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Interview: Finding Authenticity in Runyonland

"It's a warhorse and has been a guaranteed sellout since 1950, but that doesn't mean a production doesn't need a little spark. DJ [Salisbury] did exactly what I asked him to do," says Maine State Music Theatre's Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark. "I asked him not to reinvent the wheel, but to tweak the show with some new nuances." Clark is talking about MSMT's new production of Guys and Dolls which opened last week to glowing reviews.

Clark was part of the popular MSMT community series, PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN panel that also featured Guys and Dolls stars, James Beaman (Nathan Detroit), Kristen Hahn (Sarah Brown), and Stephen Mark Lukas (Sky Masterson), as well as Props Master Elizabeth Frino. Moderated by Broadway World's Maine editor Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, the participants at the capacity-crowd event discussed the making of this exciting new production in Midcoast Maine.

Everything about Guys and Dolls is large and requires a period style that is at the same time appealing to contemporary audiences. Clark called the resulting production at MSMT "cohesive." Frino explained how her department worked with others on the creative and technical teams to achieve that look. " Robert Andrew Kovach, our set designer, had a very complete vision, so that made my task in props easier. He was involved in the entire visual concept, designing the larger items we built and doing complete paint elevations and even set dressing. Having him be mindful of it all gave us one unified vision."

Clark prompted Frino to talk about some of the unique new pieces built for this production including the two identical shoe shine chairs which allow Benny and Rusty to swivel around and change into their tap shoes for the "Guys and Dolls" number. "One of my favorite things," he remarked is to pass through the shop several times a day on my way to my car and watch these props come to life."

Frino and Clark also commented on the need to handle last minute technical requests and be able to deliver in any circumstance. "It happens all the time," Frino said sanguinely. "We have to be on our toes always ready to create something new. Luckily I have a team, and we are never alone." Frino, who spent the previous summer as Assistant Props Master, said the training she received in 2016 was invaluable to her in assuming her current role. ""Last year I wouldn't have been ready for this job, but I was able to improve my skills across the board; I got great training, and I was so impressed with the talent and the company that I wanted to come back."

While Frino is one of the many returning artists to MSMT, the other three panelists are all new to the company. Clark talked about casting his Nathan, Sky, and Sarah. In each case, the choice was unique. "This gentleman," Clark said of Beaman is one of only two actors I have ever cast from a video. I am old school, and I believe people need to be in the room to get the gig. But we didn't find our Nathan in scores of live auditions, and when Stephanie [Dupal] and I reviewed the videos, there he was. He just jumped out at us!" Similarly with the choice of Sky Masterson, Clark said that while Stephen Mark Lukas is younger than the usual Sky, "We had to consider the overall age of our company, which skews a little younger because of our interns. And then after Stephen auditioned and nailed it, I looked at Steph and said 'I think that's it!' And she agreed. Kristen is the right age," Clark continued, but Sarah Brown is a scary part. She sings those songs that some sopranos only think they can sing. We watched a lot of auditions and after eight bars of "I'll Know," you'll know! She was amazing!" Summing up his casting credo, Clark added, " I care not only about their talent, but also about their character because they are going to spend lots of close-knit, intense time together."

Trained operatically as a lyric soprano, Hahn talked about Loesser's score and Sarah's music. "There are so many lush vocal melodies and orchestrations in this show; I like to say that it's like vocal candy. My personal favorite is 'I've Never Been in Love Before,' but I also like having fun with the jazzy 'If I Were a Bell.' There is so much variety!"

Lukas feels much the same way about the choreography. As Sky he appears in the big Havana and Sewer numbers, and he praised the way Salisbury found ways to make the classic dances appeal to a contemporary audience. "He took the iconically 50s shapes and styles and infused them with a new energy and different angles that make them less balletic and more eclectic, more modern. " Recalling a production he did of Oklahoma where the concept was to recreate every aspect of the 1948 production, Lukas remarked, "It became more of a museum piece without any real appeal. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, but the sets, the comedy, the approach have to be sensual, romantic, and funny to contemporary audiences. And that is true for the dance, as well."

The nature of the comedy and how it plays for a contemporary audience is also a crucial component to the success of a new production of a classic. Beaman commented that the actors don't know how the comedy is going to play until "you play it through with another actor, and there is an audience to react. We don't know until we have you in the house," he said to the audience, "where the laughs will come and what our timing should be. So the more we have you as an audience, the better we get at delivering the humor."

Clark added, "I always love watching the younger people in the cast during rehearsals. They seem to be thinking, 'These jokes aren't funny.' Then when they hear them delivered at preview, they laugh too. They realize how and where the jokes land. It's the audience that informs them what is funny, and hopefully, the next time around, they won't prejudge a classic show like this."

In the case of Guys and Dolls, the source material - two Damon Runyon short stories - provides the foundation for any production and its characters. The remainder of the discussion focused on how the actors conceived and developed each of these colorful roles. Hahn talked about Sarah Brown's inner conflicts. "Curt said to me in my audition that he thought Sarah was really trying her hardest to be like General Cartwright, but she isn't cut out that way. Her heart is in the right place; she wants to help the community. When Sky comes along - and I believe things happen for people when the time is right for them - she is ready for him. Something has been missing in her life and when she lets her hair down, she finds a way of accessing parts of her heart she didn't go to before. And by doing that, she is more able to help those around her."

Hahn and Clark commented on Sarah's turn about at the end of the musical when she protects the gangsters from Brannigan. " They have learned from each other," Hahn said. "She is willing to lie to cover for them, and they are willing to admit they have done wrong, so they have learned from each other, and that's a beautiful thing."

Lukas remarked that his character of Sky and that of Sarah learn from each other over the course of the play. "In 'I've Never Been in Love Before' it's interesting to see how the lyrics reflect that process. They are borrowing each other's language to describe their feelings," he noted.

Lukas went on to explain his route into the character of Sky was a little less traditional perhaps because of his relative youth. "I was way younger than is usually cast, so I couldn't use what Marlon Brando or Peter Gallagher or actors like that had done. So I went back to the text, the original Runyon stories. In 'The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown' Sky is about thirty, which I will be shortly, and he comes from Colorado, from where many of the best gamblers came before Las Vegas. The hints in the story tell us that his father was a gambler who gave him advice on becoming successful as one, but also that his name is Obediah (which means 'servant of God') and he can quote scripture with great ease. So I put two and two together and came up with the idea that his mother was likely religious, and he was raised with that household tension. In many ways Sky is a vagrant, traveling with one suit and a suitcase full of cash. Sarah offers him a chance to reconcile his religious upbringing and his present lifestyle. And he wins her the only way he knows how- by gambling. I tried to imagine what it would be like to gamble everything you have for the person you love on one roll of the dice. How would that feel? I started from that premise and worked out from there."

Beaman, on the other hand, said he approached Nathan Detroit from a longer acquaintance with the role and the tradition underlying it. "I had done a production five years ago in which I understudied Nathan and Benny Southstreet, so that helped me learn a great deal by observing what those actors did. I made my own choices about what I would do if I ever got to play the role, and I had time to think about it before now. But, I always like to go back to the originators of any show when I am preparing a part. If I had a time machine, I would return to watch Sam Levene [the original Broadway cast Nathan Detroit] working with Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, and Jo Swerling, and I would try to find the essence and sound of that performance. Guys and Dolls came out in the early days of live television, when people watched great comedians like Sid Caesar or Milton Berle, and it's that's style of comedy I feel is needed in Guys and Dolls to be true. Almost all those guys came from the Jewish theatre and from vaudeville, so that world is really at the heart of the character. Nathan is a Peter Pan," Beaman continued. "He doesn't want to grow up, and despite the fact that he is deeply in love with Adelaide, marriage represents growing up. He wants to keep his place in his world and keep his love, but he doesn't want to take the responsibility of marriage."

But, it is Damon Runyon and his mythical Prohibition era New York that is the ultimate foundation on which Guys and Dolls must be predicated and fortunately, as Beaman observed, Runyon directed some films based on his own stories -like Big Street with Lucille Ball - which give insight into the world he wanted to evoke. "I don't think any of us could have done this show without going back to the story. Runyon's characters are based on real people he observed in Mindy's Diner in Times Square night after night. There is the quintessential flavor of Hell's Kitchen - the look of the place and cadence of the language."

Damon Runyon is such a very specific American voice," Beaman concluded. "It is a voice that is stylized and colorful, but if it is stilted and the characters become mere cartoons, then the audience will tire very quickly. As actors, we have to find the authenticity in the story. We have to give our characters heart."

Photographs courtesy of MSMT, Panel photo- Sarah Adams, photographer; cast photo - Roger S. Duncan, photographer

Guys and Dolls continues at MSMT's Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Road, Brunswick, ME until July 15th. 207-725-8769

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