'Guys and Dolls' celebrates 50th

The Damon Runyon world of Broadway's most performed musical, "Guys and Dolls," set among gangsters and gamblers in 1920s New York City, is neither all black nor all white, says Maurice Hines, star of the show's 50th-anniversary production now traveling across the United States.

"It's a big mix of all the races, just like the city," says the tap dancer, who plays gambler Nathan Detroit. Originally, the show had an all-white cast. This new concept, a fully integrated cast of blacks, whites, and Latinos, has the balance right, he adds. "For the first time, it really reflects the city just as it was."

This multitalented performer, brother to fellow tapper Gregory Hines, says race inevitably has shaped the course of his long career. He chose theater over film because of the racism he experienced in Hollywood.

In this version of "Guys and Dolls," Hines's character welcomes the audience into his world at the start of the show. "This is the first time we really understand this is Nathan's world," Hines says.

Launching the show after Sept. 11, Hines says there was concern that audiences wouldn't embrace a light-hearted musical. But "we need release," Hines says. "This show is about love and fun." Touring in today's environment has given his work an additional responsibility, he says. "Our job as performers is to give people that release, to give them joy...."

In no small tribute to this concept, Jo Loesser – the widow of Frank Loesser, who wrote the show's music and lyrics – calls this production the closest to the real idea for the show. She says she believes there is still an audience for musicals from what many have called the golden age of the American musical – the 1940s and '50s.

"Those were well-crafted, well-written shows," Ms. Loesser says.

Many ideas today proceed to a workshop production and are then mounted as a full show before the musical themes are fully worked out, says Loesser, who also sits on the board of the American Theater Wing, a charitable theater organization that co-produces Broadway's annual Tony awards.

In the '40 and '50s, the process was different. "These men, like my husband, they ... screamed and yelled [at each other] and changed things," she says. "And they listened and learned." In contrast, she says, today's producers are in too big of a rush to open to allow the sort of honing that led to the great classical musicals like "Guys and Dolls."

"This is the most famous musical ever written," she says, referring to the breadth of requests she receives for performances. "It's played more than any other show in the world. This is how the show lives.... There's even an all-girl production in Japan, right now."

Though she grants many requests to produce the show (she receives about 5,000 requests per year), Loesser won't allow changes to the lyrics or change in the tone. "This show is perfectly crafted. I don't know what I'd do if someone wanted to mount a production to bring out the dark side."

Loesser says her husband left one piece of guidance: He didn't want his classic songs such as "Luck Be a Lady" and "A Bushel and a Peck" to be used in commercials "because he wanted the music to be fresh when people came to a performance."

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