At North Coast Rep, ‘Another Roll of the Dice’ picks up where ‘Guys and Dolls’ left off
Seven decades after its Broadway debut, that all-American classic “Guys and Dolls” just seems to keep a perennial hot hand, rolling out its story of gamblers, hustlers and New Yawk street toughs on stages big and small, year after year.
But the much-loved musical — which has been revived on Broadway five times now — isn’t all there is to Damon Runyon and Frank Loesser, the short-story scribe and the Broadway songwriter (respectively) whose talents were catalyzed into a show that won the Tony Award as best musical in 1951 (and shoulda earned a Pulitzer, too, save for craven politics).
There are plenty more tunes and tales where the ones in “Guys and Dolls” come from — and now the playwright and screenwriter Mark Saltzman has fashioned some of them into “Another Roll of the Dice,” a long-in-development musical getting its world premiere at North Coast Rep in Solana Beach.
But what to call this latest Runyon/Loesser duet: A response, a sequel, a fresh bout added to the “Guys and Dolls” fight card?
“We’ve been calling it an accomplice to ‘Guys and Dolls,’” says Saltzman, voicing what seems an ideal word for the schemers and dreamers of the show’s rough-and-tumble universe.
“Somebody else also said it’s the piece of cheesecake after the meals at Mindy’s (a key ‘G&D’ location). It is that. The same characters aren’t there, but Mindy’s deli is kind of the centerpiece, the way it was in ‘Guys and Dolls.’
“Just different guys, different dolls.”
Saltzman, whose credits range from the long-running musical revue “A ... My Name is Alice” to the off-Broadway play “Tin Pan Alley Rag” to TV’s “Sesame Street,” based “Another Roll of the Dice” on three stories from the Runyon vaults: “Tobias the Terrible,” “Breach of Promise” and “Baseball Hattie.”
He matched those up with a collection of familiar and lesser-known songs by Loesser, the Broadway great (of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “The Most Happy Fella” fame) who died in 1969. (Runyon died in 1946.)
Among the new show’s tunes are “Heart and Soul,” that favorite of piano students everywhere and a song Loesser wrote with Hoagy Carmichael; plus such numbers as “I Hear Music,” “Two Sleepy People” and “Let’s Get Lost.”
One of the songs, the challenging waltz-meets-jazz number “Travelin’ Light,” actually was cut from “Guys and Dolls,” Saltzman says.
“It was written as a duet for Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson,” the main male characters. “But the original Nathan, Sam Levene, was really not a much of a singer. He was more of a comedian. And I guess they figured, ‘Well, if he works hard he’ll get it.’
“And then opening was approaching and they probably thought, ‘He’s never gonna get it!’”
“Dice” does introduce a host of new characters, boasting such perfectly Runyon-esque names as Joey Uptown, Georgia St. George and the safecracker Touch Feely.
The project was born when Saltzman got a call out of the blue from the Runyon estate a few years back; as he tells it, the estate was looking for writers to make use of Runyon material that was sitting unused.
It so happened that one of Saltzman’s professors back in his undergrad days at Cornell University had written a book on Runyon, and considered him “in a league with Mark Twain — just one of the great American stylists.”
That admiration had proved contagious: “I was probably supposed to be reading Nathaniel Hawthorne or Balzac or something, but Runyon caught my eye, and it was love,” Saltzman recalls.
So when he got that fateful call decades later, “it was too good to be true.”
“Dice” hit a detour or two on the way to North Coast Rep: A planned 2016 world premiere at Burbank’s Colony Theatre was shelved after the company went through a rough patch. But the false start gave Saltzman welcome time to develop the show further.
Now, Larry Sousa directs its first fully produced staging for NCRT, with a cast that includes Allison Spratt Pearce, Jason Maddy, Sarah Errington, Darrick Penny, Lance Carter and Elliot Lazar. A four-piece band will perform the score from offstage.
Saltzman calls picking the stories for the show “one of the most deliriously happy weeks of research in my life — just reading Runyon stories every day and calling it work.”
And he especially relishes the writer’s uniquely American voice, derived from the blue-collar, largely immigrant experience of early-20th-century New York.
Runyon’s characters “are driven by love and money, not by social status — not by these sort of European values,” Saltzman says. “The other thing is that there’s a freedom to American writers. You’re kind of free of language rules — you can make up what you want, as along as it communicates.
“Runyon is writing in a nongrammatical, break-the-rules style. In fact, he only uses present tense. That’s kind of a New York, working-class thing. And it’s an immigrant thing — the first tense you learn is present tense when you’re learning English.
“That just became part of the dialect. And Runyon heard that, and turned it into literature.”
Here’s “Another Roll of the Dice” writer Mark Saltzman on the trio of Damon Runyon stories the show is built on:
“Tobias the Terrible”: The vibe of this piece, about a milquetoast who morphs into a tough guy, is “pretty much like ‘Guys and Dolls’ comedy,” says Saltzman. “The mugs and the gangsters and the nightclub singers. It seemed the most like what people expect Runyon to be.”
“Breach of Promise”: Saltzman calls this one “very romantic — surprisingly, in that Runyon world.” It’s about “the way these mugs accommodate when they meet true love. (It’s) pretty heart-wrenching.”
“Baseball Hattie”: One of Saltzman’s goals was to include material that might’ve been too dicey (pardon the pun) to adapt in past eras. This story fit the bill. It’s about “a woman baseball fan and how she’s done wrong,” he says. “It’s very powerful as far as feminist politics in a story from the ‘30s. It really leaped out at me, like: “Now you can do this onstage.”
‘Another Roll of the Dice’
When: Previews begin July 10. Opens July 13. 7 p.m. Wednesdays (plus 2 p.m. July 31); 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 4.
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Tickets: $45-$56 (discounts available)
Phone: (858) 481-1055
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