Runyon's Jewish world (one of my very long posts)
Last Edit: AlanScott 02:35 pm EDT 08/02/20
Posted by: AlanScott 02:31 pm EDT 08/02/20
In reply to: re: Just curious. - TheOtherOne 10:58 am EDT 08/02/20

As noted by others, it's "So nu?" (spelled that way in the script and score) and not "So new?" Nu is Yiddish. “I’m just a no-good-nik” is Jewish-speak.

As to whether Nathan Detroit is Jewish. I think a few things are relevant.

First, Guys and Dolls is almost an original musical. It uses the Runyon world — Runyonland — but the two main plot threads are basically invented. The Sarah-Sky plot is greatly different from the story told in "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown," and all the rest is basically new. A couple of plot ideas may be inspired by things in a couple of Runyon stories — specifically, "Pick the Winner" and "Blood Pressure" — but to the extent they are used, they are transformed.

There is no Adelaide in Runyon. It's been said that the Adelaide-Nathan subplot (and, of course, Nathan is a character in Runyon stories) comes from "Pick the Winner," about Cutie Singleton, who's been engaged for a very long time, but the only connection between "Pick the Winner" and the Adelaide-Nathan story is that Cutie has been engaged to a guy called Hot Horse Herbie for a very long time. (Vivian Blaine later played Cutie Singleton in a TV version of "Pick the Winner.")

As for the Jewishness, I will quote a couple of sections from an Adam Gropnik New Yorker piece on Runyon that I’m also linking.

“There are two layers of idiom-making laid one on top of the other in Runyon’s writing, a technique that accounts both for its complexity and for its comic, slightly out-of-focus nature—for its mixture of authenticity and unreality. As far as one can tell, Jewish crooks of the period really did speak a surprisingly elaborate and cautious diction. They didn’t speak like Runyon characters, but they tried to speak high for the same reason that they polished their shoes and tipped their hats and dressed in suits: fancy was classy. This tendency still shows in Sinatra’s recorded speech, which, when made for public consumption, is extremely ‘high,’ a Hoboken boy’s idea of a class act.”

And later in the piece:

“The other oddity in Runyon’s stories is how startlingly they reverse the normal ethnic roles in American writing. The Bellow generation has made us accustomed to ironically distanced Jewish narrators of violent or extreme events. But with Runyon the controlling sensibility is that of the Gentile author expressing his wonder (albeit through the puppet voice of the hamische narrator) at the violent antics of the Jews.”

The world Runyon wrote about was an essentially Jewish world. Not every character in Runyon is Jewish, and I don’t think it’s ever made explicit, but it’s Jewish. Everyone hangs out in Mindy’s, which of course is Lindy’s, a Jewish deli, eating gefilte fish and cheesecake.

You wrote this, “Sam Levene was Jewish and brought his ethnicity to the role to great effect, but I'm not so sure this is essential to the character.”

Sam Levene was succeeded on Broadway by Julie Oshins, who was Jewish. Oshins had been playing it on the national tour. When he left to take over on Broadway, he was replaced by Sam Schwartz, who I would guess was Jewish. Levene’s original understudy was Paul Reed, who also played Brannigan. Reed was born Sidney Kahn.

When Sam Levene left the London production, he was replaced by Sidney James, born Solomon Joel Cohen.

In 1955, City Center did its first revival of Guys and Dolls. Nathan was played by Walter Matthau, who wasn’t Jewish but often played Jewish. When the production played a return engagement a month after closing, John Randolph, who was Jewish, played Nathan. In 1965, City Center did the show again. Alan King (Jewish) was Nathan. In 1966, they brought it back as part of a Frank Loesser festival. Jan Murray (Jewish) was Nathan.

The list of Jewish actors who played the role in stock and in major houses around the country during the next few decades would include Phil Foster, Shelley Berman, Joseph Leon, Joey Adams, Milton Berle, Jack Carter, Lewis J. Stadlen, and Henry Goodman. Obviously, that proves nothing. There are lots of Jewish actors. But the fact that no one but Jewish actors played the role on any kind of continuing basis during the original Broadway, national tour and London runs suggests that the writers and the original creative team saw the character as Jewish.

Clearly, you don’t have to be Jewish to play the role successfully. Look at Nathan Lane (although I felt he lacked the essential Yiddishkeit in a production I thought overrated). But maybe it helps a little? So nu?
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