Guys and Dolls: 70 Years of Loesser’s Broadway Gem

SBO Staff • ChoralMilestonesNovember/December 2020 • November 30, 2020

Frank Loesser, legendary Broadway and Hollywood lyricist and composer, wrote Guys and Dolls. This article commemorates the seventieth anniversary of this huge Broadway hit musical. Because Loesser was so involved in other aspects of his stage musicals, he wrote only six stage musicals: Where’s Charley? (1949), Guys and Dolls (1950), The Most Happy Fella (1956), Greenwillow (1960), How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961), and Pleasure and Palaces (1965). Loesser also wrote the music for the film musical Hans Christian Andersen (1952).

Guys and Dolls is based on Damon Runyon’s stories “The Idyll of Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure” and borrowed character plots from other stories such as “Pick the Winner.” Runyon was a writer who focused on New York area gangsters, actors, and Broadway, who usually wrote in the present tense. Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows wrote the libretto, while Loesser wrote both music and lyrics. Loesser also wrote many popular songs including “What Are You Doing, New Year’s Eve,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and “Heart and Soul.”

Guys and Dolls was subtitled “The Fable of Broadway” and debuted on November 24, 1950 at the 46th Street Theater (now the Richard Rodgers Theater), running for 1,200 performances. Robert Alda, Isabel Bigley, Sam Levene, and Vivian Blaine starred. On November 3, 1955, the film adaptation was released starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, and Vivian Blaine reprising her Broadway role as “Miss Adelaide.”

Keith Mason, Ph.D. writes extensively about musicals in the curriculum and commemorates milestone anniversaries of musical theatre and film works.

The Broadway production received five Tony Awards for “Best Musical,” “Best Actor in a Musical” (Alda), “Best Featured Actress in a Musical” (Bigley), “Best Choreography” (Michael Kidd) and “Best Director” (George S. Kaufman).

Guys and Dolls takes place in New York City. Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save a Soul Mission strives to help spread the word of the mission. Nathan Detroit is a gambler trying to find a new location for his floating dice game. Adelaide, Nathan’s fiancée, is desperate to marry and leave her glamorous showgirl lifestyle behind. Sky Masterson is the highest rolling gambler of all who will bet on anything that will turn a profit. 

In Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s, Ethan Mordden observed that Guys and Dolls is “one musical with not a main and supplementary couple but two exactly matched couples, their two stories ingeniously intertwined. Nathan and Sky are old friends and cross paths early in the action, while the two women don’t meet up till the show is almost over. But drop even a single scene of Guys and Dolls and the entire structure would collapse. It’s that well made.”

In A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life, Susan Loesser wrote about her father’s most enduring Broadway musical: “In 1950, when Guys and Dolls opened, Broadway was in its golden age.” She maintained that her father’s musical “easily elbowed its way into the illustrious company and sparkled like a diamond among pearls.”

Learning Scenarios

The following activities can be completed by students alone or with others including distance learning.

  • Frank Loesser Students alone or with others explore Loesser’s seven musicals and discover their main plots and songs.
  • Guys and Dolls Students research background about the original Broadway stage musical including the actors, creators, characters and score.
  • The Score Students analyze the Guys and Dolls score as a whole or as individual songs. Time signature, main messages in lyrics, and the full vocal score can help provide an in- depth analysis. Consider “I’ll Know,” “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Adelaide’s Lament,” “Guys and Dolls,” “If I Were a Bell,” “Sue Me,” and others.
  • Damon Runyon Students learn about Runyon and his stories, especially those that inspired Guys and Dolls.
  • Habits of Mind Analysis Students analyze Guys and Doll characters and songs using the 16 Habits of Mind. They can create a visual that summarizes their findings to share with the rest of the class.
  • Havana Using Sky and Sarah’s trip to Havana in Act I, students explore the history and culture of Cuba’s capital. They can explore cuisine, music, art, geography and dance.

Loesser died in 1969 and is best known for his Broadway musicals, especially Guys and Dolls. His classic musical can easily enhance the music curriculum.

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