The Gist

Missionaries, gamblers and showgirls bet on love in this classic American musical.


The Characters
  • Sarah Brown
    A devout missionary who hopes to convert the sinners of New York City.
  • Sky Masterson
    A slick gambler who has never lost a bet.
  • Nathan Detroit
    Adelaide’s fiancée and the principal host of the neighborhood craps game.
  • Miss Adelaide
    A successful performer at the Hot Box Club who hopes to finally wed Nathan Detroit.
  • Nicely-Nicely Johnson
    Nathan’s sidekick who is surprisingly receptive to having his soul saved.

Time and Place

1930s New York City


Things to Watch For

Songs Well Suited to the Characters
Listen for each character’s distinctive style and how it is matched with the songs they sing. Sarah Brown’s songs (“I’ll Know” and “I’ve Never Been In Love Before”) sound very different from Adelaide’s (“Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back You Mink”). This is no accident – Frank Loesser was known for his ability to “suit each song to the character that performs it,” thus making the songs “as important as the book in depicting character” (PBS).

Betting It All
Look for the many instances in the musical where characters are willing to put it all on the line to get what they want. It isn’t just the gamblers— Sarah must fill the mission with sinners or its doors will close, while Adelaide tricks her mother for years, recklessly gambling that her engagement will lead to marriage. These gambles speak to the main theme of the musical – life is about taking risks.

What, Where, When, Why Was This Musical Written?
Guys and Dolls was based on the short stories and columns of Damon Runyon, who wrote about the grittier side of New York City – filled with hustlers, gamblers and all sorts of people doing whatever it takes to make it in the big apple.

Frank Loesser (music and lyrics), Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (book) were inspired by these classic characters and created a musical that ended up being a perfect fit for the post-war malaise of the 1950s. NPR, in an article marking the 50-year anniversary of the show, commented that Guys and Dolls was “brassy, daring and unrelenting entertainment” for a world that had “just ended one war in 1950 and often seemed on the verge of another.” The public’s response to such a joyful romp was wholeheartedly positive. The musical ran for a record-breaking 1,200 performances.


Synopsis

Act I
This classic American musical opens on the streets of New York City. Amid the hustle and bustle (“Runyonland/Fugue for Tinhorns”), Sarah Brown and her Save-A-Soul missionaries are attempting to recruit sinners (“Follow the Fold”), and Nathan Detroit is trying to find a venue for his famous craps game (“The Oldest Established”). He can use Joey Biltmore’s garage, but he must rustle up $1,000. His only option is to make a bet against Sky Masterson, a high roller who thinks he can get any “doll” he wants. Nathan bets that Sky can’t get Sarah Brown to fly with him to Havana for dinner. Sky saunters into the mission to woo Sarah, but she tells him that he’s simply not her type (“I’ll Know”). She’s convinced only when he promises her that he will bring a dozen sinners to the mission if she agrees to dinner.

Meanwhile, Nathan has bigger problems than his craps game. His fiancée, Miss Adelaide, is a performer at the Hot Box Club (“A Bushel and a Peck”), and she believes that Nathan give up his gambling ways while worrying about whether or not they’ll ever marry (“Adelaide’s Lament”). Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet lament Nathan’s dedication to Adelaide (“Guys and Dolls”), while they all discover that Sarah is missing from the Save-A-Soul band.

Sky whisks Sarah off to dinner in Cuba, where they dance the night away (“Havana”). Sarah is smitten with Sky (“If I Were a Bell”) and Sky confesses his infatuation with her (“My Time of Day”). They declare their love for each other when they return to New York (“I’ve Never Been in Love Before”). But the moment is ruined with the sounds of police sirens where Nathan has been hosting his craps game at Sarah’s mission.

Act II
Adelaide continues performing at the Hot Box (“Take Back Your Mink”), believing that she and Nathan are about to get elope. Nathan has no plans to elope that evening and is looking to restart his interrupted game, so she kicks him out (“Adelaide’s Lament (reprise)”). Nathan moves his craps game to the sewer (away from the cops). Angry at Sky, Sarah insists she’s through with him, while her grandfather, Arvide Abernathy, wishes more for her (“More I Cannot Wish You”). Sky heads to the game, hoping to keep his promise to Sarah and provide a dozen sinners for her prayer meeting. He bets each man present $1,000 against their souls – if he wins, they must all attend the meeting (“Luck Be a Lady”). Luck is in Sky’s favor and the gamblers, including Nathan, head to Sarah’s mission as their penance. While on the way, Nathan runs into Adelaide, who cannot believe he is going to a prayer meeting (“Sue Me”).

At the mission, though they are reticent at first, Nicely-Nicely is the first to embrace the mission’s message (“Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat”). Sarah is moved by Sky’s sense of commitment to his promise.

When Adelaide discovers that Nathan really attended a prayer meeting, she reconsiders returning to him, while she and Sarah plot how to steer their loves away from sin (“Marry the Man Today”). Both couples tie the knot and live happily ever after (“Guys and Dolls (reprise)”).