top of page
  • Kerry Auer Fergus

Guys and Dolls: Rhythms and Reversals

Let's take a look at one of my all-time favorite musicals: Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls. Rhythm is the key thing here. From the get-go, Loesser uses rhythms to differentiate the straight-laced Salvation Army crowd from the looser gang of gamblers and strippers, but by the time the curtain falls, Loesser has done some interesting things to those rhythms and the way that he has altered them may give us some useful insight into the two lead roles. Let's take a look.

To get an idea for how Loesser manipulates the rhythms to reflect the personalities of his characters, we need look no further than the first two sung numbers of the show. Right off the bat, “Fugue for Tinhorns” introduces us to the musical language of the gamblers. The very first thing we hear is a trumpet melody that you’ll probably recognize – it’s the call to the races, the signal that the horses need to ready themselves at the paddock gate. Clearly this is fitting for the situation at hand since these three gamblers are about to start arguing over the relative merits of their favorite racehorses. The call to the races is a clever device that allows Loesser to succinctly set the scene. However, the rhythms are what we need to pay attention to here. “Fugue for Tinhorns” is full of triplets (that’s where you squeeze three notes into two beats) and syncopated rhythms (that’s when the notes fall on the offbeats instead of the downbeats). Both the triplets and the syncopations give the piece a more swung rhythmic feel. It’s jazzier. It’s looser. It fits very well with the personality of these gamblers.

While we’re on the subject of “Fugue for Tinhorns,” you may be wondering what a fugue is. For that matter, you may also be wondering what a tinhorn is. Well, wonder no more! A tinhorn is someone who pretends that they have more money and influence than they actually do. Apparently it’s a term that’s often used to describe gamblers. So that seems pretty accurate for what’s going on here. A fugue, however, is an incredibly complex form of musical counterpoint in which the theme is stated and developed and expanded in multiple voices. This Bach piece is a fugue.

“Fugue for Tinhorns” is most definitely not. In fact, it’s a simple canon. So we’re going to have dock Frank Loesser some points for inaccurately titling this thing. But, you know what, it’s a really good number and a smart way to start the show, so we might have to forgive him.

The next number, “Follow the Fold,” establishes the rhythmic profile of Sarah and her Salvation Army cohorts. The rhythms of this piece are about as straight as they come. You will not find a single syncopation here. And that makes a lot of sense from a dramatic standpoint. Sarah is literally walking the streets of New York urging people to repent from “sin and shame,” so clearly this character has more rigid principles than the gamblers of the previous scene and it’s reflected in her rhythmic identity. It’s also reflected in the melody. “Follow the Fold” is entirely diatonic – this means that Sarah never uses any notes that are outside of the key. The gamblers, on the other hand, used a lot of outside notes. These altered notes gave their number a jazzier feel.

So right off the bat, we see that Loesser has set up a stark contrast between the gamblers and the Salvation Army folks. By creating such different musical languages for the two groups, Loesser has set up a musical conflict that mirrors that conflict of the narrative.

Much of the music in the first act solidifies Loesser’s initial musical divide between gamblers and missionaries. Consider the triplets in the opening phrases of the gambler number “Oldest Established” or the syncopation on the line, “for it’s only just a short walk.” And the reprise of “Follow the Fold” re-emphasizes not only the strict musical rhythms of the missionaries but also their dogged persistence in spreading their message of repentance.

The music of Adelaide and her chorus of strippers likewise supports our general thesis of looser rhythms for looser characters. “Bushel and a Peck” is our first introduction to the musical language of the strippers. Pretty much the entire piece is made up of dotted eighth plus sixteenth note rhythms. This is certainly a looser kind of rhythm than the missionaries use and yet it’s not as sophisticated as the swung rhythms of the gamblers. The lack of variety in the music of the strippers sort of hilariously captures the cheap, vapid quality of this kind of entertainment.

Adelaide’s musical language coincides nicely with the music of the gamblers. In “Adelaide’s Lament” she may use straight rhythms for the passages that she reads aloud from the medical book, but she then switches to triplets when she is speaking in her own voice. So we can see that the doctor’s advice (much like that of the missionaries) is characterized by a strict rhythmic sensibility whereas Adelaide herself has a much looser style similar to the gamblers.

So in general, the music of the Act I has outlined a specific rhythmic divide between gamblers and missionaries. But how can that help us to better understand our two leads? Well, to begin with, let’s take a closer look at “I’ll Know.” Much like “Follow the Fold,” the rhythms of this number are mostly even and the melody is basically diatonic. Sarah’s high ideals and rigid code of ethics are again on display through her musical choices. Additionally, I think Loesser has allowed the strength of her conviction to come through. Consider the repeated phrase “I’ll know.” The word “know” always comes on the downbeat – this is the strongest beat of the measure. Moreover, the phrase descends from “I” to “know.” The extra weight of this descending pitch gives the second word a little more emphasis. (Don’t believe me? Try singing “I’ll Know” with the word “I’ll” moving upwards to “know”. It just doesn’t have the same punch.) In this way, Loesser has given musical weight to Sarah’s conviction. When she says she’ll know, she means it. Of course, this makes it all the more entertaining for us as the audience since we already know that her love is standing right in front of her and she actually hasn’t recognized him as she claims she will.

Although the rhythms of “I’ll Know” are mostly even, Sarah does make use of a few triplets, something that so far has been associated with the gamblers alone. The triplets first appear at the phrase, “not some fly-by-night Broadway romance.” Notice that she is mimicking the sound of the gamblers just as the lyrics criticize their lifestyle. In this case, the triplets are actually mocking the gamblers and their musical idioms.

Sarah turns to triplets again later in the piece when she sings, “that at last I’ve come home safe and sound. And till then I shall wait. And till then I’ll be strong.” These are sort of triplets in disguise. Sarah actually rests during the first note and only sings the second and third notes of the triplet on each of these phrases. But these are triplets nonetheless. I’d like to think that this is an indication that Sarah is maybe more romantic and less rigid than she’d like you to believe. This is her true nature peeking through.

Considering the strength of Sarah’s convictions early in the act, it’s interesting to then contrast “I’ll Know” with “If I Were a Bell.” Her second solo number is so much looser than her first. She’s using glissandos to slide from one note to the next (she’s also drunk so perhaps the glissandos are Loesser’s way of mimicking the slurred speech that often accompanies intoxication). But Sarah’s also using syncopation, a musical device that is far from her comfort zone. The piece isn’t inundated with these syncopations – a complete musical transformation at this point would be unbelievable – but it’s enough to reveal how Sarah is slowly being transformed by her relationship with Sky.

Then we have “My Time of Day.” Sky’s solo number at the end of Act I is perhaps the most unusual piece in the Guys and Dolls score. There are a number of things to consider here. First of all, there are a lot of syncopations, triplets, and slurred rhythms in this piece. BUT the effect is very different than the jazzier sound of the other gamblers. Here these syncopations and triplets create the effect of formlessness. It’s almost as though the meter doesn’t matter at all. So although on paper it would seem that Sky’s rhythmic profile fits nicely with that of the gamblers, in reality he has set himself apart.

Moreover, “My Time of Day” uses quite a few non-diatonic notes. And it is the only piece in the score that makes use of any meaningful key modulations. It’s also through-composed. This means that there is no significant reprisal of any melodic material. The piece moves from one thought to the next without ever returning to a refrain. This is not only unusual in the Guys and Dolls score. It is unusual in musical theater in general.

The cumulative effect of all this is that Sky has set himself apart from every other character in the show. There is a great deal of depth to this man, depth that we may not have given him credit for earlier. Moreover, it’s significant that Sky reveals his true nature so clearly through his musical language and then immediately reveals another very intimate part of himself by sharing his real name with Sarah. “My Time of Day” has introduced us to the real Sky Masterson or rather it has introduced us to Obadiah Masterson.

Sky transitions directly from “My Time of Day” to “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” The rhythms here are very even. He is making an effort to speak in Sarah’s musical language and if that isn’t adorable I don’t know what is! Sarah then joins Sky and the two sing in harmony. On a side note, I once had a professor who insisted that if characters are singing in unison, their love is pure (think Maria and Tony singing together at the end of “Tonight”) but if they are singing in parallel sixths, they’re about to have sex. Sarah and Sky aren’t singing parallel sixths, but they are singing in harmony and in the world of musical theatre this indicates great intimacy.

What’s great about Guys and Dolls is that Loesser eventually has Sarah and Sky switch rhythmic identities. Have you ever taken a look at the sheet music for “Luck Be a Lady?” Sky’s final solo number is written almost entirely in straight quarter notes. Now most actors don’t sing it this way, but it is written with even rhythms. And Sarah’s final number, a duet with Adelaide, is filled with triplets. Sarah and Sky have embraced each other’s rhythmic identities, and in so doing they have paved the way to their future happiness.

Before we finish here, you might wonder why I haven’t said anything about Nathan Detroit. Well, you may have noticed that Nathan doesn’t really sing in Guys and Dolls. In this case, there’s not some symbolic meaning behind Nathan’s lack of musical material. In fact, Nathan doesn’t sing because the original actor didn't have a strong voice. So then, the character of Nicely-Nicely Johnson was created and numbers that really should be sung by Nathan like “Guys and Dolls” and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” are sung by this secondary character. It’s a great reminder for all of us who attempt to analyze musical structure that some things are determined for practical reasons and not dramatic ones.

Nathan may not sing, but Loesser has still managed to create a musical world that very clearly differentiates the gamblers from the missionaries. And in the end, Sarah and Sky’s reversal of these rhythmic identities beautifully illustrates how they have changed each other for the better.

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page