“If I have all the tears that are shed on Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition ocean to the Atlantic and Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business.” - Damon Runyon
When “Guys and Dolls” opened on Broadway in 1950, most audience members would probably have recognized the character archetypes they saw on stage. They were the denizens of the world of Damon Runyon, the New York storyteller who told made-up stories of slang-talking gangsters, cops, missionaries, newspapermen and burlesque dancers.
Runyon’s New York— part real and part his own fabrication— is steeped in the 1920’s and 30’s and is not the glitz of Times Square but more the grit of the nightclubs, restaurants, and pharmacies of around 49th Street and 9th Avenue. He evokes a way of life and a social class simply by how he uses slang that is sometimes real and sometimes concocted in his own head. In Runyonland, even a wiseguy must possess an elaborate sense of politeness and courtesy in order to save his own neck. And at the core of all of this is a great big throbbing broken heart. But all in all, his stories are designed to entertain.
It is in this spirit that this “Guys and Dolls” harkens back to Runyon’s original stories and is set in a rather mythical version of the Prohibition era—beautifully framed by the proscenium of The Wells Theatre, a venue with a storied history and whose very walls evoke its time as a Vaudeville house of the early 20th Century.
The 1930’s were a time in New York when Burlesque was at its height (mostly due to the low ticket price and because it became a way that women could make a living), street gambling was a way of life (albeit a criminal one), and Christian missionaries were trying to save the souls of sinners (with minimal success). All of these different types were crashing up against each other in the cramped quarters of the side streets just off Broadway. Amidst this tension, Runyon saw the possibility for unexpected love to blossom.
“I'm inspired by love, by the moments that we commit to something with all our heart - be it a person, a project, an animal, anything really. It's undeniably inspiring, that acknowledgment of existence, that I love, that I care. That fills me with purpose.” - Damon Runyon