An American in Chichester: Director Gordon Greenberg Brings Guys and Dolls to the U.K.

American director Gordon Greenberg is spending his summer abroad, immersing himself in the Golden Age of Broadway with a new production of the Frank Loesser classic Guys and Dolls, currently playing the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Gordon Greenberg
Gordon Greenberg

Known for his work on a revised Off-Broadway production of Working as well as the long-running return of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Greenburg now turns his eye to Loesser's Guys and Dolls in a new production that runs through Sept. 21.

Playbill.com caught up with Greenberg during a recent New York trip to speak about bringing the American musical to U.K. audiences. The production stars Peter Polycarpou as Nathan Detroit, Sophie Thompson as Miss Adelaide, Clare Foster as Sarah Brown and Jamie Parker as Sky Masterson.

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The Chichester production marks the 60th anniversary of Guys and Dolls' U.K. premiere, is that correct?
Gordon Greenberg : Yeah, it's the big 60th Silver Celebration. Everyone is very excited about the particularly joyous, juicy and sparkly nature of this anniversary and how that will be reflected in this production.

With your previous work on the Off-Broadway run of Jacques Brel, as well as the revised production of Working, you had the opportunity to do dramaturgical work and play with structure. Something like Guys and Dolls is pretty much perfect. What kind of resources did you take advantage of in your approach to a classic?
Gordon Greenberg : I will say that I've spent a good amount of time eating grilled cheese sandwiches with Jo Loesser and just kind of talking about her recollections of Frank and of how the piece came to be and what she loves about it and what Frank loved about it. I always think of myself as an obstetrician in trying to deliver the production in the best possible form that the writers imagined it. So it's good to get into their head and get a clearer understanding of what their hopes and dreams were for it. It's fascinating for me because most of the research that I've been doing, apart from the source material – the Damon Runyon stories – is kind of what was happening when this was written, both on Broadway and in popular media. If you look at almost any episode of "The Honeymooners," you see Nathan and Adelaide, and you see Nathan and Benny. I mean that's Jackie Gleason and Art Carney. And you look at a Phil Silvers movie and there's kind of the feel of Benny and Nicely in the title number, and there's definitely a sense of plenty and a sense of abundance and a sense of great vast optimism and possibility that I think was unique to the United States post WWII. So how do make something that sounds so uniquely American transfer to an all-U.K. cast and design team?
Gordon Greenberg: That's been a big discussion we've been having in England – myself and the actors and the creative team – the difference between what the world looked like right after WWII in England, where they were still on rations, where the war had been fought on their home territory and they were paying the price of WWII, whereas [the U.S.] basically profited from the war machine. And we had GIs coming home with the GI Bill able to buy houses. Everyone could buy a house, everyone got a mortgage, a loan and could start a business, so there was nothing but, sort of, possibility and lights and beacons shining. So that I think, very much, informs the tone and the sense of Guys and Dolls as a fable. And I guess as Abe Burrows said, "Gangsters who act like they're in an Noel Coward play." So it's that kind of juiciness and color and optimism that, I think, in a very real and organic way, is informing our production.

Clare Foster and Jamie Parker
Photo by Johan Persson

Having cut your teeth on several revival-revisals, do you find that there's a conflict for directors when they approach classic musicals in a modern era? Is there a balance between being true to the original spirit yet trying to offer audiences something they've never seen before? Or should you simply stage the work without comment or updating and let the audience decide?
Gordon Greenberg : You know, David Mamet has an expression, "When you're on an airplane, you don't have to flap your wings." And I think that when you're doing Guys and Dolls, you're on an airplane. So the trick is do it as if it's November 1950 and you're putting up a brand-new, glorious musical that's written, virtually flawlessly and has beautiful shape to it, and structure, and the scenes are so taught and so clean and so well written that all you have to do is look to the stage directions and honor the original intent of the author. Then it comes through gloriously. I think the trick is just not to burden it with too much concept, as opposed to inventing it, dusting it off and discovering it as if it was written yesterday and make the humor fresh and human and organic.

How do you avoid the criticism of it being simply a museum piece? Can you worry about that?
Gordon Greenberg : Look at South Pacific and Bartlett Sher. The reason it was so beautiful was they honored that material and they presented its full humanity and integrity and soulfulness and hit the right style. And the thing is, with Guys and Dolls, because it's a fable, it's also a style piece as much as any restoration comedy would be. You can't do it like it's Chekhov. But that is a big part of the reason that we spent so much time looking at "The Honeymooners" and Phil Silvers and looking at Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar, who were the comic giants at that time, and what was the Vaudevillian legacy that they were playing into. So there's that style, generally to embrace, and there's the unique truthful humanity of these characters who all kind of believe in happy endings and sort of believe in happy endings and are doing everything they can to get it.

What has the experience been like bringing that distinctly American point of view to the U.K. cast?
Gordon Greenberg : It's so much fun. First of all, we have a brilliant casting director, a woman named Pippa Ailion who cast Book of Mormon, The Lion King and was the original casting director on Rent. She has a great feel and respect for each individual piece, and we really spent a good amount of time talking about the sensibility of this show and the sort of actors that we were looking for. We were fortunate enough to have amassed this cast full of huge talents and people who already have really good American dialects so we don't need a dialect coach. [Laughs.] Here and there I'll remind them, you know, "'Been' is not 'bean' it's 'bin.'" But generally they all have this great enthusiasm for, not generally American style, but this particular style from the Golden Age of Broadway. This style that is uniquely New York and is inherited by the likes of Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason, and kind of the comic greats that are kind of in our blood – certainly in mine from growing up in my household. So we've spent a lot of time sitting around sending around YouTube links and imitating my Uncle Irving and Aunt Zelda and telling stories. I find myself giving direction in the voice of Gary Marshall. [Laughs.]

Broadway has been very fortunate to have some powerful revivals of American musicals come over from London. The 1994 revival of Carousel comes to mind as a particular favorite of mine. What has it been like sharing your passion for the American musical with your U.K. team of artists?
Gordon Greenberg: I have such a passion and deep understanding and love for this show that I'm hopefully able to share my love and enthusiasm. I find that Americans are often unabashedly enthusiastic in a way that British people are sometimes less apt to be, a little slower; a slightly slower burn sometimes. I think it's just something that's endemic to the culture. So a big part of the initial weeks of rehearsal was just getting everyone to the point of feeling confident enough to make fools of themselves, to kind of go to the outer limits of what is comically possible. And in terms of the production as a whole, I feel like I'm certainly able to consistently reinforce the style and sensibility of Abe Borrows and Frank Loesser. It's this kind of old, classic, New York sensibility that I sort of thrive on and try in every way that I can to pass along to them.

Sophie Thompson
Photo by Johan Persson

Was this a musical that you loved growing up? Were there specific clues or insider tidbits that Jo Loesser shared with you about the show and what makes it tick?
Gordon Greenberg : Absolutely. One of the first shows I saw as a kid with my parents on a trip to London was the Richard Eyre production of Guys and Dolls. I think it was a revival at that time. I suddenly understood what was possible in terms of sheer humanity and audacity. And I loved it. So it's kind of stayed with me, how deeply moving and exciting theatre can be that is unlike any other art form. And that was sort of the beginning of my affection and affinity for Guys and Dolls. I directed a small tour of it that we did in the States a couple of years ago and then spent some time talking to Jo about it and she passed along a lot of interesting information about how the show was written.

I guess Jo Swerling, who was the original book writer, and Frank Loesser had written something like 14 songs to go with that original book, most of which was tossed aside when they decided that they needed a new take on the book and Abe Burrows came in. He had been sort of well known for writing a comedic radio show, which I believe was called "Duffy's Tavern," and it's interesting that if you listen to old episodes of "Duffy's Tavern," and we have as a cast, you can hear a lot of the voices in Guys and Dolls.

Really, all you have to do is listen to Abe Burrows speak and you understand the rhythm. He came in and essentially had to write the book around the songs that Frank Loesser had already written for this other book, so it was kind of an interesting process especially for a show that feels as seamless as this one does. I know that Jo likes to talk about "My Time of Day" being the sort of quintessential Frank Loesser song. It's definitely a deep, romantic look at what our city looks like late at night. And for those of us who are artists and sometimes enjoy the quiet of the kind of those late-night, deep blue hours, it's very, very understandable to think that for Frank Loesser it was his kind of magic hour. That's when he used to write most of his stuff.

Can you tell me about what the visual world of Guys and Dolls is going to look like at Chichester?
Gordon Greenberg : There's actually a guy who sells books right on the corner of 81st and Broadway right outside of the Barnes and Noble. He has all of these classic books from the late 40s early 50s, and I bought a bunch of them and brought them in and said, "Here's our color world." The colors they used are not quite the same ones we use now. But they were still full of bounce and possibility. Peter McKintosh, our phenomenal designer, he then created this giant, abstract light box wall that represents, almost, a kaleidoscopic view of the billboards and signage of Time Square at the time. Remember that we're looking at it through this lense of being in England and what it was to be in Time Square after WWII. But all the signs are just abstracted enough that we know that we're looking at them for their size, scope and almost skewed sense of grandeur and possibility. The stage at Chichester is a three-quarter thrust and because the audience is so raked they can really see it, so the entire stage is almost a giant mirror of reflection. This giant light box wall kind of reflects off that wall so it's very colorful.

Is there hope that this might live on past Chichester?
Gordon Greenberg: Sure. That’d be swell. I think, right now, we’re just focusing on doing the show and making it the best possible production for this space. But it seems that many of the shows at Chichester seem to go on to have further life, whether it's on tour or in the West End or in other countries.