One of the best evenings I spent last year was in the National Theater watching a bright new production of the classic "Guys and Dolls," with an all-black cast headed by Robert Guillaume, Ernestine Jackson, James Randolph and Norma Donaldson. Two of the best evenings, in fact; I went back for a repeat. And I still remember it among the year's highlights although La Scala came to town later in the year.
Not that "Guys and Dolls" has a stature comparable to Verdi's "Macbeth," Puccini's "La Boheme" or Rossini's "Cenerentola," and certainly not that the relatively modest production at the National compares favorably to the lavish outpouring of talent that went into the La Scala productions.
But if this country has made any significant contribution at all to the world's heritage of musical theater, "Guys and Dolls" is a substantial part of that contribution, along with "My Fair Lady" and "Show Boat" and "Annie Get Your Gun" - a more meaningful contribution than Samuel Barber's opera about Cleopatra or Douglas Moore's (considerably better) opera about Baby Doe.
These are slight modifications of a form (perhaps a dying form) that was born and grew to its highest point in Europe. "Guys and Dolls" is something different - the kind of thing we do better than anyone else, and last year at the National (and later on Broadway) we did it very well indeed.
One good reason for calling "Guys and Dolls" a classic is the show's ability, demonstrated in this production, to be born again in a new context embodying subtly different concepts. The quarter-century since its first production has seen tremendous cultural changes, not least in the field of popular song but also in the basic values by which we live. The world of Damon Runyon, on which the show is based, looks today like a never-never land, but it always has been (as has the Paris of "La Boheme") and that is part of the secret of its vitality.
In the performing arts, of course, even a classic needs all the help it can get, and this "Guys and Dolls" gets plenty from the cast. The stars of the show, musically, are the women: Norma Donaldson in "Adelaide's Lament" and "Take Back Your Mink"; Ernestine Jackson in "If I Were a Bell" and both of them in "Marry the Man Today." Ken Page raises the climactic "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" to heights unimagined in the original production and the men's chorus does excellent ensemble work in the "Fugue for Tinhorns," "The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York" and "Luck, Be A Lady Tonight."
Robert Guilaume (who plays Nathan Detroit) and James Randolph (Sky Masterson) have relatively easier musical assignments; the roles require mainly stage presence and acting ability, which they have in abundance. But Guillaume performs creditably in "Sue Me" and Randolph does considerably better than that in "I'll Know," adding to the original concept of the song a nice touch of soul in the phrasing.
This touch of soul, an assimilation of the old, originally white-oriented material to the identity of the new cast, was evidently broadened considerably in the months between the show's run in Washington and the recording session in New York; it is perceptible on the record in several places - gloriously in "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" - and it works splendidly.
Certain values of the production - the sets, costumes and choreography - are, of course, lost in a recording, but the values that remain are so strong that they are not seriously missed.
This is less true in the recording of another production that I saw at the National last year, "Bubbling Brown Sugar." That show had no story to speak of; it existed to evoke the nightlife of Harlem in the '20s and '30s and to provide a pretext for sonic fine singing and dancing. Large segments of the record (H&L HL-69011-698) make it clear that the show's attraction lay primarily in the elaborate staging and the excellent choreography.
Some of the numbers come through strongly in the recording - Vivian Reed's show-stopping "God Bless the Child" and "Sweet Georgia Brown," Carolyn Byrd's "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and "Stormy Monday Blues," the instrumental "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Take the 'A' Train," and (with less impact) the novelty numbers sung by Avon Long, but the total effect of the stage production is not really matched in the record.Still, it is a good souvenir for those who enjoyed the original show.
Vivian Reed, who stole the show twice in "Bubbling Brown Sugar" has a solo album entitled "Brown Sugar" (HL 69017-698), in which her extraordinary voice is largely wasted on overarranged music of her own composition. I hope she will return later to the traditional material she does so well.