The Origins of Runyonland in “Guys & Dolls”

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By Dramaturg Michael Levine

Damon Runyon
Damon Runyon

Guys and Dolls is one of the most produced musicals in American history. It gave the world songs like “Luck Be A Lady” and “A Bushel and a Peck” as well as etching the iconic image of the 1950’s gangster. We love and recognize these characters: Miss Adelaide is the original Broadway showgirl, Sarah the pure ingénue, Sky Masterson the suave gambler, and Nathan Detroit our favorite comic gangster. Where did these characters come from? Today most people are more familiar with the musical Guys And Dolls than with the Damon Runyon stories which inspired the production.

Frank Loesser
Frank Loesser

Producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin found inspiration in Damon Runyon’s stories, seeing glorious potential in putting quintessential New York stories onto the Broadway stage. They signed Frank Loesser to write a score, after producing his musical Where’s Charley? in 1948. After Guys and Dolls, this same team would create How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Unlike most musicals since the advent of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Loesser wrote his songs first, and the script came later. Original bookwriter Joe Swerling was replaced by Abe Burrows, who finished the show using Loesser’s songs. In this case, the music of Guys and Dolls was written to embody Runyon’s essence, and the plotlines were built around that sound.

Runyon's Original Collection
Runyon’s Original Collection

Runyon became famous in the 1930’s for his short stories about the nightlife and dark corners of Broadway. Populated by larger than life characters like “The Sky” Masterson and Nathan Detroit, his stories were all based on boxers, gangsters, and gamblers, the real people he knew in Manhattan. Runyon used the slang he heard and turned it into his own vernacular, creating a style specifically alluring to Broadway producers. Runyon wrote in what critics have called the “eternal present,” creating an immediacy of action that pulls the reader along for the ride as his stories twist and turn. For example, take the opening lines of the short story “Blood Pressure”. “It is maybe eleven-thirty of a Wednesday night, and I am standing at the corner of Forty-eighth Street and Seventh Avenue, thinking: about my blood pressure, which is a proposition I never before think much about.” Only once in his stories is there a recorded use of any past tense–everything happens right here and right now.

Damon Runyon was born in 1880 in Manhattan, Kansas, a brilliant foreshadowing of his future home in New York. His family spent most of his childhood in Pueblo, Colorado, and having dropped out of high school at age 15, Damon Runyon started writing for the newspaper The Pueblo Chieftain. After briefly serving in the Spanish-American War, he moved to New York in 1910. There, Runyon became famous as a reporter and sportswriter long before his short stories, which were based on the colorful crowd he ran with in the New York City underground. At the New York American he developed his style of including human-interest details about his subjects- baseball players, fighters, and horses usually. He also commented on the spectators and the event themselves, a new development at the time.

Generations of Adelaide and Nathan
Generations of Adelaide and Nathan

In 1932, Runyon first published his collection Guys and Dolls. Characters including Nicely-Nicely Jones (Johnson in the musical) and Nathan Detroit recur throughout, but the musical was based mostly on “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” following the romance between Sarah and Sky Masterson, as well as “Blood Pressure” which focused on the high-rolling and high-anxiety craps games around which the musical turns. This vocabulary was partially real, and partially invented by Runyon, but Loesser used every inch of the lexicon. The Manhattan vernacular known as “Runyonese” proliferates the lyrics, woven into the fabric of the characters words. The gamblers’ fast-paced dealing is transformed into the “Fugue for Tinhorns,” and nightclub strippers tease their audience with “Take Back Your Mink”, a classic example of Runyon’s high class/low class dichotomy. Although these characters run with the bottom of society, they speak in big words as if to assert a dignity they don’t receive in the seedy clubs and diners they frequent. With Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics, Guys and Dolls transforms the rowdy New York of Runyon’s imagination into the classic musical we know today.

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