By Peter Filichia —
It’s a record that will probably never be beaten: The New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio got a hit in 56 straight games in 1941. All the pitchers he conquered during that streak probably muttered to themselves, “That damn Yankee.”
And speaking of Damn Yankees, it has reached a streak of 56, too – years, that is, that the Tony-winning musical has been continuously produced since its opening on May 5, 1955. To celebrate, the original cast album is being re-released with the cover it had on its first release. And thereby hangs a tale.
The original artwork for the musical was green in color, with a black-and-white photo of Gwen Verdon wearing the top of a baseball uniform that said “39” on its back. That number is, by the way, an unlucky one in the Afghan culture – their version of our “13” — but it turned out to be unlucky for the all-American Damn Yankees, too.
Not that the musical updating of the Faust tale had opened to bad reviews. “A first-class gem” (Funke, Times). “A great national entertainment” (Coleman, Mirror). “A truly tremendous musical, a brilliant song-and-dancer” (McClain, Journal-American). “An all-hitter … a miracle of humorous invention” (Chapman, News). And while William Hawkins of the World-Telegram & Sun and Walter Kerr of the Herald-Tribune weren’t quite as enthusiastic, both raved about Verdon; the former called her “the most glamorous woman on the local stage” while the latter proclaimed that she was “absolutely and forever desirable.”
Then why wasn’t business better? “We never sold more than $250 worth of tickets a day during the first four weeks of the run,” admitted co-producer Harold Prince in his memoir Contradictions.
Management found that it’s not easy being green – at least where ticket-selling is concerned. So instead, the ad campaign’s color was changed in favor of devilish red, and Verdon was now pictured in her black-scanty outfit – one of those most famous costumes from all ‘50s musicals.
“Our success suddenly looked to be a disaster until we changed the ads to a picture of Gwen singing ‘Whatever Lola Wants’ and excised all references to baseball,” Prince wrote. The result? “One Monday morning three and a half weeks later, there was a long line waiting for the box office to open.”
Well, the show’s long-closed and no one has had to worry about its future for a long time. As a result, just for fun, MasterworksBroadway has re-released Damn Yankees with the original green-and-baseball-uniform artwork.
Damn Yankees was the second hit that co-composers and lyricists Richard Adler and Jerry Ross had in – here’s a startling statistic — 357 days, after their The Pajama Game had opened on May 13, 1954. Who knows how many others the team would have had if Ross had not died on Nov. 11, 1959 at the age of 29?
The CD’s booklet includes the picture of both of them, one that I so vividly remember from the first time I read Stanley Green’s The World of Musical Comedy. I moaned, “He was so young to die!” The irony is that I was only 16 at the time – 13 years younger — but even as a kid, I could see that Ross was still a kid.
To have two hits in a row is an amazing achievement, but to have three hit songs within each smash is even more extraordinary. The Pajama’s Game’s “Hey, There,” “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” were still being heard with regularity when Damn Yankees offered “Whatever Lola Wants,” “Two Lost Souls” and, of course, the type of optimistic song for which Broadway musicals were then famous: “(You Gotta Have) Heart.”
Adler and Ross gave Damn Yankees plenty of other goodies. “Six Months out of Every Year” is a stirring opening number, where wives of rabid fans — “baseball widows,” they’re often called – mourn that from April until September, their husbands place them a distant second to the Washington Senators.
Some have caviled about the lyric that the men are “praising the plays of Willie Mays.” He was a National League player and Damn Yankees concerns itself with the American League’s Yankees and Senators; what’s more, in those primitive days of TV, one could only watch his local ball team and no other. Ah, but on Sept. 29, 1954, Mays made the most-praised catch in baseball history in the nationally broadcast World Series. So Adler and Ross were right to cite it. (It’s a great song, anyway.)
Broadway songwriters are always encouraged to advance the action in a song, and few have done it better than Adler and Ross did in “Goodbye, Old Girl.” It starts with the fiftyish and overweight Joe Boyd writing to his wife to say he’ll be gone for a while, and ends with his being transformed by Mr. Applegate (read: The Devil) into handsome, virile, twentysomething ballplayer Joe Hardy.
By the way, in a Damn Yankees that I saw at St. Peter’s High School in Jersey City some years ago, Joe Boyd was played by a white student and Joe Hardy by a black one. The audience laughed affectionately, but many could remember when such casting would have been unthinkable. Nevertheless, in reality, the casting made sense: aren’t most of baseball’s greatest stars and record-holders black?
“Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” is the Senators’ “little hoe-down in honor of our new star.” Given that all that Hardy has done is take batting practice and hasn’t even entered a game, the celebration is a little premature. But one won’t notice that on a cast album; he’ll just enjoy the song.
Joe Hardy wants to return to Mrs. Boyd, so Applegate assigns his top-notch home-wrecker to vamp him. She’s Lola, who had been “the ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island” until she’d made her own pact with the Devil. Lola’s confident because of “A Little Brains — a Little Talent.” It was added on the road (in Boston), and while the team felt it had a winner, Adler told me in 1995 that Verdon didn’t take to it when she first heard it because she didn’t understand the rhyme scheme. Verdon told me in 1996 that the song resulted in her receiving a great deal of hate mail, because Lola claimed that she’d slept with George Washington. The idea of a President sleeping with anyone but the First Lady was unthinkable (for at least a few years more).
While there have been millions surnamed “Douglas,” far fewer have spelled it as “Douglass,” as the man who played Joe Hardy did. Perhaps Stephen Douglass had two s’s in the last syllable because his baritone was smooth as glass. His work as Joe Hardy on “Near to You” and “A Man Doesn’t Know,” both sung to his unknowing wife (the equally superb Shannon Bolin), is stellar.
So, of course, is Verdon’s work on “Whatever Lola Wants.” Alas, what one doesn’t get on this recording is Joe’s response after she tries to vamp him; it’s one of the best and most beautiful lines in all of musical theater: “But if it were you I promised to come home to, you’d want me to, wouldn’t you?” What can Lola say to that? (Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Arnold Schwarzenegger and that Egyptian banker might have profited from this musical.)
In the mid ‘50s, the mambo was the dance du jour, so Adler and Ross wrote one – “Who’s Got the Pain?” – for Verdon. That left a number for the ballplayers (“The Game,” in which they professed self-denial under difficult circumstances) and one for Mr. Applegate: “Those Were the Good Old Days,” a list song of the devil’s greatest hits, in which he gleefully recounts disaster after disaster. “Was anybody happy?” Ray Walston asked, slightly rewriting vaudevillian Ted Lewis’ favorite catchphrase, “Is everybody happy?”
Baseball uses the number nine in two very important instances: there are nine players on the field and nine innings in a regulation game. Well, Damn Yankees had two nifty nines of its own, too. When the original production closed on Oct, 12, 1957, it was only the ninth book musical to pass 1,000 performances (and the first since Adler and Ross’s The Pajama Game had done it the year before). What’s more, Damn Yankees won nine Tony awards, the first show to achieve that number since South Pacific had set that mark seven years earlier.
But neither of those goals might have happened if Gwen Verdon had stayed in that baseball jersey on that green field.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.