Runyon's diverse New York true to form

Racial mix of 'Guys and Dolls' finally feels right, says star Maurice Hines.


November 18, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Maurice Hines is describing the makeup of Damon Runyon's world -- the world composer Frank Loesser and librettists Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows transformed into the classic musical Guys and Dolls, in which Hines is starring.

Over coffee in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel, the lithe, black-garbed, charismatic performer explains that Runyon's world wasn't all white (as it was depicted in the original 1950 Broadway production and 1955 Frank Sinatra movie), or all black (as in the national tour Hines headed in 1977 opposite Debbie Allen). It was a world that crossed racial and ethnic lines.

Now, a half-century after its debut, Hines feels Guys and Dolls finally has the racially diverse cast it should have had all along.

"This is how New York was, and I knew it was because my uncles were gamblers. They were all racetrack guys. ... And the gamblers that we knew -- because my father was also a bouncer at the Audubon Ballroom, so we knew a lot of underworld characters for those days -- they were African-American, they were Italian, they were Jewish, they were Greek.

"So to me, this typifies the world as it really was. It wasn't all white gamblers, and it wasn't all black gamblers," says Hines, who plays Nathan Detroit -- organizer of "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York" -- in the revival that opens a one-week run at the Lyric Opera House Tuesday.

Role models

Hines' uncles have proved integral to his depiction of Nathan. When he played the part in 1977, he based the character on his Uncle Sid, a "racetrack guy" and numbers runner. "I played him then strictly for laughs," he says.

The current revival got its start at Washington's Arena Stage two years ago. At Arena, he added a dose of sex appeal, borrowed from his Uncle Doc, a charmer who drove a limousine and had a reputation as a ladies man.

"Women loved him. They just loved him," the actor says. "When he passed away, four of his mistresses came to the funeral and all hugged each other." Hines says this added sensuality particularly appealed to Loesser's widow, Jo. "She said you found something in Nathan that nobody else did," he recalls. "She said, 'You made him sexy.' "

Hines has continued to refine the role, even after winning the approbation of the composer's widow. "You see a more complex Nathan," he says of his portrayal in the touring production. He now brings a dash of Dizzy Gillespie-style rhythms to Nathan's dialogue, along with some inspiration from Hines' father, Maurice Sr. "My father was a tough customer, and so [Nathan] has a little edge to him," he explains.

A drummer who lives in Las Vegas, Hines' father is best known as the third member of the act "Hines, Hines and Dad," which split up in 1973. The first two members were Maurice and his younger brother Gregory, who started out as a tap-dancing duo when Maurice was 5 and Gregory only 3.

In the quarter-century they danced together, they shared bills with entertainers who make up a Who's Who in show business -- Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Carol Channing, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Lena Horne and Sinatra. They also racked up more than 35 appearances on The Tonight Show. In 1984 the pair co-starred as feuding brothers in Francis Ford Coppola's movie The Cotton Club, based on the Harlem nightclub where their grandmother had been a showgirl.

For a while, the movie seemed prophetic. There was a real-life rift in the Hines brothers' relationship. It's a subject Maurice won't discuss, except to confirm that they now get along well. Gregory saw Maurice's portrayal of Nathan in Washington, and Maurice once hoped to persuade his kid brother to play the romantic male lead, Sky Masterson. "He says, 'Aw, Maurice. There you go. You know I don't want to do theater. I don't like eight shows a week,' " Maurice recalls.

At 58, Maurice Hines has also trimmed back part of his career. He's hung up his tap shoes. Before doing Guys and Dolls at Arena, he was performing a nightclub act 14 times a week in Las Vegas. "It was very difficult. My tap was always very balletic and using the whole body," he explains. "I got a groin injury, and when you do two shows a night, you can't heal."

He gave his tap shoes to his mother, Alma, who died on the night Arena's production opened. "It was always my joy to tap in front of her, and without her here there's no joy in it for me anymore," he says.

Hines had wanted to fly to Las Vegas to be at her bedside the night she died, but when he called to say he was coming, his mother, who had served as her sons' manager, said, "Oh, no, you won't. I trained my babies to be on stage and that's where I want you to be."

Dance, but not tap

Though audiences won't see Hines tapping in Guys and Dolls, they will see him dance. In fact, he does more dancing in the revival coming to the Lyric than he did at Arena. Instead of tap, however, he does what he calls "very '50s jazz-inspired" dance.

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