Way back in the day, I went to high school at a place known as Morrison Glace Bay High School. Back home, the school was simply known as Morrison. In the 1970s, Glace Bay was still a town that was fairly divided along religious lines: Morrison became known as the Protestant or public high school while across town, St. Michael’s was where the Catholic kids in town went. Needless to say, there existed a fierce rivalry between the two schools. Every sporting tournament contained elements of a Battle of Glace Bay. Like all intense rivalries, sometimes my school came out on top and sometimes we didn’t. But one thing that I think Morrison did better than St. Mike’s, year after year, was our production of a full-blown high school musical. We were lucky at Morrison to have a teacher on staff who championed this cause and was highly proficient at shepherding everyone through the dramatic process involved in putting on a quality play. Because of a lady named Harriett Townsend, our school became known for the quality of our theatrical productions. While Miss Townsend helped to put on several musicals over the course of my time there, the one that made the most impression on me was Guys and Dolls.
Guys and Dolls is a musical that is based upon a series of short stories written by one of America’s most colourful writers, Damon Runyon. In the first half of the 1900s, Runyon wrote for newspapers that were run by mogul William Randolph Hearst. Runyon was a gambling man, a drinker and a smoker, too. He ran with a crowd that many would consider to be unsavory, such as mobsters, politicians, homosexuals (at a time when homosexuality was still considered a crime in many jurisdictions), “women of the night” and so on. Runyon’s newspaper columns routinely featured stories on the sporting world (particularly boxing and horse racing), along with the world of Broadway musicals. Damon Runyon wrote with a style that became known as Runyonese, which meant that he usually called his characters by imaginative names, his stories often took place in the underbelly of New York society circles and he was known for his use of made up language or slang terminology. In 1932, he wrote a short story entitled “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown”. In that story, he wrote about the unlikely romance between a habitual gambler and the wholesome church lady who viewed him as a sinner worth saving. Two decades later, that short story was adapted for Broadway and became known as Guys and Dolls.
When Guys and Dolls debuted on Broadway, it won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The script for the musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama. The world beyond the Big Apple was introduced to the vernacular of Damon Runyon where the men were all known by nicknames such as Lefty or Shorty or Skinny, and the women were all known as dames or broads or dolls. The story of Guys and Dolls revolves around gambling, but at its core, it is about redemption and love. The original cast recording of the musical won the Grammy Award for Best Recording by a Group or Ensemble. The most famous song, among many from this soundtrack, is “Luck Be a Lady”. This is a song that is sung by a group of gamblers all hoping to have the cards fall their way or the dice come up with anything other than snake eyes.
What I remember most about Guys and Dolls appearing at Morrison Glace Bay High School was how the costumes completely transformed those who appeared on stage. Boys who normally wore jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers every day suddenly appeared on stage in the sharpest of suits, the shiniest of shoes, all topped off with slicked back hair and fedoras. These boys became men as they sang of their hopes for making it rich on the roll of the dice or the speed of the ponies. And the girls…my word…these girls who I had sat beside in class for years appeared on stage in make-up, in heels and form-fitting dresses that sashayed when they moved. These girls of my youth transformed into women before my eyes in a way that I never had thought them capable of doing until that moment. The story of Guys and Dolls was all dressed in stylish garb and grownup language and allowed the students and citizens of Glace Bay to catch a glimpse of a part of the world that only New Yorkers had known up until then. It was gritty, dangerous and filled with virtue and tenderness at the same time. Guys and Dolls had it all. No wonder it is one of Broadway’s most honoured and respected musicals of all time.
Guys and Dolls became a movie, with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando starring in it. The musical has also been performed by all manner of touring companies from the four corners of the world. But for me, Guys and Dolls will always be a high school musical. Without question, the time one spends in high school helps to shape the rest of your life. While the academic studies help to prepare you for your post-secondary career and/or the world of work, there is so much else that goes on beyond the walls of those classrooms but within the walls of the school that adds so much colour to one’s life. Whether those extra-curricular experiences come on the playing field or on the stage doesn’t matter. What does matter is that kids, some of whom are going through the most confusing and pressure-filled times of their lives, get to don uniforms of one sort or another, step out of their lives for a while and become someone different, if only just for a short time. But, in that short time, they can grow in ways that just aren’t possible sitting at a desk in a classroom taking notes. So, kudos to all high school adults who willingly volunteer to provide such rich experiences for our children: experiences that go beyond academics and help our children to forge a sense of identity that is necessary to take on the world that awaits on the other side of graduation. Extra applause for those young people who step up and grasp those opportunities being presented to them. Taken together, extracurriculars enrich us all.
The link to the official website for the musical Guys and Dolls can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer to the movie version of Guys and Dolls can be found here.
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