When a Gamble Pays Big: The Story of Guys and Dolls

This blog post is part of a series presented in partnership with the Guthrie Theater, connecting the latest stage productions with the library's collections. 


Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway on November 24, 1950, to almost universal critical and popular acclaim, winning five Tony Awards and running for three years. What you may not know is the unique way this musical came to the stage. Guthrie Theater Dramaturg Carla Steen shines a light on how short stories by a newspaper columnist inspired the show-stopping musical still being produced nearly 70 years later. Following the blog post, check out our staff-recommended reading list inspired by Guys and Dolls.

The names of Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin may not appear as authors of Guys and Dolls, but without the young producers’ inspiration and perseverance, the musical comedy wouldn’t exist. In 1949, Feuer and Martin were coming off the modest success of their first foray into producing with Where’s Charley? — an adaptation of Charley’s Aunt — with music and lyrics by fellow Broadway newcomer Frank Loesser. While they were looking for their next project, Martin’s wife Nancy suggested they consider the anthology of short stories she was reading: Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls.

Runyon was a newspaper columnist and sportswriter who had, beginning in the 1930s, created a popular series of short stories chronicling the lives of fictional characters who populated Times Square and Broadway. In dozens of stories and with a distinctive comic voice, Runyon wrote about the gamblers, dancers, safecrackers, pickpockets, coppers and other denizens of what became known as Runyonland.

Feuer and Martin loved Runyon’s stories and, without an idea of what the plot would be, knew their next show would be titled Guys and Dolls. Runyon had passed away in 1946, so they contacted his estate to secure the rights. Not unsurprisingly, the estate agent asked which story they wanted to adapt, as many of them had already been optioned for movies. But the producers hadn’t gotten that far; they just knew they wanted the style, characters, and verve of Runyon’s stories. They agreed to an unusual contract that would allow them to name the specific story later.

They promptly called Loesser, who agreed to do the project in action if not in words. Martin joked about Loesser’s inability to make an official commitment: “Several of our shows, he didn’t agree to do them until after they got on the stage! He never said, ‘Okay, I’ll write Guys and Dolls.’ Never. One day he hands us four songs, and now we knew he was doing it!” Loesser wrote several songs, including “Fugue for Tinhorns,” before there was even a plot for the show. 

Feuer and Martin finally identified the Runyon story to adapt — “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” which introduces the Save-A-Soul missionary and her encounter with the high-flying gambler Sky Masterson. The producers hired film writer Jo Swerling to draft the musical’s book (or libretto), but Feuer and Martin weren’t satisfied with the results. They realized the story needed an early significant bet to establish the stakes. Swerling didn’t agree, so they parted company. The producers hired a new book writer, Abe Burrows, who was Feuer’s high school classmate and a popular radio personality and comedy writer. There was just one problem: He had never written a Broadway show. Feuer and Martin convinced him that taking on a high-risk challenge was perfectly fitting for a story about gamblers.

Not only did Burrows have an uncanny ability to capture the spirit, tone, and language of Runyonland without directly quoting or parodying the stories, he was also able to write a book that incorporated Loesser’s songs, which were originally written for Swerling’s book. “Frank Loesser’s songs were the guideposts for the libretto. It’s a rare show that is done this way,” Burrows recalled in his memoir, noting that songs are usually written to follow a story. “We did it in reverse. Most of the scenes I wrote blended into the songs that were already written.”

Feuer and Martin sent Burrows’ completed scenes to George S. Kaufman — the only director they seriously considered for the project. Though ironically not a fan of musicals, Kaufman agreed to the project and suggested many changes and improvements, including the addition of a second storyline to parallel the Miss Sarah Brown/Sky Masterson romance. Thus, Nathan Detroit and his perpetual fiancee Miss Adelaide were born out of Runyon’s story “Pick the Winner.” (A third story, “Blood Pressure,” also fuels the world of Guys and Dolls, though characters from the musical can be found in numerous Runyon stories.)

Kaufman oversaw Burrows as he wrote the rest of the book, which allowed Feuer and Martin to focus on casting and arranging for rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts. In Philadelphia, the script, songs and performances were fine-tuned. “Fugue for Tinhorns” finally settled into place as the opening number, and “The Oldest Established” was written to provide a first-act introduction to the endearing gamblers. 

Kirsten Wyatt and Rodney Gardiner in Guys and Dolls. Photo by T Charles Erickson. 

After the success of Guys and Dolls, Burrows and Loesser would collaborate once more when Feuer and Martin had the idea that the book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: The Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune could be turned into a musical befitting the new era of the Kennedy administration — yet another gamble with a big payoff. 

Guys and Dolls is playing at the Guthrie Theater now through August 25. Tickets start at $34 at guthrietheater.org

Carla Steen has worked as a dramaturg on more than 60 productions at the Guthrie Theater since 1996, most recently including Guys and Dolls, Cyrano de Bergerac, As You Like It, Noises Off, Frankenstein – Playing With Fire and West Side Story. She is a member of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas and holds a B.A. from Augsburg College and an M.F.A. from Columbia University. 

Luck Be a Lady

List created by SPPL_Recommends

Ever since it's opening, Guys and Dolls has enjoyed critical acclaim and popularity with audiences, even if its book writer Abe Burrows's troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee lost it the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (No award was even given in 1951 because of it). Take a deeper dive into the story with these selections ranging from the original inspiration behind the musical to how to shoot craps just like good old reliable Nathan Detroit.

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