THOSE UNBEATABLE DAMN YANKEES By Peter Filichia
Stephen Sondheim couldn’t do it.
Neither could Jerry Herman nor Frank Loesser.
Ditto Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Perhaps Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez will, but they haven’t yet.
No, the only people who could ever boast of writing two consecutive Best Musical Tony-winners were Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.
THE PAJAMA GAME in 1954-55.
DAMN YANKEES in 1955-56.
PAJAMA opened on May 13, 1954, and YANKEES debuted on May 5, 1955. That’s two smash-hits in 357 days.
And for all the talk we hear today on how important it is to open j-u-s-t before the Tony deadline, so voters will have the show fresh in their minds, both of these musicals won their Tonys more than 10 months after they’d opened.
Alas, only eight months after DAMN YANKEES’ win, Ross was dead of a bronchial disease, four months shy of turning 30.
Without Ross, Adler never had another hit; his next and final three musicals ran an average of 14 performances. If Ross had lived, as Angela and Tom sing in SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING, “Who knows what might have been?”
All this occurred to me last month when I saw an excellent production of DAMN YANKEES at The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Luckily for everyone, director Brian Hill chose not to stage the lackluster 1994 rewrite. The original script by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (the latter wrote THE YEAR THE YANKEES LOST THE PENNANT, on which the musical is based) was good enough for him and a most enthusiastic audience.
One mistake made in that revisal 28 years ago was that Mr. Applegate (read: The Devil) and Lola, his not-so-loyal sex worker, sang that they were “Two Lost Souls.” Originally (as you can hear on the original cast album and soundtrack) it belonged to Lola and Joe Hardy, the super-superstar ballplayer who had sold his soul so that the Washington Senators could win the pennant.
We can understand why Joe and Lola are “Two Lost Souls,” considering how their lives have turned out. But Mr. Applegate couldn’t possibly consider himself one, for The Devil, with all his powers and authority, must be pretty happy with his vocation.
On both the cast album and the soundtrack, Gwen Verdon dominates the role that won her a second Tony, although it was her first as leading actress in a musical. In a way, she wasn’t: Lola doesn’t enter until a full 45 minutes after the Overture. However, Verdon made such an impression that the voters obviously didn’t hold that three-quarters-of-an-hour absence against her.
“Two Lost Souls” was one of three hit songs that DAMN YANKEES yielded; on June 25, 1955, it entered the charts not at the lowly bottom, but in 18th place. That same week, “Heart,” the cheer-up song that Senators’ manager Benny Van Buren delivers to his wan team, made it to 10th place. That was just one notch above “Whatever Lola Wants,” our siren’s blatant attempt to seduce Joe – only to be rebutted with one of the greatest lines in musical theater history: “But,” he says, “if it were you I promised to come home to, you’d want me to, wouldn’t you?”
DAMN YANKEES is certainly a period piece, as we see a Senators’ outfielder trying to sell life insurance to a teammate. Indeed, back then, ballplayers did have off-season jobs to make ends meet. St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Jim Brosnan wrote in his memoir THE LONG SEASON, about the 1959 campaign, that he was offered $16,000 for the entire year.
Max Scherzer, who now plays for the New York Mets, collects $43,333,333 a year – guaranteed for three years – which may mean that he gets as much for each pitch he throws as Brosnan was offered for a full season. Under these current circumstances, no wonder that the crowd laughed heartily at the line “Every ballplayer should have a sideline.”
However, DAMN YANKEES was ahead of its time in having Gloria Thorpe – a female sportswriter – cover a baseball team. These days, there are quite a few women in locker rooms, but there were none back then.
Given that Gloria wasn’t in Wallop’s novel, we can infer that Abbott had the idea to add her. He most likely was also responsible for adding two other characters not in the novel – Sister and Doris – who are shown to be big baseball fans.
(Sister was played by Jean Stapleton, 16 years away from becoming a household name in the landmark TV series ALL IN THE FAMILY. If you know the show, you’ll have no problem picking out her voice on the albums.)
So, Abbott might well have assumed, rightly or wrongly, that women in the audience didn’t care for baseball, and seeing a female embrace the sport might make women say, “If she, why not me?”
On the other hand, Abbott, Wallop, Adler and Ross did assume that many women in the audience would relate to Meg Boyd’s dilemma “Six Months out of Every Year,” when her husband Joe would stare at the Senators on TV and tune out whatever she had to say. Joe Boyd wasn’t the only one; soon the stage was filled with husbands watching as intently as Joe and their wives suffering as much as Meg in a most spirited opening number.
We’re always told that the best musical theater songs advance the action. What does it more than “Goodbye, Old Girl”? (All right, I don’t like the title either; can’t someone change it to “Goodbye, My Love”?)
That said, the ballad starts out as aging and out-of-shape Joe writes a letter to Meg in which he says that he’s leaving but will return, followed by Mr. Applegate’s changing him into a young Adonis. Yes, THAT’S moving the action forward …
The original cast album offers two ballads that the soundtrack omitted. Each features Joe Hardy singing to Meg (who doesn’t know he’s, in actuality, her husband) “A Man Doesn’t Know” and “Near to You.” Stephen Douglass, one of Broadway’s most reliable baritones of the era, does them well.
Why, however, was Tab Hunter denied the chance to do them in the film? True, Hunter’s voice wasn’t as strong as Douglass’, but he was a genuine pop recording star at the time. In 1957, when the movie was filming, he had one song that reached Number 11 and stayed on the charts for eight weeks (“Ninety-Nine Ways”) and one that hit Number One for six straight weeks out of seventeen (“Young Love”).
Compare this to those who brought BYE BYE BIRDIE to the screen. They hired Bobby Rydell, an analogous teen idol, and had his Hugo Peabody sing twice in the movie – and never mind that his on-stage counterpart, one Michael J. Pollard, had done no singing at all.
One may cavil at Adler and Ross having the Senators prematurely celebrate “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” when he hasn’t yet played in a single game, but it’s a fun number. Better still, there’s a generous amount of terrific dance music on the original cast album.
Granted, this number would have been better served in the second act, at a benefit to celebrate Joe after he’s become a Most Valuable Player. However, “Who’s Got the Pain (when they do the mambo)?” was selected to showcase what Gwen Verdon could do (which was considerable).
Mr. Applegate, played by Ray Walston both on stage and on film, gets only one song, but it’s a honey: “Those Were the Good Old Days” has him devilishly ruminate on all the atrocities he’s unleashed on the world: Nero fiddling while Rome burned, the French Revolution’s propensity to guillotine, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
And yet, this one song was enough to convince Tony voters that Walston should be named Best Actor in a Musical. Well, if anyone would be capable of stealing a show, wouldn’t it be a Devil?
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements is now available on Amazon.