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When a Gamble Pays Big: The Story of Guys and Dolls Essay

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Updated: Nov 19th, 2021

The musical Guys and Dolls is an interesting story because of its ability to capture a sense of America at the time it was produced. The musical was based on a couple of short stories written by Damon Runyon (2008) and adapted for Broadway production by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, and Abe Burrows. It has been popular music since its Broadway premiere at the 46th Street Theatre in 1950, where it ran for a record-setting 1200 performances and has been adapted for stage and screen in a variety of venues. These include West End productions, a film made in 1955, and several revivals in New York, London, and Melbourne in addition to small-time productions of the musical in playhouses of varying sizes nationwide. The play’s popularity can be discovered by understanding the basic storyline, the exploration of how many catchy tunes were included in the musical score, and understanding the various actors that helped make the production a success on stage and screen.

The play begins with Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet, and Rusty Charlie arguing among themselves regarding which horse they need to bet on tomorrow to win the next small score. As they argue, the band of the Save-a-Soul Mission, closely resembling the Salvation Army, interrupts them and begs them to give up gambling which, of course, the gamblers refuse to do. The main action of the first act is the bet between Nathan Detroit who needs to find a place for a floating craps game but needs $1000 for a security deposit. He decides to make the money he needs by making a bet with Sky Masterson that Masterson will not be able to get Sarah Brown, the leader of the mission, to go to dinner with him in Cuba. Masterson accomplishes this feat by promising Miss Brown that he will fill her next prayer meeting with a dozen sinners.

As the stalled relationship between Nathan and his night-club singer girlfriend of 14 years Adelaide is explored, the one between Masterson and Miss Brown starts to develop in Cuba but is interrupted when they return home to find Nathan has used the mission itself as a haven for his floating craps game, not having secured the Biltmore with Masterson gone. These relationships are brought to a climax in the second act as Adelaide decides she doesn’t want to put up with Nathan’s lies anymore and Miss Brown rejects Masterson believing he took advantage of her. Masterson joins the gamblers in the sewers where he bets them into fulfilling his agreement with Miss Brown by forcing them all to attend a prayer meeting. Their timely arrival preserves the mission but destroys Nathan’s chances with Adelaide until Miss Brown runs into her and confirms Nathan’s presence and purpose at her mission. The story ends with Adelaide and Nathan getting married and joined in their happiness by the recently married Susan Brown and her missionary husband Sky Masterson. The story presents a happy ending for a group of hard-luck common people attempting to live the best life possible on the streets of New York which appealed to a society still overcoming the problems of prohibition and discovering its new modern persona.

The music that was written for this play also contributed to its success as it was largely upbeat and catchy, incorporating the jazz sounds of the time and a steady beat that works its way into the pulse with the orchestral music of the past in an energetic give and take that inspired audiences. The first song of the play is “Fugue for Tinhorns” which starts with “I’ve got the horse right here, His name is Paul Revere.” This fun song plays on a bouncy rhythm and creative rhyming to tease the intellect while it tickles the ear. Audiences had a hard time avoiding humming the tune as it played on the radio and it can still be heard at times on the playground as the sound catches at the child’s imagination. Another popular song coming out of the play is “A Bushel and a Peck”, which is heard as Adelaide is introduced singing it in her club. Her squeaky, high-pitched voice seems to exemplify the common woman of the age at the same time that it captures a sense of the strange blend of innocence and corruption that characterized the age. “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” is another favorite because of its broad application and fun approach.

A final element contributing to the success of the musical was the individuals who were responsible for bringing it to life for audiences. The original cast for the Broadway musical included Vivian Blaine, who was already well-known for her comic singing in the role of Adelaide, and Isabel Bigley performing the more operatic love songs included in the play. Robert Alda played the lead character of Sky Masterson and Sam Levene was cast in the role of Nathan Detroit. These lead characters, already well-known as performers, delivered a strong performance that continued to capture the hearts and minds of their audiences. When the musical was transferred to film, characters were again portrayed by popular actors such as Marlon Brando, the heartthrob of his time, in the role of Sky Masterson with Frank Sinatra playing the role of Nathan Detroit. Vivian Blaine continued to play her role as Adelaide in the film while her counterpart, Susan Brown, was played by Jean Simmons.

Guys and Dolls was a large hit due largely to its engaging story, its catchy music, and its big-name actors who were popular with the theater and film-going public. While the actors have necessarily changed over time, the story and the songs remain strongly engaging today even as the play gives us a sense of some of the fashions and ideas important at the time.

References

(2008). Authors. E-books Library. Web.

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"When a Gamble Pays Big: The Story of Guys and Dolls." IvyPanda, 19 Nov. 2021, ivypanda.com/essays/when-a-gamble-pays-big-the-story-of-guys-and-dolls/.

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IvyPanda. "When a Gamble Pays Big: The Story of Guys and Dolls." November 19, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/when-a-gamble-pays-big-the-story-of-guys-and-dolls/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "When a Gamble Pays Big: The Story of Guys and Dolls." November 19, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/when-a-gamble-pays-big-the-story-of-guys-and-dolls/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'When a Gamble Pays Big: The Story of Guys and Dolls'. 19 November.

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