Director Don Stephenson offers unique perspective to Goodspeed’s ‘Guys and Dolls’

Scott Cote as Nicely Nicely Johnson and Noah Plomgren as Benny Southstreet sing “Guys and Dolls” during a dress rehearsal at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam on April 9. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Scott Cote as Nicely Nicely Johnson and Noah Plomgren as Benny Southstreet sing “Guys and Dolls” during a dress rehearsal at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam on April 9. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Don Stephenson had acted in “Guys and Dolls” once — back as a college freshman, playing the dialogue-free role of gambler Angie the Ox.

He’s seen the musical, though, countless times. That comes as no surprise, considering he is the son-in-law of the late, great Frank Loesser, who wrote the songs for “Guys and Dolls.” Stephenson has seen the show in all sorts of incarnations — even on ice.

One thing Stephenson, a Broadway actor who is now a director of renown, had never done is direct one of Loesser’s works.

Until, that is, Goodspeed Musicals execs called to ask him to helm their production of “Guys and Dolls.”

When asked his response, Stephenson, ever the comedian, quips, “I said, ‘How much?’”

Actually, he was surprised. He and Goodspeed execs have spoken over the years about potential projects, but those never came to fruition; he wasn’t aware that Goodspeed was taking on “Guys and Dolls.”

“I said, ‘Well, I guess I could do that.’ I hadn’t really thought about it,” he says.

Stephenson knew well that the work is often described as a perfect, classic musical.

“It’s the greatest show ever written — just ask my mother-in-law, she’ll tell you right away that it is,” he says. “And so in that way, it’s great because a great show is fun to do, but like any other show, you have to figure out what you’re going to do. How does the set work? Get your designers in, how’s it going to flow, and what does it mean to you? And that’s what you put up onstage.”

The show is, he says, like a postcard to New York, an idealized, romanticized version of the city the way everyone wishes it was. And it has a great romance at its heart: the unlikely relationship between gambler Sky Masterson and missionary Sarah Brown.

Stephenson is ensuring that there is as much humanity in the production as wit.

“I was in ‘The Producers’ for a long time,” he says. “Mel Brooks said to me one time after a rehearsal — and I’ve never forgotten — he said, ‘I don’t care about the jokes, it’s the serious stuff.’ I thought, first of all, ‘You’re Mel Brooks!’ That’s sort of a surprise, but he’s smart enough to know that the heartbeat, even in a silly show like ‘The Producers,’ which is joke-joke-joke-joke-joke — and there are a lot of jokes in this one, too — you have to have that core of truth and that core of caring about the characters. Otherwise, it’s just silly nonsense. There’s no investment.”

Stephenson has also encouraged his cast not to approach the piece like the classic it is but rather as a brand new show — as if Loesser and book writer Abe Burrows are in the next room, bringing in pages as they whip them up.

That might not be as easy as it sounds. Because “Guys and Dolls” and its songs —  “Luck Be a Lady” and “Fugue for Tinhorns” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” — are so famous, they have become part of American culture. So the performers have to approach it all in a way that’s fresh. Stephenson told the performers to work their way through the dialogue and songs as if they had no idea what they were about to say. That is, Stephenson notes, what acting is, but it’s much more difficult when something is extraordinarily familiar.

Of course, it helps when working on “Guys and Dolls” that Stephenson knows a lot about Loesser, who died in 1969.

“I’ve heard my mother-in-law tell stories about how he wrote, why he wrote, so that must inform in some way,” he says. He segues into a comic moment: “I mean, I have a key to the Loesser office so I can get in and get stuff. ‘What’s in this drawer? I want to see stuff!’”

He can, truly, call over to the office and say he needs to read all of the show’s original reviews or to look at original photographs. He listened to demos that Loesser recorded of himself singing the songs. Through the latter, he could hear how Loesser phrased things, for instance, and so knows the composer would be okay with someone in the Goodspeed production doing the same.

“I thought maybe that’s as close as I can get to being able to talk to him and get it the way he would want it. And I can talk to (my wife) Emily and I can talk to my mother-in-law, and they have insight in that way, too,” he says.

Jo Sullivan Loesser, Emily’s mother and Frank’s widow, says that her husband was indeed very particular about how his songs were sung. She recalls how he quit “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” after getting into a disagreement with Rudy Vallee over just that. Loesser came home and told her he had quit, and Jo Sullivan Loesser remembers, “I said, ‘You went a little far with that, didn’t you, Frank?’” He ended up returning.

As for seeing her son-in-law direct her husband’s show, Jo Sullivan Loesser says Stephenson is a “terrific director” who “has a very good sensibility. God knows, he knows the show. He’s seen it enough. I knew he’d be right there for it.”

Emily Loesser was likewise excited that Goodspeed asked Stephenson to direct “Guys and Dolls.” She thinks he is “one of the best comedic directors in the theater that we have.”

“I knew he would be a great fit for this material. He has a great sense of timing — it’s almost like music to him. He knows how to help actors deliver lines. He knows how to serve the play. He knows the show so well,” she says.

The younger members of the family are getting to know the show, too. Emily Loesser has brought her and Stephenson’s four children to Goodspeed to watch a couple of rehearsals. When she heard their 13-year-old daughter laugh during one session, she says, “I was thinking, ‘Wow, she’s laughing. She’s getting it. It’s still fresh for a 13-year-old.’ ... So that’s a joy.”

And the songs apparently make a lasting impact. After a rehearsal, Emily Loesser took the children to a roller skating rink in Middletown, and, during the drive, the kids were all singing “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” from “Guys and Dolls.”

Watching as an audience enjoys one of Loesser’s works is a pleasure for the family, Stephenson says.

“When people go to see his shows and they laugh, it’s like he’s still around, in a way,” he says. “It’s gratifying for us to think those things that they thought up, people are still laughing at, as if for the first time.”

MORE ABOUT LOESSER AND STEPHENSON

Frank Loesser’s songs have made their way into the national consciousness — and stayed there. Perhaps you know “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”? “Heart and Soul”? “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”? Yup, all Loesser’s.

In addition to “Guys and Dolls,” his Broadway musicals included “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” — which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962 — and “The Most Happy Fella.” Goodspeed produced “Business” in 2010 and “Fella” in 2010.

As for Don Stephenson, his lengthy list of credits include acting in the original 1997 Broadway production of “Titanic” and recently directing the Avery Fisher Hall concert version of the show. Among his other roles: he played Leo Bloom in Broadway’s “The Producers” and the D’Ysquith Family in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

Stephenson has performed at Goodspeed before, back in 1995, in “Silver Dollar” at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. His wife, Emily Loesser, was in “Strike Up the Band” in the Goodspeed Opera House at the same time.

Manna Nichols, center, plays the part of Sarah Brown as the cast of the Goodspeed Musicals production of 'Guys and Dolls' perform a dress rehearsal at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam on April 9. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Manna Nichols, center, plays the part of Sarah Brown as the cast of the Goodspeed Musicals production of "Guys and Dolls" perform a dress rehearsal at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam on April 9. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Don Stephenson is the director of Goodspeed’s current production of “Guys and Dolls.” (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)
Don Stephenson is the director of Goodspeed’s current production of “Guys and Dolls.” (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

IF YOU GO

What: "Guys and Dolls"

Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam

When: Through June 20; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sunday; also, 2 p.m. matinees on select Thursdays and 6:30 p.m. performances on select Sundays

Tickets: Start at $27, prices subject to change based on availability

Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org

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