Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Luck Be A Lady

   New York has been home to folk, punk, salsa, hip hop, and almost every other conceivable American music genre over the years. But no other kind of music is exclusively associated with New York like the Broadway musical.
   Not only has the music of Broadway defined New York to outsiders for generations, but the stories of Broadway have been told in newspapers, magazines, movies, and shows. One of the great storytellers of Broadway was the newspaperman Damon Runyon. He was born in Manhattan, but unluckily for him it was Manhattan, Kansas. He remedied that mistake after serving as a soldier and writer out west and moved to New York at the age of 30 in 1910. He covered baseball and boxing, and wrote serious news for Hearst's papers. But he was mostly know for his short stories of Broadway and the toughs and gangsters that hung out there. His stories were also where he developed his particular and strange style of writing. He only ever used the present tense, always wrote from the perspective of an anonymous first person narrator, and never used contractions. Even quirkier were the names of his characters like Madame La Gimp, The Lemon Drop Kid, or Rusty Charley. After his death in 1946, his ashes were (illegally) dumped over Broadway from a plane piloted by his friend, WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker.

   It was only after his death, that Runyon's stories were adapted to the stage. Songwriter Frank Loesser teamed up with writer Jo Swerling, and later Abe Burrows to create a full-length musical from Runyon's stories. The story "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown" forms the backbone of the plot but scenes like Nathan Detroit's craps game are taken from other stories. The stories became Guys and Dolls, one of the greatest musicals ever written. In fact, many critics consider it the greatest Broadway musical of all time. I particularly like Adam Gopnik's appraisal of the show in The New Yorker in 2009 when he said "Guys and Dolls is so good that it can triumph over amateur players and high school longeurs and could probably be a hit put on by a company of trained dolphins in checked suits with a chorus of girl penguins." Who can resist a show of that description?
   Yet why should a show steeped in mid-century slang and dated storylines of prim salvation army girls and showy gamblers be considered a timeless classic? Because of the awesome music. Loesser's score captures the era the way everyone wants to remember it, with swinging bands and crooning vocals that you can't help but tap your foot to. There aren't any songs directly referring to New York, but since the whole show is about Broadway and New York, let's just let the big number stand in for our playlist. Here's the original 1950 cast recording of "Luck be a Lady."

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