When Damon Runyon died of lung cancer, in 1946, his ashes were scattered over the 13 blocks of Midtown Manhattan known to civilians as Broadway but to its denizens as “the Hardened Artery.” Runyon and his Stork Club drinking chum, the gossip columnist Walter Winchell, are the journalists primarily responsible for creating the postwar myth of New York as a playground.

Runyon’s Broadway is a louche, happy democracy where lowriders and high rollers rub shoulders at watering holes like Lindy’s, barely disguised in Runyon’s tales as Mindy’s. The comedy of these raffish sweet-and-sour bottom-feeders is their combination of ignorance and aspiration, the conflation of malaprops and middle-class punctilio. “The guys are fatigued from weariness,” one palooka says after an all-night crap game. Runyon delights in the sludge of street talk; he also sees poetry in the Broadway riffraff to whom life has dealt a pair of twos but who live it as if they hold a full house.

The most enduring expression of Runyon’s high spirits is not on the page but on the stage. Guys and Dolls: A Musical Fable of Broadway, based on Runyon’s short story “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” with the added comic super sauce of characters imported from other stories (Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Liver Lips Louie, Benny Southstreet), is being given a unique, unmissable environmental production by Nicholas Hytner at London’s Bridge Theatre. In the lingo of the Great White Way, it’s socko.

The Broadway musical has always sung best about New York. Of the long list of hit shows—West Side Story, On the Town, Company, Rent, A Chorus Line, Damn YankeesGuys and Dolls is the most exuberant, affectionate, best written, and, by my lights, most lyrically deft. Here, Hytner has cleared away the orchestra seats and taken the musical off the proscenium and into the audience.

The lowlifes in Guys and Dolls now literally, and figuratively, emerge from the huddled masses. About 600 paying customers sit looking down from the tiered balcony seats onto 400 groundlings who, before the show, mill about the stage floor talking and buying hot dogs, pretzels, and the usual bar drinks from vendors who ply their carts around the periphery, while actors mingle unobtrusively with the throng.

When the downbeat comes, and the three movable performing platforms start to rise, actors in policeman’s blue mufti wrangle the crowd around the narrow shifting performing areas. The balcony sees the flow of the all-singing, all-dancing underworld hubbub; the groundlings find themselves in the middle of it. For the next two and a half hours, the standees are New Yorkers, crushed together and straining to make sense of the gorgeous commotion around them. Whether seated or standing, the show’s wallop is unforgettable.

When Guys and Dolls was first mounted in 1950—I saw the original—America’s future still had a shine to it. Between 1945 and 1955, the per capita income nearly tripled, the greatest rise of wealth in the history of Western civilization. There was something to sing about; the glorious Pulitzer Prize–winning production and its panoply of Broadway talent was yet more proof of American abundance.

Nowadays, in the climate of collapse, buoyancy is hard to find. The dominance of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, for all their prowess, is emblematic of this abdication of delight, smiling at the world with cold teeth. The boldness of Hytner’s revival is that it insists on joy, and creates it.

“I like terra firma: the more firma, the less terra,” George S. Kaufman, the original director of Guys and Dolls, quipped. The fun machine he helped to engineer is built like the Rock of Gibraltar. Unusually, the musical was written backwards. Working from an eponymous collection of Runyon’s short stories, Frank Loesser wrote the music and lyrics for most of his 14 songs before he had a libretto. This makes Abe Burrows’s shrewd, droll book seem all the more extraordinary. (Although Jo Swerling gets first billing as co-author, not one word of his draft was used.) Burrows’s light narrative touch walks a fine line between romantic sentiment and satire; they set up Loesser’s showstopping numbers and make them seem inevitable.

About 600 paying customers sit looking down from the tiered balcony seats onto 400 groundlings.

Many of the great Broadway lyricists—Yip Harburg, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Sondheim—can be witty, but their humor is showy and self-referential. Loesser’s comic conceits are also laugh-out-loud hilarious, but they’re always in character. His skint crap-game hustlers imagine “well-heeled shooters everywhere,” with ingenious colloquial internal rhymes—“And an awful lot of lettuce / For the fella who can get us there.” And when Nathan Detroit—a part written for the Russian-American Broadway star Sam Levene—begs forgiveness from Adelaide for his habitual fecklessness, his song lapses into Yiddish rhythms and idiom. “Alright, already, I’m just a nogoodnick / Alright already, it’s true, so nu?” he sings in “Sue Me.” The sound and sense fit as adroitly on the notes as they do with the character.

No Broadway composer has written funnier than Loesser. “He got the kind of laughs you get with a funny line of dialogue,” Burrows wrote in his autobiography. “He frequently had to leave space in the melody so the audience could laugh without covering the last line of the song.” At least four times in this production Loesser’s songs stop the show—but never the progress of its struggling characters. For instance, in one of her delightful laments, the permanently engaged Miss Adelaide (the sonorous Marisha Wallace), the stripper with a perpetual cold who has put all her eggs into one bastard—Nathan Detroit (the hardworking Daniel Mays) reads a psychology textbook about her syndrome. As she deconstructs her malaise from the clinical words, she brings the house down:

You can feed her all day with the vitamin A
And the Bromo fizz,
But the medicine never gets anywhere near
Where the trouble is
If she’s getting a kind of a name for herself
And the name ain’t his, a person can develop a cough....
With the wheezes and the sneezes
And a sinus that’s really a pip!
From a lack of community property
And a feeling she’s getting too old
A person can develop a bad, bad cold.

But the roof-raising award in Hytner’s magnificent production goes to Nicely-Nicely Johnson, who is coaxed out of his seat in the packed Salvation Army hall to make a bogus confession of his sins to the unrepentant crew of deadbeats who are helping the dashing rogue Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson) win a bet and the love of the prim Sister Sarah Brown (Celinde Schoenmaker).

“Get up, you fat water buffalo,” one of the ganefs shouts—an incongruous line left over from the original where the rotund Stubby Kaye stepped forward; now it beckons the slim and dapper Cedric Neal. “I dreamed last night / I got on the boat to heaven / And by some chance / I had brought my dice along,” Neal begins in his limpid tenor voice and launches into “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” Broadway’s version of a gospel call and response. Here, in Arlene Phillips’s sharp, syncopated choreographic semaphore, the seated ensemble sway like seaweed, shouting down Nicely-Nicely from temptation as he circles them.

The rousing song, which is meant to put faith in the dead hearts of these reprobates, puts the paying customers beside themselves. I’ve never seen a London theater audience so excited. They’re whipped up to a frenzy. They won’t let the song stop. They roar for an encore. Neal raises the roof once, then twice, then finally, looking straight at the orchestra’s conductor encased in the balcony, he pleads for a hat trick, and, to cheers from the audience, gets a third skip of the stone. By then, the groundlings are quite literally jumping for joy.

But the jubilation of this ingenious, generous production doesn’t end with the show’s last beat. The music plays on, and so do many of the groundlings who refuse to leave the space. As Wallace belts out “Luck Be a Lady” and some of the actors mosh in with the crowd, the audience dance among themselves. On the night I saw the show, on one side of the room a circle had gathered around a break-dancing competition; on the other side, in the crepuscular glow of the garish green-and-yellow neon signage above, a chorus girl led a conga line through the bopping scrum.

In my years of theatergoing, I’ve seen some wild things: people throwing their coats on a horseshoe stage for the star to walk on, or stuffing handkerchiefs in their mouths to stop from laughing. But I’ve never seen an ecstatic response quite like this. I have cavils about a few of the performances, but they hardly matter. The production is greater than the sum of its parts; it sends Loesser’s songs solid, but its achievement is much more than that. I stayed for a while to watch the swaying crowd. I took a photo of it, something I’ve never done. On the bus home, looking through a rainy window, I thought about what I’d seen and my favorite lines from Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense”:

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world …

John Lahr is a Columnist for AIR MAIL and the first critic to win a Tony Award, for co-authoring Elaine Stritch at Liberty