Episodes: "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" from Guys and Dolls


(We're talking about musicals this week, because I don't really value my subscriber numbers.)

There's a tradition in musical theater called the "11 o'clock number," which is based on the idea that shows used to start at 8:30, so when 11 pm hit and the show was in the process of wrapping up, there was a need to hit the audience with one last "wow" that would leave them humming the whole way home. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

I didn't know about any of this when I first saw Guys and Dolls, my favorite musical, as a teenager, but I did know that "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" was one of the greatest things I'd ever seen. In terms of moving the show's plot forward, it's mostly a minor number, but in terms of sending you out on a high, it's absolutely vital. (Let's listen to the original Broadway cast version, shall we?)

In talking about "Everything's Alright," I tried to convey the way that that song feels a little like controlled chaos, like the cart rolling down the hill faster and faster and faster. Seemingly every major number in the second act of Guys and Dolls is the same way, but in completely different fashion. They're all possessed of unstoppable momentum, but it doesn't feel terrifying -- it feels glorious. Once this number (or "Luck Be a Lady," for example) starts up, there's really this sense that it's time to get out of the way, or you'll be crushed beneath it. You can either surrender to what's happening, or you can be thrown out of the car.

The whole musical has that feel, to some degree. In the best productions of it, it almost seems like a farce. The plot (about gangsters and their girlfriends and a revivalist mission) is surprisingly well-developed, but it also has the feeling of something completely tossed-off. It manages to be both perfectly structured and feel like the actors are making it up as they go. That's the ideal sweet spot for a lot of comedy, I've found, but it's something that's hard to do in a musical, which by necessity has to be much more rigorously put together.

But one of the nice things about this show is how it makes room for little fillips around the edges. "Sit Down," for instance, really has nothing to do with anything. It's sung by an extreme supporting character. Its connection to the plot is real, but also could be fulfilled by any number of other potential ideas. And what it tells us about any of the characters is basically non-existent. It is there solely to dazzle. But, man, if you have a good cast and a great comedian/singer playing Nicely-Nicely (the guy who sings this song), there's nothing more dazzling than seeing this number fairly erupt from the stage.

What's even more impressive is that it's a relatively serviceable gospel number. Obviously, it's not going to abruptly break into calls of "Hallelujah" or anything, but in the way that it gallops along, the song nicely captures the way religious music builds tension in its contrast of quiet intensity and all-out fervor. Frank Loesser's music and lyrics work throughout as a kind of urban pastiche, but this goes beyond even that, into some other level of combination.

But what it also always leaves me thinking is that sometimes, being dazzled is enough. In almost every way, this song is extraneous. If you were writing a review of this show, it would be easy to say, "Hey, there's a big, showstopping number late in the show that has nothing to do with anything." (By contrast, "Luck Be a Lady" is the song that the whole plot hinges on.) And yet this is another rocketship song like "Wonderful Guy." It's a song that doesn't just want to get us from point A to point B. It wants to send us to dizzying new heights, then worry about getting us down later.

Guys and Dolls, of course, is an episodic musical. There's a plot, as mentioned, but book writers Abe Burrows (father of James) and Jo Swerling make sure to work in little oddball bits and pieces here and there, that are sort of like those weird little anecdotes that would come at the end of old Reader's Digest stories. They don't really have anything to do with anything, but you like having them around. That means that it can get away with things as disconnected as "Sit Down," especially if they're bold and brash and entertaining. And the whole tradition of the 11 o'clock number also gives this one a little extra fuel. When the whole medium you exist in encourages this sort of thing, hey, why not?

But I also think that sometimes, we as critics worry way too much about how things work holistically, when our audiences often embrace them much more as a series of big moments or spectacular pieces. If the parts don't add up to a whole (as Guys and Dolls does), then I think it's worth talking about that. But I also wonder sometimes if a part that's really, really, really good can be enough to make up for a lackluster whole. I think the way we experience art is often to assume that everybody is going to look at the whole picture and work backwards. But when I walked out of that theater as a teenager, I wasn't thinking about Guys and Dolls' place in the canon, or what the satire of the show was all about, or even the romance plot. I was humming "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" to myself and feeling transported to somewhere else. Sometimes, that's enough.

--

Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.