How do you make a 60-year-old musical seem fresh? For starters, hire Mary Zimmerman. The director has a history of making, er, vintage material seem new again—she won a Tony Award in 2002 for directing Metamorphoses, a play she wrote based on the myths of Ovid (born 43 BC). Her new endeavor is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls that opens at the Wallis Annenberg Theatre in Beverly Hills next week.
“Being over 60-years-old makes it the most recent text I’ve ever staged,” Zimmerman says. “Putting one’s stamp is not something one should be thinking about. It happens naturally. The same way one’s speaking voice is a product of where you grew up, your artistic voice is like that. You do it in the way your heart is telling you to do it. With Guys and Dolls you are trying to clearly tell the story with good acting, singing and dancing. The text I’ve chosen and written for theatre, I’ve had to use symbol and metaphor and music in order to convey someone turning into a bird. Guys does not demand that. Everything is on the stage.”
Based on the short stories of author Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls is a story of two gamblers (Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson) betting on Sky’s ability to woo Sarah Brown, an uptight missionary, to join him on a date to Cuba. Nathan has his own challenges, as his fiancée, Adelaide, wants him to give up gambling and finally marry her. The show includes classic songs like “Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”
“It’s a bit of parody and satire about the way guys see dolls and vice-versa,” Zimmerman says. “It does have its ludicrous stereotypes, but it was ludicrous at the time. The girls and ladies in it are so strong and the actors are so virtuoso—that’s the pleasure of the theater. It’s like Judy Holliday or anyone else who was a good dumb blonde. You’re aware of it.”
The show’s book, written by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, is structured in such a way that it gives its characters unique arcs. “The characters transform into who they actually are,” she says. “They are mistaken about who they are. Sarah thinks she needs a man who is straightforward, Nathan thinks he’s a big ol’ player, Sky returns to who he is, as does Sarah. Adelaide is the only character who knows and is correct about what she wants.”
By working in Oregon, Zimmerman gets to be out of the harsh spotlight of Broadway’s intense glare. “When things have a hint of future, it spoils the experience,” she says. “My singular success with Metamorphoses was accidental. I rarely have any scheme. It’s a delight to work on something that I’m not writing every night when I go home—which I just did with Treasure Island. When I started out, I never thought about a career. All of this is where my heart is. There’s no question.”