Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 1993
“As a kid in Michigan ,” says Jack O’Brien, “I had to choose between baseball and tap shoes.” He chose the former. Half a century later, he doesn’t have to choose; “Damn Yankees” (at the Old Globe Theatre, October 1-November 14) has both. The award-winning director wasn’t the last person selected for “this” baseball game. As soon as the rights to revival of the 1955 smash-hit musical became available, O’Brien was offered the directorial reins.
“This is one of the most beloved scores we’ve ever produced in this country,” says the Old Globe’s artistic director, with characteristic flamboyance. “And it’s relevant. With our own beloved ball team so far down the pipe, they’re just like the Washington Senators in the show. And the fifties is hotter than pistols now — the styles, the innocence, the freshness, the sassiness… There’s not a speck of dust on the score. It’s one of the greatest.”
The score may have been spotless, but not the book, which O’Brien considered “too big, too long and too slow.” So he fearlessly approached the legendary writer/director George Abbott about revisions (Abbott co-wrote the book with Douglass Wallop, author of the novel, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant”).
“He can quote almost every line he ever wrote,” O’Brien marvels about the spry 106 year-old, who is always and only known in the theater world as Mr. Abbott. “But he understands the need for changes, in view of the technological advances in theater. He’s given me line changes, scenes, admonishment, finger-wagging and affectionate support. He’s amazing. He goes out. He goes to the theater. We had one 5 1/2 hour meeting, and he had me on the ropes! It’s not for nothing he’s an institution.”
O’Brien has trimmed and reshaped the play, and is being credited with revisions, which means that both he and the Old Globe will have a piece of the action when this production opens on Broadway in March 1994. He’s also getting input from Richard Adler, now 72, the composer-lyricist of “Damn Yankees” who lost his collaborator, Jerry Ross, only weeks after the original Broadway opening. (Ross died on the operating table at age 29). But it is the work with Mr. Abbott that is most intriguing. “He invented the American musical play,” O’Brien says rapturously. “I can’t begin to list the rules of theater that are his. I use his lessons in everything, Shakespeare included.”
But “Damn Yankees” is one of those fabulous old musicals that has rarely been revived. The main reason for this, according to O’Brien, is Gwen Verdon, whose stardom was launched with the two Abbott-Adler-Ross collaborations, “Pajama Game” and its twin, “Damn Yankees” (both shows also catapulted choreographer Bob Fosse, then Verdon’s husband, to fame).
“Not to sound sexist,” O’Brien demurs, “but there’s never been anyone like her since: A very, very sexy female star over the title on Broadway. In Bebe (Neuwirth) we seem to have the heiress. From the get-go, no one else has ever been mentioned.” Neuwirth should take to the role of Lola, the devilish temptress, with ease. Although she may be most readily recognized as the uptight Dr. Lilith Sternn in “Cheers,” she won a Tony in 1986 for her portrayal of the titular hooker-with-a-heart in “Sweet Charity”, and recently played the sultry title role in the London production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman”.
O’Brien is also rhapsodic about the rest of his heavy-hitting cast, especially Victor Garber as the Mephistophelean Mr. Applegate, to whom a middle-aged baseball fanatic sells his soul so that his beloved Washington Senators can beat the Yankees out of the pennant. In the revival, the devil is elevated to co-star status, and O’Brien is convinced that two luminous careers are about to begin.
That’s just fine with him. He’s been star-struck since he was in utero in Saginaw . “It was hopeless,” he confesses. “I tried so hard to be legit, to be a good boy. I even started out pre-law. But there was no way I wasn’t gonna be a theater baby.” He played piano by ear at age 5, and started writing songs at age 7. He wasn’t discouraged by his parents, both of whom had some understanding of performance; his father was “a barber-shop quartet fanatic” and his mother a championship golfer. They exposed him to the performing arts from early on. By 1961, he and his University of Michigan roommate (jazz musician Bob James) had written two shows, one of which won the BMI Award for best collegiate musical. O’Brien wrote the book and lyrics, collaborated on the music, directed, choreographed and played the leading role. (“I did everything but sew the costumes”).
He still acts occasionally, and he always contributes to the choreography in his productions. But directing is his passion. He divides his time among classics, new works and musicals. The musical, he feels, is the true American theater form. “No one else could have produced this most collaborative of art forms. We’ve always been a chatty, growth-oriented, help-your-neighbor country. We tend to work together. It’s our best asset.”
In his current collaboration, O’Brien is certain he’s picked himself a winning team, and they’re heading for the Hall of Fame.
“Damn Yankees” plays at the Old Globe Theatre October 1 through November 14, with a possible extension to December 5. Call 239-2255 for further information.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.