did when I was 21 and he was 40. Since then, with some lengthy intermissions along the way, he’s been a mentor, an occasional antagonist, a friend, and even an unwitting surrogate parent.
While it was far from the case when I first met him, Sondheim at 83 is an institution and a cottage industry. He’s received every prize an artist can in America, often multiple times. His shows are in constant revival. In November alone, he was lionized by the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York, and City Center at home, even as a West End production of his 1981 Broadway failure, Merrily We Roll Along, beat out The Book of Mormon for Best Musical in London’s Evening Standard awards. At this point, so much has been written about his career that it’s hard to find much new to say about it. Besides, Sondheim often says it better than anyone else. The most transparent of artists when it comes to explicating his craft, he has given countless interviews detailing his methods and motives, meta and micro, song by song and show by show. (Much of it is codified in the essays tucked into the two juicy volumes of collected lyrics he published at the start of this decade.) But the man himself, the guy behind the work, can be harder to pin down. This is a challenge that the playwright and director James Lapine, Sondheim’s friend and longtime collaborator, and I tried to address in Six by Sondheim, our documentary debuting December 9 on HBO. I’ll let the film speak for itself, not least because almost all the speaking is done by its subject, whose on-camera interviews over 50-plus years shape a narrative built around a half-dozen of his songs. But I continue to wrestle with my own, separate Sondheim narrative: Not a day goes by when I don’t reflect on what I’ve learned from him and what he and his work have meant to me for as far back as I can remember.
There is an article in the Times today about the right way to say “Godot” in Samuel Beckett’s iconic play, Waiting for Godot. I’ve come to believe that the character Godot isn’t a mystery to be solved. The title of the play in French, the language in which it was written, is En Attendant Godot or which I always took to mean While Waiting for Godot. To me, that’s what the play is about, what we do while we wait, not who we are waiting for.
“Orphans” is known as a very dark play. What do you make of audiences laughing?
Baldwin: I had gauged in my mind that a third of it was funny and two-thirds of it was odd and tragic and dramatic. We go out for the first preview, and it flips. It’s suddenly two-thirds funny and one-third dramatic. Which I was very unprepared for.
Foster: It’s still being massaged. What we all agree on is: The performances have to come from the heart. If the laughs happen, the laughs happen. But we’re not catering to that. It’s easy for me to ride the wave of laughter, hook the audience and ride the laugh, but I’m not doing that here. The spearhead will become sharper.
Baldwin: Part of the challenge is the era of the play. In “Orphans” you have me saying to a young guy: “Come on over here, son, you’re a good boy, let me encourage you. You want some encouragement? Let me give you some encouragement.” Back then this was straightforward dialogue, received by the audience without much irony. Today it’s a gay and sitcomy world, where innuendo is seen in everything. We asked ourselves, “How do we say those lines and stay with it,” because there’s no gay subtext to what Harold is doing. But at the first preview people snickered at that.
Foster: [mutters to himself] Why are they laughing at that?
Is there anything you can do to deal with the audience snickering?
Baldwin: You just play the lines straightforwardly. And you focus on your intention. My character grew up in an orphanage, and he’s determined to give these two other orphan boys a chance.
If memory serves, sometime around March 1999 a caller to The Daily News introduced herself as Nora Ephron, and how about dinner?
She was thinking that the life and death of Mike McAlary would make a film. Ephron told me that she couldn’t remember ever meeting him, but that she had read the obituaries a few months earlier, after his death at 41 on Christmas Day 1998. Seen from a distance, the contrails of his life were the stuff of myths.
Fueled by high-octane swagger, McAlary had been a star columnist at the city tabloids for a decade, specializing in police corruption and police heroics. Near the end he fell spectacularly on his face and was written off, prematurely and in some circles, gleefully, as a sloppy, self-aggrandizing hack. Terminally ill, he bolted his own chemotherapy session one summer morning to sneak into the hospital room of Abner Louima, who had been grotesquely tortured with a plunger by police officers. A few months before he died, McAlary was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the columns that made the case a national scandal.
What Ephron needed from me, and others, were not bold-type headlines, but brush strokes. There were things I couldn’t be much help on. McAlary and I were not bar buddies — he was a night life Olympian — and for most of the decade, we worked at different papers. But we were the same age, both writing columns three times a week and we spoke almost every day to help each other feed the column furnace, swapping names, phone numbers, angles.
He began practically every conversation not with hello, but by announcing, “This is good for us.”
[Image Via: Iconoclast]
Here’s a must-read. John Lahr on the new production of “Death of a Salesman”:
Cast to a T, and beautiful in all its scenic dimensions (with Jo Mielziner’s original, 1949 set design), this staging of “Death of a Salesman” is the best I expect to see in my lifetime.
…The tears that brimmed in my eyes in those initial wordless moments receded almost as soon as the first dialogue was spoken. And at the production’s end I found myself identifying, in a way I never had before, with the woman kneeling by a grave who says, “Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry.”
Mr. Nichols has created an immaculate monument to a great American play. It is scrupulous in its attention to all the surface details that define time, place and mood. (Ann Roth’s costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting feel utterly of a piece with Mielziner and North’s original contributions.) And as staged and paced it is perhaps the most lucid “Salesman” I’ve ever seen.
…That Mr. Hoffman is one of the finest actors of his generation is beyond dispute. His screen portraits, whether in starring roles (like his Oscar-winning turn in “Capote”) or supporting ones (“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Boogie Nights”), are among the most memorable of recent decades. Though he was brilliant in the 2000 revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” his stage work has been more variable.
Certainly his performance here is more fully sustained than those in “The Seagull” (for Mr. Nichols) and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” But as a complete flesh-and-blood being, this Willy seems to emerge only fitfully. His voice pitched sonorous and low, his face a moonlike mask of unhappiness, he registers in the opening scenes as an abstract (as well as abstracted) Willy, a ghost who roams through his own life. (And yes, at 44, Mr. Hoffman never seems a credible 62.)
Mind you, there are instances of piercing emotional conviction throughout, moments you want to file and rerun in memory. Mr. Hoffman does terminal uncertainty better than practically anyone, and he’s terrific in showing the doubt that crumples Willy just when he’s trying to sell his own brand of all-American optimism. (His memory scenes with his self-made brother, played by John Glover, are superb.) What he doesn’t give us is the illusion of the younger Willy’s certainty, of the belief in false gods.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman does Willy Loman. Oh, baby.
Hoffman is a fun actor and is at his best in a meaty role. Doesn’t get much chewier than Willy Loman, does it?
I love legitimate theater.
Would a ticket to a night of one-acts inspired by Derek Jeter constitute the greatest gag gift ever given to a Red Sox fan?
I see a tough girl from the Bronx with a huge crush on Jeter. Her lumpy boyfriend, who is sweet but dim, takes her to a game for her birthday. Bleachers of course. He proposes at the game, fans jeer. And her answer is…?
Or a couple of low-lifes drink beer in a dark apartment working up the courage to go out and rob a convenience store. The ballgame is on in the background as they alternate between bickering and goading. The game turns dramatic, Derek Jeter sends it to extra innings with a clutch hit. Do the guys still commit the crime?
What do you see?
The new production of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” was enthusiastically reviewed by Ben Brantley in the New York Times earlier this week:
Even more than with “Death of a Salesman,” Miller used “Bridge” to sell his theory that true tragic heroes may well emerge from the common run of contemporary lives. So eager was he to make the point that he even included a one-man Greek chorus, an Italian-born lawyer named Alfieri (here played by Michael Cristofer), who speaks loftily about the grandeur of the story’s “bloody course” of incestuous longings and fatal consequences.
Perhaps Miller felt that plays, like classical heroes, required tragic flaws, and thus provided one for “Bridge” in the form of the long-winded Alfieri. This drama needs no annotator or apologist if it’s acted with the naturalistic refinement — and accumulation of revelatory detail — found in this interpretation.
I had wondered if “Bridge” really needed another revival. New York saw a first-rate production only a dozen years ago, directed by Michael Mayer, with Anthony LaPaglia, Allison Janney and the young Brittany Murphy (who died at 32 last year). But this latest incarnation makes the case that certain plays, like certain operas, are rich enough to be revisited as often and as long as there are performers with strong, original voices and fresh insights.
About a year after Miller’s death in February 2005, and a few months before Longhi passed away, I happened to interview the lawyer about the old waterfront. Unlike his “portly” stage likeness Alfieri, Longhi was, at 90, a tall, trim and elegant man. Sitting in his Manhattan law office on lower Broadway, he recalled how his friend Miller, who lived in picturesque Brooklyn Heights in the late ’40s, “often thought about that mysterious world of the Brooklyn Italian waterfront. . . . But he being an intellectual, who’s gonna talk to him? Nobody.” In his autobiography, “Timebends,” Miller remembered wondering, on his daily walks, about “the sinister waterfront world of gangster-ridden unions, assassinations, beatings, bodies thrown into the lovely bay at night.” But, he was forced to admit, “I could never penetrate the permanent reign of quiet terror on the waterfront hardly three blocks from my peaceful apartment.”
…Miller first heard the story that became “A View From the Bridge” while on a trip with Longhi to Sicily in 1948. “Longhi mentioned a story . . . of a longshoreman who had ratted to the Immigration Bureau on two brothers,” Miller wrote, “his own relatives, illegal immigrants who were living in his very home, in order to break an engagement between one of them and his niece.” Longhi told me, “it happened to my client . . . who turned to me and said, ‘I’m going to kill so-and-so,’ and then it turned out that I figured he must be in love with the kid. And I told this story to Miller and he said, ‘What an opera!'”
No one would mistake Red Hook or Columbia Street today for the place whose tough waterfront culture so shocked Miller in the late ’40s. But the last time I was down there, I saw a throwback to Eddie’s world, an aspect of New York dock life that never completely dies: Up on the Waterfront Commission building there was a new banner advertising a special crime-tips number that read: “HAD ENOUGH? Theft, corruption, and organized crime cost the port millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.” One side of the street may sell New Zealand meat pies and feature a French backyard bistro, but the ragged side of his old neighborhood Eddie Carbone would know at a glance.
Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
A Streetcar Named Desire…was directed by [Elia] Kazan, who seems to have an instinct for the best of both [Arthur] Miller and Williams. It is perhaps the most misunderstood of his plays: the English and French productions were both so blatantly sensationalised that Williams’ underlying fibre passed unnoticed. If Willy Loman is the desperate average man, Blanche DuBois is the desperate exceptional woman. Willy’s collapse began when his son walked into a hotel apartment and found him with a whore; Blanche’s when she entered “a room that I thought was empty” and found her young husband embracing an older man. In each instance the play builds up to a climax involving guilt and concomitant disgust. Blanche, nervously boastful, lives in the leisured past; her defense against actuality is a sort of aristocratic Bovarysme, at which her brutish brother-in-law Stanley repeatedly sneers. Characteristically, Williams keeps his detachment and does not take sides: he never denies that Stanley’s wife, in spite of her sexual enslavement, is happy and well-adjusted, nor does he exaggerate the cruelty with which Stanley reveals to Blanche’s new suitor secrets of her nymphomaniac past. The play’s weakness lies in the fact that the leading role lends itself to grandiose overplaying by unintelligent actresses…
Kenneth Tynan, 1954
Nobody has ever confused Cate Blanchett with not being an intelligent actress. But man, dig this rave review of Liv Ullman’s new production of Streetcar from the Times theater critic, Ben Brantley:
Blanche DuBois may well be the great part for an actress in the American theater, and I have seen her portrayed by an assortment of formidable stars including Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Patricia Clarkson and Natasha Richardson. Yet there’s a see-sawing between strength and fragility in Blanche, and too often those who play her fall irrevocably onto one side or another.
Watching such portrayals, I always hear the voice of Vivien Leigh, the magnificent star of Elia Kazan’s 1951 movie, whispering Blanche’s lines along with the actress onstage. But with this “Streetcar,” the ghosts of Leigh — and, for that matter, of Marlon Brando, the original Stanley — remain in the wings. All the baggage that any “Streetcar” usually travels with has been jettisoned. Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have performed the play as if it had never been staged before, with the result that, as a friend of mine put it, “you feel like you’re hearing words you thought you knew pronounced correctly for the first time.”
This newly lucid production of a quintessentially American play comes to us via a Norwegian director, best known as an actress in the brooding Swedish films of Ingmar Bergman, and an Australian movie star, famous for impersonating historical figures like Elizabeth I and Katharine Hepburn. Blessed perhaps with an outsider’s distance on an American cultural monument, Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have, first of all, restored Blanche to the center of “Streetcar.”
I haven’t been to the theater in years but this sounds like a memorable experience for those lucky few who’ll get to see it.
One of the things that interests me here, is how Brando’s performance in movie version of Streetcar, and presumably the original stage version too, was so stunning that it overshadowed the lead character. The role wasn’t minor exactly, but it wasn’t the central character, and his performance was towering, seminal. What are some other examples of a supporting performance dominating a production?
These are all over the place (and some are really minor characters more than even supporting ones), but off the top of my head, here’s a few: Orson Wells in The Third Man, Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, John Turturro in Miller’s Crossing, and Joe Pesci in Good Fellas.
Ba Ba Booey
I groaned when Pat Jordan told me the Times assigned him to do a piece on the playwright, screenwriter, director, Neil LaBute. Pat’s writing has an almost feral quality and when matched with a plump, if deserving target like LaBute, well, you know it is not going to be pretty. I’ve seen a couple of LaBute’s movies and can’t think of one good thing to say about them. I found them empty and vicious and completely phony. The thought of what a hard old sharp shooter like Jordan would do with a misanthropic mo mo like LaBute was not exactly appetizing.
The story is in this week’s New York Times Magazine. I think Pat went easy on him all considering though I don’t imagine that LaBute will see it that way.