Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: GUYS AND DOLLS
Well, next up in decluttering my apartment is clearing out the big, tall stack of different Guys and Dolls CDs I've spent a few decades collecting. I think I could hack this particular task without any tears (or maybe like you know without having to blog about it) were it not for that gorgeous black square with the orange and yellow title letters thrown into the air alongside perfect pair of cartoon dice. 1992 Grammy Award-winning New Broadway Cast Recording, it's gonna be hard to leave you, baby.
I could pretend to be an original cast purist because I want you all to think the 1950 OBCR has my heart. I want to front that I love Vivian Blaine the best and kvell for Sam Levene's Jewish gangster schtick the most, that I know who Isabel Bigley was, appreciate why Stubby Kaye was a star and can tell you more about Robert Alda than he's Alan's dad.
But I gotta be me. Of course, I respect and admire the original cast album and I get that it set the tone not only for all my other cherished Guys and Dolls recordings, but also in fact for much of modern musical comedy. How's that for influential? Still, as genre-defining as that album may be, I can't say I enjoy it more than London's excellent 1982 National Theatre revival cast recording with Bob Hoskins and Julia McKenzie ideal as Nathan and Adelaide (not to mention as Sarah Brown, Julie "Evita on the Concept Album" Covington showing you how to sing a musical theater soprano role with a striking absence of vibrato). Or even better, the 1976 Broadway revival album with an all-black cast led by a Tony nominated turn from Ernestine Jackson. (Ms. Jackson, incidentally, will be reprising her scintillating Sarah Brown in "54 Celebrates The Richard Rodgers Theatre" on February 10.)
There are many other great Guys and Dolls-es too, including the movie soundtrack (surely Frank Sinatra is the best sung Nathan Detroit there ever was or will be), the complete symphonic studio recording (Gregg Edelman's Sky Masterson proving once again he's one of our most undervalued leading men) and the (unfair to include in any competition, but too delicious to leave out) all-star "Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre" recording with Sinatra doing the songs he didn't get to do in the movie plus Sammy Davis Jr., Debbie Reynolds and Rosemary Clooney.
But but but but my heart belongs to the 1992 version directed by Jerry Zaks, starring Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, Peter Gallagher and Josie de Guzman. My love affair actually began when PBS aired Great Performances Season 21, Episode 4: "Guys and Dolls Off The Record." It was an hour-long documentary on the making of the New Broadway Cast Recording and featured full performances (from the studio) of most of the musical numbers.
I knew Guys and Dolls from having seen the movie (which omits many of the best songs!) and had been charmed watching Faith Prince win the Tony for it a few months earlier.
I had even enjoyed Walter Bobbie as Nicely-Nicely's rendition of "Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat" on the Tonys telecast, although it lacked that ingredient crucial to making me a love a musical: a lady singing--Ruth Williamson's high notes as General Cartwright notwithstanding...
Side note: I was so in love with the 1992 revival that I foolishly skipped the 2009 production and missed Tituss Burgess's now legendary "Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat."
Truth be told, I had never really appreciated what a showstopper this number can be until I saw Gavin Spokes crush it (and then crush it a second time in an encore we DEMANDED) in Gordon Greenberg's fabulous London production at the Savoy Theatre in 2016, in which, incidentally, Sophie Thompson demonstrated how Vivian Blaine and so many other great ladies of the stage managed to successfully essay the role of Adelaide well into their middle age.
I particularly remember how the 1992 Guys and Dolls Tonys performance concluded with a 30-second snippet of the title song featuring the entire cast with the four leads center stage including Faith in Adelaide's wedding dress from the finale. The whole company lined up like that looked like an Easter basket of spice drops and I already knew everything I needed to know about this bold new production. I was primed, therefore, to know what they were going for when I watched "Guys and Dolls Off The Record" and I was smitten.
Still smitten, I'm listening to the 1992 Guys and Dolls as I upload some of the rarer versions not available digitally onto my computer. Track 1, "Runyonland," is basically just an overture. I notice that the musical director was Edward Strauss, who was MD for the 1987 Anything Goes revival (also directed by Jerry Zaks).
I realize both revivals had new orchestrations by the late, great Michael Gibson and I start to formulate a theory about why these Zaks/Strauss/Gibson joints just got me where I live. My theory is then momentarily shattered when I realize Track 2, "Fugue For Tinhorns" is almost indistinguishable from the one on the original 1950 recording.
Track 3, "Follow The Fold" surprises me reminding me how much I love this silly little throwaway number. And Josie de Guzman was so pretty and interesting looking and innocent without being annoying about it. Maybe I just like her for her dark hair, big saucer eyes and wide mouth. #pattilupone Listening to her in "I'll Know" doesn't quite live up to the magic of memory, although she and Peter Gallagher have nice chemistry. ("Chemistry? Yeah, chemistry.") Ooh, but I quickly switch to Julie Covington and Ian Charleson from the 1982 British cast. They're singing some different notes, but I love the way she sounds here, like if Evita stayed in Junin instead of going to Buenos Aires with Magaldi and then fell in love with an age appropriate gambler.
I think what I like so much about Ian Charleson's Sky Masterson on the National Theatre CD is how light voiced he is. So many musical theater men get so bellowy in the more demanding, near operatic sections of the score, namely "I've Never Been In Love Before." If I really want to enjoy that song, my go-to is Chet Baker's jazz recording. It's so smooth, like butter.
Speaking of butter, Barbra Streisand's version is far too smooth and best reserved for ambient earbud sound on long-haul flights.
Back on 1992, Track 4, "The Oldest Established," gives me goose bumps. God, I love musical theater. I don't even care that there aren't any women in this song. What could be more instantly memorable than "Why, it's good old reliable Nathan. Nathan, Nathan, Nathan, Detroit!"
And, hold on, does Nathan Lane really only sing two songs in this show? And he doesn't even really sing in this one. Or wait, the other one either. Insane. He's just so distinctive and authoritative. He's so over the top and yet completely truthful. You hear him for a quick sec and he's the star of the album, no matter what else happens.*
The 1992 version of Forbidden Broadway poked fun at how zealously accolades were being piled upon Faith Prince's performance. "Ladies and Gentleman, the greatest stage performance since Eleanor Dusa as Juliet--no, Sarah Bernhardt as Medea--no, Laurence Olivier as Hamlet! Faith Prince as Guys and Dolls."
People were comparing her to Judy Holliday and Lucille Ball and exclaiming a star was born. From her entrance on the album singing "A Bushel And A Peck," she easily earns these plaudits. It's a bona fide musical comedy star performance, just as big and just as believable as Nathan's, but applied to a much more onerous assignment of songs.
Not many musical theater stars could make such leading lady magic out of what's essentially a compartmentalized character voice, except maybe Kristin Chenoweth who similarly stitches together song performances between her various vocal registers. Faith and Kristin share a quirkily nasal middle voice buttressed by sweet soprano-y top notes. The difference is that where on top of that Kristin has classical coloratura chops, Faith's flare is filling out the lower end with a big old-fashioned belt, reminiscent of Dolores Gray (or at least Carol Burnett at her Broadway best).
What makes Faith Prince's Adelaide so great on record is how seamlessly her acting flies through her vocal transitions. As hilarious and melodramatic and even cartoonish as some of her vocal effects may be, we never suspect Adelaide of being manipulative or calculating and we never--not for a second--forget there's a human being there. I wish I understood more about psychology to be able diagnose the person Faith Prince created. Is her Adelaide someone with an id but no superego? Or is it the other way around?
This larger than life approach pays off in both "A Bushel And A Peck" and "Take Back Your Mink" in that they play and feel like Adelaide singing to Nathan, even though they're not actually that.
Even better, this lends Adelaide's non-diegetic numbers a performative quality that lifts them far above the humdrumness of real life, that makes them really "sing." The duets "Marry The Man Today" and "Sue Me" are as dazzling character numbers for Faith Prince as "I'm The Greatest Star" was for Barbra Streisand.
Best of all is "Adelaide's Lament," which Faith builds and shapes to an ecstatic climax with all the showmanship in the world but rooted intrinsically in the storytelling. It goes by so delightfully fast, you have to stop and listen to it again and then maybe one more time because you keep getting lost and getting scared you're missing parts. Where is the line between getting lost in something and just getting lost? It doesn't matter if you've got Faith...
Moving on with the score, "If I Were A Bell" simply belongs, hands down, to Ernestine Jackson, back on the '76 recording. Impressively, she belts the whole thing but in that rare way that's even prettier than if it were delivered more liltingly, so therefore even more impressive. Intrigued? Use discount code RICHARD5 to see her do it live at 54 Below on February 10.
Back to '92, Peter Gallagher is real, real nice on "My Time of Day," effortless, sexy and almost completely cool, but with just a hint of musical theater male ingenue to get us off the ground. I have to take a moment for Frank Loesser here too. God, this score is incredible. I love literally every song, even "More I Cannot Wish You" (at least when Betty Buckley sings it).
But I do especially love "My Time of Day." The non-linear song format foreshadows Loesser's more operatic work in Most Happy Fella, but it's well rooted in this score and not at all out of place. And this is definitely a moment where Michael Gibson's new 1992 orchestrations pay off. He's got "My Time of Day" starting with a horn solo. You feel like you're walking down Broadway at dawn. You want to put a buck in the guy's case. Heaven. For comparison, go back to the original version. It just starts like any song in a musical.
I think what made the revival so perfect (and this is true too of Jerry Zaks's other hit revivals like Anything Goes, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Hello, Dolly!) is that it acknowledged the iconic status of the show. From the orchestrations to the costume design, the direction was bright and bold, choices that "pop" embracing the archetypal nature of the material. We've all grown up on Guys and Dolls. It was a G rated gangster movie I watched with my grandparents. I remember "Fugue for Tinhorns" sung by the dad in George Burns's Oh God, You Devil. My mom used to sing "A Bushel And A Peck" to us (sans striptease!). And I still have nightmare flashbacks to my Fourth Grade music teacher, Mr. Gruenwald hostilely and monotonously spitting out the lyrics to "Luck Be A Lady Tonight" in a futile effort to impress diction upon us. I'm sure you've had a comparable history with the show. Therefore, a revival of Guys and Dolls needs to justify its existence since the show was there already.
The candy colored 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls bravely dared to be definitive, to make each moment one for the record books. Starting "My Time of Day" with a saxophone solo isn't too "on the nose." It's rising to the occasion. Why shouldn't Guys and Dolls have the New York City at dawn song? The music and lyrics are strong enough, timeless enough, to support it. And indeed they do.
Okay, it's all on my computer and safely in the cloud now. I know what I'm doing for the next 9 hours and 41 minutes.