Guys and Dolls is perhaps the quintessential New York musical, capturing Damon Runyon’s portrait of a city once populated with gamblers, show girls, and characters from the underworld, all targets for a Salvation Army-like band of do-gooders, intent on saving sinners’ souls. Music by Frank Loesser includes songs – “Luck Be a Lady,” “If I Were a Bell,” and others – that are now part of the Great American Songbook.
There’s great excitement for a new production at Ford’s Theatre that will open on March 13 and run through May 20. Karen Vincent will star as Sarah Brown, a sergeant for the Save-a-Soul Mission, who attracts the attention of gambler Sky Masterson, and Maria Egler, will play Adelaide, engaged for more than a decade to Nathan Detroit, whose focus is on finding a venue for a floating crap game.
Vincent has appeared in two other productions at Ford’s – Into the Woods (Cinderella’s Mother, Little Red’s Granny, Goose that laid the golden Egg, others) and Ragtime (Helen Hayes Award, Ensemble). Her credits at Adventure Theatre MTC include: Blueberries for Sal; Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt; James and the Giant Peach (Helen Hayes Award, Ensemble); and Petite Rouge. At the Nextstop Theatre, she appeared in: A Grand Night for Singing; Kiss Me Kate (Helen Hayes nomination). As a vocalist, she’s performed with the Melting Pot Big Band and the Craig Gildner Big Band. Vincent’s training includes: Eastman School of Music; New England Conservatory; and the Aspen Music Festival.
Egler also appeared in Ford’s: Into the Woods (Cinderella’s Stepmother) and Ragtime, as well as A Christmas Carol, 110 in the Shade, and Hello, Dolly! At Arlington’s Signature she appeared in Blackbeard, A Little Night Music, The Fix, Diner, Elmer Gantry, Sunday in the Park with George, Crossing, and Gone Country. She also appeared in cabarets at Signature – Good Times: TV Theme Songs, Lost Songs of the 80s, 2013 Holiday Follies, and Funny Ladies. D.C. Her other D.C. credits include: Camelot at the Kennedy Center: The Sound of Music at Olney; Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson at Studio; The Music Man and It’s a Grand Night for Singing at Washington Savoyards. She was part of the National Tour for Gypsy. She received her B.M. at Catholic University.
Taking time out from rehearsals, they answered questions about this iconic musical and the character they play.
In this #metoo era, many films, plays, and musicals are being revised. In a recent Broadway revival of Carousel for example, references to domestic violence were edited out. But the Guys and Dolls envisioned by Damon Runyon still reflects the male-dominated culture of the 1950s. Why do you think that this musical remains intact and that audiences continue to love it?
Maria: We have discussed (with director Peter Flynn) that the women in this show in no way feel inferior or deferential to the men. They are just as strong, and just as independent as the men. All of the women in our show have jobs and are making their own money, which the men are not doing. The women here have the steady jobs and the men are the ones who toss their fates to the wind with their gambling.
I believe the musical remains a hit with audiences because of the universal themes of love, dreams, fears and expectations.
Today’s Times Square bears little resemblance to the one depicted in Guys and Dolls, but despite its Disney-fication, it remains the crossroads of America, bringing together locals and tourists who represent a diverse America. Why was setting this tale in Times Square so important to the story?
Karen: Times Square is the heart of NYC, and NYC is the great melting pot of the United States. It’s always full of bright lights and interesting characters. It is the epitome of extremes, and so it is the perfect backdrop for the colorful Runyon cast of gamblers, show girls and missionaries. It can also act as the visual representation of the vices that the missionaries are preaching against.
There are many words and phrases describing people, places or things that are outdated and might not be familiar to audiences – Barbasol, Hollanderize, two pairs of pants, lickerish tooth, Guy Lombardo. Did any of them confuse you? Any advice for the audience before they see the musical?
Maria: There are definitely some pop-culture references that younger audiences might not fully understand, but the show is so well written that the context really does the heavy lifting for us. Even if you don’t know what Hollanderize means, the message that Adelaide is conveying in “Take Back Your Mink” is certainly not lost.
Karen: My family is from Brooklyn for four generations on both sides, and I grew up spending a lot of time with my grandfather who was born in 1911. He was a real-life Runyon character, and used the same type of colorful vocabulary in his day-to-day speech. That being said, I love the sound of Runyonese and it makes a surprising amount of sense to me. Fun fact: “lickerish tooth” is actually a purely Loesser lyric that he decided upon while trying to find a more charming way of saying covetous or lecherous.
Sarah and Adelaide are very different, but they come together. Talk about how they manage to help each other and find common ground.
Maria: While they are very different, they are both trying to find the courage to make the choice that scares them. I think the concept of strong women supporting and encouraging strong women is key here.
Karen: Despite their superficial differences, Sarah and Adelaide find comradery in their shared strength and independence. They know what they want and are working tirelessly to reach their goals and are both struggling to get their love interests to settle down and commit to a life of domestic integrity.
Sarah makes a judgment about Sky, that because he’s a gambler, he knows nothing about religion. But he surprises her, correcting something from scripture on the Save-a-Soul Mission’s wall. Opposites attract but they also have a lot in common. He wouldn’t have picked up those Bibles in all those hotel rooms unless he was searching for something greater than what he had. And Sarah, perhaps, was looking to bring some excitement into her life. Would their relationship have happened unless they opened themselves up to change?
Karen: The themes of “judgment” and “change” are ubiquitous in any story about humans relating to one another. I would say that yes, they are a large part of the story of Guys and Dolls, but I hesitate to bring too much light for exactly how Sarah faces them. The wonderful thing about theatre or any other art form, is that, no matter what the artist’s intention may be, the audience will glean a multitude of different conclusions based on their own life experiences and perspectives. We are given a play similar in nature to a poem. It was inspired by the short stories of Damon Runyon, who’s writing style was indeed heavily dependent on the use of rhythm, aesthetic and metaphor.
The idea of religion is used as a metaphor for structure, stability and moral compass. Sarah never states that she desires a religious man, but she does say that she is looking for a man who will be a calm and steady presence in her life. Sky admittedly never stays long in one town, and he earns his living by gambling: decisively not the type of man that Sarah has imagined herself falling in love with. Sarah has a preconceived idea about what she wants and needs. She does not misjudge Sky: he clearly states that he uses his familiarity of the bible as material for his gambling propositions. In my opinion, it is her own decisive declaration of what kind of man she needs that is the questionable and ultimately flawed judgment.
Similarly, both Sarah and Sky have consciously decided what kind of person they each are. Sarah is a moral stalwart who wants to stay on the straight and narrow, and Sky is a self-proclaimed ladies’ man who lives for the sketchy alley ways of life. Despite their desire to be a certain way, like all humans, they are complicated and full of contradictions. Instead of changing, I think they learn to accept all of themselves: even the most vulnerable and volatile parts that they previously viewed as flaws.
On the other hand, Nathan and Adelaide are very similar, except for one big stumbling block – she wants a traditional marriage and he wants to cling to his life as a gambler. After 14 years, one would think she would leave him, but she doesn’t. Does this play up the theme of faith in the musical? That she doesn’t loose hope because she still has faith in him? And he somehow keeps coming back to her because he has faith she will save him?
Maria: Our director Peter Flynn and I have talked at length about why a smart, accomplished, and confident woman like Adelaide would wait for 14 years for a man; and what we came up with is that Adelaide and Nathan are truly and deeply in love. They are that couple that make each other better and truly understand each other. Sure, there are stumbling blocks and disappointments, but when love is true a couple can find their way through almost anything. We have also looked at the fact that in this piece, the women are extremely intelligent. Adelaide has tried for years to find a way to convince Nathan to move forward with marriage on his terms, and in the end, what really moves things forward is Adelaide taking charge and making the decision that will make them both happy.
The success of this musical would not have been possible without the music of Frank Loesser and several of the songs in the show became big hits outside of the musical, the most obvious one, “Luck Be a Lady,” often identified with Frank Sinatra, although, oddly, he did not sing it in the film version. What songs in the show stand out to you and which ones are you excited about singing?
Karen: My absolute favorite song in the show is the opening number “Fugue For Tinhorns.” It perfectly encapsulates the conversational style of a few overly confident guys (Tinhorns) talking over the ponies, and it’s so much fun. Tobias Young, Greg Maheu and Chris Mueller do a knockout job with it in our production!!
Maria: I have two nieces and whenever I babysat for them “Bushel and a Peck” was in heavy rotation at bedtime. I am looking forward to them coming to see the show and recognizing one of their lullabies.
Guys and Dolls
511 10th Street, NW
Top photo: Karen Vincent, Bueka Uwemedimo, Joe Mallon and Maria Egler by Scott Suchman.
Photos courtesy of Ford’s Theatre