Real-life couple play make-believe lovebirds in ‘Guys and Dolls’

Before celebrating their five-year wedding anniversary last month with a nice dinner near their Brooklyn Heights home, Phillipa Soo and Steven Pasquale worked up an appetite with the kind of couples’ activity theater people know all too well: running lines and rehearing scenes together.

The actors figured they could use the head start on the Kennedy Center’s musical-in-concert staging of “Guys and Dolls,” which begins its 10-day engagement Friday. Pasquale plays compulsive gambler Sky Masterson in Frank Loesser’s 1951 crowd-pleaser, while Soo portrays Sarah Brown, the idealistic evangelist who catches his eye, as part of a decorated cast that also includes James Monroe Iglehart, Jessie Mueller and Rachel Dratch.

Kennedy Center ups the Broadway ante with starry ‘Guys and Dolls’

Soo, a Grammy winner and Tony nominee for playing Eliza Hamilton in “Hamilton,” and Pasquale, a Broadway veteran who starred in the FX series “Rescue Me,” had never worked together onstage before. But the stars aligned for this latest production of the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series, in which beloved musicals are mounted for limited runs with an expedited rehearsal process.

“We’re in this moment in our careers where we’re both just so fortunate to have a lot of other things going on,” Pasquale says. “It’s just really lovely to have work and spending time together be the same thing.”

Soo adds: “When we first met, we really bonded over the fact that we love this art form and this profession. We love what we do, so getting to be in the room together just makes it all the more special.”

Speaking by phone from New York, Soo and Pasquale discussed their onstage chemistry, working through those rapid rehearsals and tweaking the Golden Age musical for modern sensibilities.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What made this the right production for you two to finally work together on?

Pasquale: “Guys and Dolls” is one of the — I don’t know, five, six, eight? — perfect American musicals. It is, for so many people, their favorite show. It is so well structured. It’s nice to work on something that you’re not necessarily building that’s brand new, which we do a lot, and being able to just step into something that’s perfect.

Soo: As two theater nerds who happen to also be married, it’s a really fun thing for us to do as a couple, just sitting around and dreaming about all these fantastic scenes and songs and roles that we could potentially play together. It’s kind of a dream come true that we get to do this right now.

Q: Have either of you starred in “Guys and Dolls” before?

Soo: I played Sarah Brown in high school, so I get to revisit all this material as an adult and see what stuck from that. It’s funny: I was telling Steve, “I remember all the songs, but I don’t remember anything that I said or anything that I did.” But, of course, as we’ve started digging into this material, it just all comes flooding back. The material is so effortless and so precise, and yet the language is just so rich.

Pasquale: And I have no previous experience with “Guys and Dolls” other than I’m an American songbook guy, so I know all of Frank Loesser’s canon. But getting to know this material well, this is the first time for me.

Q: How does your real-life rapport contribute to playing a will-they-won’t-they couple onstage?

Pasquale: It’s such an interesting question that everybody asks that, but I think Pippa is a really good actor, so if she was not my wife, I feel like it would be just as accessible and exciting to me. I just think it’s about feeling like your partner is a good actor and a good listener, not so much having comfort as a married couple.

Soo: I’ve become entranced by the fact that I’m watching this fantastic actor play this character. What comes secondary to that thought is, “Oh yeah — and this is Steve.”

Q: What’s your relationship with the 1955 film adaptation, in which your parts were played by Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons?

Pasquale: They changed it for the movie a lot. I’ll just say this and be as politic as possible: The book musical and the stage musical is a far more successful version of “Guys and Dolls” than the famous movie. That’s my take on it. But I should warn you: I am doing a Marlon Brando impression.

Soo: No, he’s not! He’s kidding.

Q: The show traditionally includes a scene in which Sky whisks Sarah away to Cuba and perhaps tricks her into getting drunk on spiked milkshakes. How do you navigate a touchier scene like that?

Pasquale: We changed it a little bit because we simply cannot get away with that in this current climate, right? So we’ve made that particular moment a moment about Sarah having real agency, and knowing what she’s doing and drinking and choosing it herself, and have a little fun with it.

Soo: Exactly. We’re asking ourselves, what are the important things here in order to tell this story? What are the given circumstances that make it so that we feel like we’re not taken out of the story by something that might make us feel uncomfortable as an audience?

Q: Do you find yourselves bringing the show home with you at night, or do you leave it in the rehearsal hall?

Pasquale: In a normal process, we would leave a lot of it at work most of the time. But because this is such an abridged process — I mean, we’re trying to basically mount a full production of “Guys and Dolls” in, like, 10 days — we don’t have the time to not take it home. So we’re talking about it and running it and trying to just stay in the world of it because it’s such a fast-paced process.

Soo: I feel like it [normally] takes at least like, gosh, 30 or 40 shows before you actually feel like, “Oh, this is it. This is the show.”

Pasquale: But we feel like the gods of the theater are with us here, and that it will magically come together and the audience will have an incredible time.

Q: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Pasquale: We just want to make sure that President Biden takes the night off and comes and checks us out. He deserves to have a light, fluffy evening with all of the tension that’s happening in Washington, and anyone that’s pro-democracy — and, you know, for the peaceful transfer of power — is welcome.

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House. 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

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