"Damn Yankees" Musical about 1950s Hits Home Run
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paper Mill Playhouse
There have been a number of plays about sports history recently -- Lombardi and the upcoming Magic/Bird immediately spring to mind -- but way back in 1955 the theater was already chronicling sports in the irreverent musical Damn Yankees. It was the Faustian story of a middle-age man who sold his soul to the Devil in order to be young and strong and lead his beloved -- and terrible -- Washington Senators to a pennant, and the defeat of the seemingly invincible (and universally despised) New York Yankees.
A revival of the play opened last Sunday at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. Fifty-seven years later, it works just as well as sports history as it does musical theater by opening a window into a bygone era of baseball. The Yankees are still around, of course, but the original Senators pulled up roots for Minnesota in 1960, the new 1961 Senators franchise became the Texas Rangers in 1972, and our nation's capital went without a baseball team until the (Canadian!) Montreal Expos moved into RFK Stadium in 2004. Major League Baseball had a total of sixteen teams in 1955, eight apiece in the National and American Leagues; now there are thirty teams altogether.
The play is a home run musical for the Paper Mill, a must-see for all sports fans and fittingly opening during the spring training season. Damn Yankees, deftly directed by Mark S. Hoebee, is a triple play of acting, singing and staging, with a few little devilish tricks tossed in to make the crowd roar louder.
The context of Damn Yankees needs a little explanation. The play is set in '55; the Yankees had won the World Series for five consecutive years between 1949 and 1953, and had either won or appeared in an additional fifteen World Series since 1921. The Senators, on the other hand, had the worst record in baseball in 1949 and 1955, and never placed better than fifth in the American League between those two miserable years. The team finally improved after the move to Minnesota; as the Twins, they placed second in the AL in '62 and finally won another pennant in 1965 (though the team would have to wait until 1987 to finally win a World Series).
The Senators didn't do much better before '49, either. Upon his death, George Washington was famously eulogized (by Robert E. Lee's father, no less) as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Washingtonians joked that the Senators were "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” The new '61 Senators weren't much better, finishing at or near the bottom of the American League throughout their tenure in the District. The new Senators, the joke went, were "first in war, first in peace, and still last in the American League." (The relocated franchise, despite World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011, still has yet to win one.) Even today, the Washington Nationals are chronic bumblers, having finished at the bottom of the league in five out of the last seven seasons. So, yes, things have been pretty consistently terrible for Washington baseball fans for about as long as professional baseball has existed.
But back to the play. In Damn Yankees, a fiftysomething baseball fan named Joe Boyd makes his deal with the Devil and transforms into twenty-two-year-old slugger Joe Hardy. He's hitting .524 in mid-season and is leading the on-fire Senators to the pennant game, where the hitherto unstoppable Yankees wait for them at the gates. Joe has a problem, though. He doesn't want to remain as Joe Hardy, because that means leaving his adoring wife, whom he loves deeply. On top of that, Joe's constantly battling off Mr. Applegate, Mephistopheles himself, who tries to tempt him with fame, money, and the luscious young Lola, the titular heroine of the play's most famous song, "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets."
The musical is full of pleasing tunes by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (the book is by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop). In addition to Lola's famous song, there's the delightful "(You’ve Got to Have) Heart," "Six Months out of Every Year," and "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo."
Hardy is played by Christopher Charles Wood as a genuine, working-class, baseball-loving, and wife-loving guy. He may be the star of the play, but the entire show is stolen better than Rickey Henderson steals bases by Howard McGillin's Applegate, a.k.a. the Devil. He is radiantly evil, in love with every bad act ever committed in history and eager -- so eager -- to ruin life for anybody he encounters. He cavorts about the stage with a deliciously sinful grin on his face.
Veteran director Hoebee has a talented cast that works hard, including Joe Kolinski as the untransformed Joe Boyd, Patti Cohenour as Meg Boyd, Susan Mosher as Meg’s sister, Jill Abramowitz as her friend, Nancy Anderson as reporter Gloria Thorpe, and Chryssie Whitehead as Lola.
The sets by Rob Bissinger are a wonder. He uses stadium gates, ticket booths, walls, scoreboard seating sections and night light stands (the old-school kind, held up high over the stadium roofs) to recreate the feel of the old Griffith Stadium. At the end of the play, a ball game breaks out. The cast becomes the crowd, seated in the right-field seats. The setting's so convincing that you really believe you're at the ballpark when the ball is smacked out towards the wall.
Of course, not everything in baseball is the same today as it was in '55. MLB ballplayers make a lot more money, for one thing. The average player earns $2 million a year and superstars like Yankees Alex Rodriguez earn $32 million a year. In 1955, though, very few ball players earned close to $100,000; the average salary was just $13,000 (which is equivalent to around $110,000 in today's dollars). Most, like those in the play who sell insurance policies on the side, needed a second job or off-season job to pay their bills. There was no free agency in 1955 and players were stuck with their team, but free agency dominates baseball today and is part of the cause for the enormous salary inflation. Today, the minor leagues in Mexico have little to do with the MLB, but in the 1950s the Mexican League was a popular and financially successful organization that illegally stole players from America and paid them higher salaries. There's a scandal in Damn Yankees about the Mexican League that'll fly over the heads of today's audiences. The Pacific Coast League was a powerful minor league in the early 1950s, too, so successful that many baseball authorities thought it would become the third major baseball league at some point.
There is a scene late in Damn Yankees when everyone expresses shock that several women are going to the ballpark to see Joe Hardy play. In 1955, few women went to games. Now things are different and nearly 40 percent of any stadium crowd is female. In 1955, too, people dressed up to go to games. Most men wore suits and ties in the stands. Today, almost nobody dresses up (though to be fair, the suit was far more ubiquitous in the '50s).
Audiences learn a lot of baseball history in Damn Yankees. They learn, too, the answer to the question asked in the play, a question for all time -- would you rather maintain your simple, ordinary life with your wife and kids or trade it all in to be a star?
One last note on how things do not change in baseball. On the same afternoon I saw Damn Yankees the real 2012 Yankees beat the Phils, 3-0 in spring training. Ho hum….
PRODUCTION: The show is produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Sets by Rob Bissinger. Costumes by Alejo Vietti. Lighting by Tom Sturge. Sound by Randy Hansen. The play is directed by Mark S. Hoebee; choreography is by Denis Jones.
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