He may still be somewhat shy of half a century, but 47-yearold American writer and director Gordon Greenberg seems to have already managed the proverbial “been there, done that” route.
He is one of the most sought-after theater production revivalists around, garnering awards and kudos from every direction. Now he is bringing one of his many celebrated reworkings to Israel when his acclaimed revival of Frank Loesser’s 1950 musical Guys and Dolls (nominated for six Olivier Awards) hits the Israeli Opera stage for six shows (September 13 to 17).
Greenberg certainly has some history to live up to. The original staging was wildly successful.
Following its Broadway premiere in 1950, the production ran for no less than 1,200 performances, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical in the process. To date, the work has had several Broadway and London revivals. The 1955 film adaptation had an all-star cast that featured Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Santa and Vivian Blaine.
Greenberg, who has been in show business for some time now, says he has been enthralled with the genre from day one.
“My first connection to theater was through a musical I saw when I was very young,” he says. “I suppose I’ve chased that thrill ever since.”
Greenberg feels that the musical is just as relevant today as back in the halcyon days of the 1940s and ‘50s.
“Musicals tend to work on a visceral level that affords them a uniquely broad appeal, so even young people understand intrinsically what is at stake. At their best, musicals also offer a startling degree of emotional intelligence and humanity,” he says.
As taken as he is with the medium, Greenberg notes that getting a musical right requires a lot of work, seamless logistics and good communication among everyone involved.
“Although a director always approaches a musical just as he does a play, focusing in on the style, esthetic and storytelling, he has a much larger circle of collaborators with which to share – and refine – his vision. From music director, arranger and orchestrator to choreographer and all the designers, everyone needs to be on the same page,” he says.
While the audience may be taken with the generally good-humored ambience of the musical and possibly relate to the format in a lighter fashion than, say, a Shakespearean play, Greenberg is quick to point out that everyone concerned must give their all in order for a musical to do the business.
“There’s a proverb that says ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ If it takes a village to make a play, it takes a city to make a musical. And they continue to captivate audiences on Broadway and around the world. Look at the success of shows as diverse as Hamilton and An American in Paris. People want to get swept up in stories, and musicals afford us tidal waves of emotional sweep,” he says.
Guys and Dolls centers on the sleazy underworld of illegal gambling in the domain of gangsters and gamblers in the night clubs of New York and Havana. The show was initially conceived by producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin as an adaptation of a couple of Damon Runyon’s 1930s short stories called “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown“ and “Blood Pressure.” Runyon was known for depicting gangster types and impossible trysts between the ne’er-do-wells and virtuous damsels.
Greenberg says he has no problem with showing gamblers and hustlers in a favorable light and does not believe that he is leading the flock astray.
“Guys and Dolls is subtitled ‘a musical fable of Broadway.’ So from the start, the authors are telling us that this is a fantastical story – a comedy that satirizes the denizens of Times Square, a hot bed of gamblers and hustlers and other such characters,” he notes.
“None of them even carry a gun. The presence of a gun, carried by outsider big Jule from Chicago, changes the temperature in the room and sends [protagonist] Nathan squealing,” he says.
The revivalist says that the production is geared solely to entertain.
“Damon Runyon’s comic take on the New York gamblers, hustlers, scrappers and showgirls that circled Times Square looking for their next deal, meal or date was a celebratory one,” Greenberg continues, adding that even villains can have some positive attributes, and that the baseline tale is fueled by the author’s fascination with the society stratum in question.
“Not originally from New York, Runyon had clearly fallen in love with this world that mixed the danger and promise of the streets with a code of ethics one wouldn’t expect in a gangster. His characters spoke with a distinct syntax and grammatical formality that eschewed contractions and largely stuck to the present tense. In creating that slang, he was able to amplify the reality of the streets and the values by which those characters operate into something rich, comic and, as the title of the show states, fable-like,” he explains.
Greenberg’s revival started life at the Chichester Festival in the UK last year, eventually hitting London’s West End at the end of 2015. It also continues to tour around the country and has played in Dublin as well.
The director says he looked to the intrinsic tale when he got to grips with bringing a 65-year-old work back to life.
“I’m a narrative junkie, so for me the story always comes first. Everything flows from the story – and how we want to tell it. In a musical, because there is so little real estate for dialogue (relative to a play), every beat in every scene must pay for itself, moving the characters further along in their journeys. Nothing is arbitrary,” he says.
There is still the considerable matter of making sure 21st-century theatergoers buy into the new version.
“With a classic piece, I look at the context in which the show was created and try to get to the core of the authors’ intent, and explore what makes it resonate for contemporary audience,” says Greenberg. “Ultimately, though, it’s the music that lifts a musical off the ground and into the heavens. With a score that gets under your skin, anything is possible.”
Naturally, it helps when you have some quality raw material from a talented composer to work with.
“Loesser was one of the best theatrical songwriters in history,” Greenberg asserts. “His work stands alone. And Guys and Dolls is his masterpiece.”
‘Guys and Dolls’ will be performed September 13 to 17 at the Opera House in Tel Aviv. For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777; www.israel-opera.co.il