By Laura London Waringer
One of the Golden Age’s most beloved classics, Guys and Dolls is one of the first musicals about Broadway—not the theatrical Broadway of kicklines and curtain calls, but the actual thoroughfare that runs through the heart of New York City as its central, vital artery.
Based on his short stories from the 1930s, Guys and Dolls is humorist Damon Runyon’s love letter to New York City. On Runyon’s Broadway, high and low converge, and sinner and saint mix and mingle as they grapple for their respective wants and needs. The stakes are high. Gamblers look for their next big jackpot to make ends meet. Missionaries seek to save souls and keep their religious outreach thriving in desperate times. Showgirls long to settle down and leave the seediness of show business behind. Written in the turmoil of the Great Depression, Runyon’s stories are not political, but instead take a romantic approach to the notion of survival at any cost. Guys and Dolls embodies both the hustle and the heart of the era, and this intersection of faith in American ideals and the drive for bigger and better is what allows the show to maintain its resonance through the decades. Runyon himself was a self-made man whose bootstrap dreamer narrative is not dissimilar to that of current theatre impresario Lin-Manuel Miranda. Both men are responsible for prevailing narratives that sing the praises of New York’s “young, scrappy and hungry,” and their themes resound in the stories of gangsters and revolutionaries alike, each relying on gumption and self-determination to see them through.
The stage musical Guys and Dolls was written in the post-war optimism of the 1950s, where the American Dream was defined by wholesome morals and domesticity. Runyon’s themes of resilience and resourcefulness rang truer than ever, and the romantic sentiments encapsulated in the musical’s love stories speak to the nation’s emphasis on home life. In a story that is gendered down to its very title, the complex relationships of men and women in Guys and Dolls are its lifeblood.
The men we meet are not the hardened gangsters of Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire nor macho cartoonish buffoons, but charming, charismatic dreamers down on their luck. Their masculinity is present but not overpowering and compliments their female counterparts, who possess a surprising degree of agency considering the traditional narrative scope within which they reside. The trope of the transformative power of a woman’s love is certainly at play, but our two female heroines arrive at their domestic bliss on their own terms. These two very different independent women own their respective careers and sexuality, embrace change, and stand their ground to get what they want. They may desire their men, but they certainly do not need them.
Quintessentially American in spirit, Guys and Dolls remains a timeless tale that owes its longevity not only to its multitude of memorable characters and hummable tunes, but also to its enduring themes of ambition, savvy and self-made luck. These ideals are whimsical affirmations of our foundational national principles in any era.
Laura London Waringer is a second year Theatre Studies doctoral student, originally hailing from New York City. She earned her MFA in musical theatre from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. An accomplished actress, writer, and producer, she also holds a dual BFA in drama and journalism from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Her research interests include race and gender representations in musical theatre, musical interpretations of historic events and the evolution of American musical theatre training. She has presented her work at the Comparative Drama, ATHE and Song, Stage and Screen conferences. Laura is a contributing scholar for the books Hamilton: History, Hip-Hop and Politics: Essays on the Afterbirth of a Nation, Musicals at the Margins and Queen Mothers: Articulating the Spirit of Black Women Teacher-Leaders, all due for publication in 2018.