The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Due next: Rent

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Damn Yankees

September 26, 1958   Warners   111 minutes
Has anyone ever noted what a great title this is? Damn Yankees is a million dollar title. It exudes a comic vulgarity—a rowdy rudeness, if you will; a contagious tirade that swings—pun intended. A home run of a show, that’s a crazy mix of Faust, suburbia & baseball. And that rare phenomenon: the sophomore smash. Still, and almost inevitably, the show has always been regarded as the lesser twin of Pajama Game. And if that still holds—and it does—it’s not by much. Like its predecessor, the show is loaded with goodies; an atypical location, a large collection of characters and a dynamite score. Virtually the entire team, from producers Harold Prince, Griffith & Brisson; author & director, George Abbott; cheoreographer Bob Fosse, to songwriters Richard Adler & Jerry Ross went to bat with a second effort, fielding Bway a mere 357 days after Pajama Game stole home base. Talk about your Golden Boys! Unfortunately the solid-gold brand of Adler & Ross was ruptured by the sudden death in late ’55 of Jerry Ross, at the age of 29. Adler forged on, but clearly a spark in the dynamic was never found on his own. And so we have a pair of perfectly calibrated musical comedy classics from a promising but shortlived partnership.

Tho on screen Pajama Game wasn’t quite the box office smash it should have been (thanks in part to a careless release strategy: late August, anyone?) Warner Bros. wisely kept the same team on board to make the follow-up. Co-directors Abbott & Stanley Donen kept a similar casting strategy: the Bway originals with one Hlwd Star. In this case they left Stephen Douglass behind and plugged Tab Hunter in as young baseball hero, Joe Hardy. Hunter wasn’t quite the caliber of Star that Doris Day was to justify toplining Pajama Game. They could have as easily kept Douglass (he wasn’t bad on the eyes, or in voice); and given us a Hlwd Lola: Shirley MacLaine, Rita Hayworth, Janet Leigh—even Doris for a change of pace role. But then Gwen Verdon with three hits and three Tony Awards, was already something of a Bway legend. Wasn’t it time to introduce her to America? Yes, indeed. The role I really wish they had upgraded was Applegate (a.k.a. the devil). Ray Walston is too puny for the part. The role needs an oversized personality, some comic oomph: Bert Lahr, maybe. Or Phil Silvers. I could see going the glamour route with Dean Martin. Or else a real curve ball: someone like Brando. Even Jack Benny would make more sense. Walston has a flat, Mid-Western, overgrown Dennis the Menace quality; he’s neither suave nor dangerous, not handsome nor repulsive, just a bland, milky imp with a reptilian belligerence that’s mistaken for character acting—he’s perfect. . . for the second national touring company. Consider the indelible impressions made by Brynner, Harrison, Preston, Raitt, & Bolger in their musical roles—you’ll never hear Walston mentioned in their league—notwithstanding his Tony for the role. Nor would he have drawn crowds in revivals. I’m baffled why Abbott would cast him—why not just bring Eddie Foy aboard from Pajama Game? But then, as everyone obviously knew, they had all they needed in Gwen Verdon.

In the five years since she burst into stardom in Cole Porter’s Can-Can (stealing the show with a supporting role), Verdon established herself as a genuine box office draw.  She left her latest musical, New Girl in Town, at the end of March ’58, reporting to Warner Bros. for the Yankees film. Not a screen beauty, perhaps, she’s still a knockout redhead who embodies sex with a comic twinkle. Everything about her suggests a good time is guaranteed in her company. And when she dances, she’s irresistible. But talk about a tease: she doesn’t make her first appearance until 46 minutes into the film. She had just four songs in the show, all intact in the movie, with one even expanded for the sheer pleasure of it. The first, set in an eye-popping purple boudoir, has Lola wearing a rather demure calf-length dress, but “A Little Brains-A Little Talent,” hasn’t any moves Jane Russell couldn’t match. No matter, she’s back within minutes for the show’s signature number, “Whatever Lola Wants,” a sort of “Hernando’s Hideway”-redux, tho done solo. It’s a defining piece of Fosse lore, performed by his newest and greatest advocate and muse, as if danced by a fat teenage girl trying to act the vamp. (Tho I’ve never understood why Lola impersonates a Spanish senorita—ala Lola Montez?—for this scene. Couldn’t she just be herself? Isn’t she a vamp to begin with?) You can almost see Fosse & Verdon falling in love as they built this number. By the time of the film they’d worked thru New Girl in Town (with largely the same team) and broke with Abbott over conflicting visions. That didn’t stop Abbott from hiring Fosse again for the Yankees film—and not only as musical stager, but also as Verdon’s dance partner in the absurdly shoe-horned “talent show” for the Joe Hardy Fan Club. Even more irrelevant than “Steam Heat” was to the union meeting in Pajama Game, and cut entirely of the same cloth, “Who’s Got the Pain (When They Do the Mambo)” is the sole screen pairing of these two special dancers. And of course it’s a joy. But what does this song have to do with anything, let alone Joe Hardy? For an eleven o’clock number, “Two Lost Souls” has a real midnight feel, which might explain why I don’t remember it at all. On stage it was just another duet, performed by Joe & Lola, but here it morphs into a full ensemble piece, set in some bar that seems to imply Limbo. I can’t think of another Fosse number like it. On and on it goes long after you expect it to end, giving Gwen quite a workout. Incredibly the dance precedes identical moves Michael Bennett later designed for Donna McKechnie, (I see moments straight out of “The Music & The Mirror.”) It’s a great neglected musical sequence—and uncommon Verdon moment. But ultimately it’s so darkly lit and shot in extreme soft-focus, the number seems to linger in memory more as a dream. The film does her wrong, however, when Applegate turns her back into “the ugliest girl in Providence, Rhode Island”—under such clownishly amateur makeup she doesn’t know how to act—and who can blame her? But it’s hard to fault Verdon’s work here, and sadly, this was to be her only Bway performance preserved on film. (Amazingly of her six Bway hits, four were filmed.) A fifth, Redhead, was almost made, and with Verdon—for who else could ever play that role?—her most strenuous by far, and the one to best tap her unique Chaplinesque quality. A pity.

As the show’s central middle-aged couple, Shannon Bolin & Robert Shafer have an authentic intimacy—no surprise given the hundreds of performances they’d given together (on Bway the show played 1,063 times). Bolin’s Missouri accent sounds like the real thing, and Shafer turns out to be a great physical match with Tab Hunter. As the sole newcomer to the show, Hunter has the proper enthusiasm to say nothing of the blonde teen-idol looks—he does just fine. Another carryover from Pajama, Rae Allen trades her sewing machine for a reporter’s notebook and barbs with Walston and the team. She’s a cross between Kaye Ballard & Paula Presntiss; with an Italian-Bronx vibe; a real New York gal (but the thought of Pajama’s Thelma Pelish in the role, makes me tingle with excitement—I’m funny that way.) There’s nothing wrong with “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo.” in either song or Fosse’s lively baseball ballet, yet it doesn’t quite land as sensationally as it should, thanks to some clumsy editing. Rae Allen, would later have some sitcom success in supporting roles, but she was overshadowed in that department by Jean Stapleton, whose Edith Bunker would become the role of a lifetime. (Allen would make a couple of guest appearances on All in the Family) Yet Stapleton had been playing a version of Edith thru-out her career, which included several musicals, starting with this one. Her unmistakable croak was put to use in a reprise of “Heart.” First sung in the locker room by Russ Brown, who won a Tony for his Coach Van Buren, and was on screens concurrently in South Pacific (playing virtually the same crusty character) “Heart” was the show’s other hit parade tune. And you haven’t lived till you’ve heard Peggy Lee’s mambo take on it from her album of showtunes called Latin ala Lee.

Abbott wasn’t quite as faithful to his original book on this one as he was with Pajama. For one thing, he threw out the show’s two big ballads, “A Man Doesn’t Know” and “Near to You,” which would have probably taxed Tab Hunter’s vocal ability—tho Tab had some success as a recording artist, including a #1 record in 1957.  It’s a shame, as “Near to You” is an especially lovely ballad—and the closest the show came to another “Hey There,” but the song never gained any traction. Adler (post-Ross) wrote a new song for the film, “There’s Something About an Empty Chair” that’s no improvement on “A Man Doesn’t Know.” Also cut, probably for censorship concerns, was the ballplayer’s lament, “The Game.” An Ode to Willpower, covering such topics as booze and woman—what seemed racy then:   

     There was that Pullman car
        that I got lost in
           on a sleeper out of Boston.  
     Compartment doors all 
        look the same there
           Walked in one and
               there’s this dame there
     Blonde & stacked and absolutely bare
        With nothing separating us but air
               (Yeah? Yeah? Yeah?)
     But then I thought about the game…

is innocuous now. It’s actually a clever group number in the best Frank Loesser style (down to the 2-bar instrumental riffs that punctuate the verse between vocal lines.) The tune itself is heard thru-out as a sort of ballpark fanfare. Only three ballplayers get any real definition; Albert Linville, James Komack, and Nathaniel Frey—an Abbott favorite who also appeared in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Wonderful Town, Fiorello! and She Loves Me. With his gravely voice and gap-tooth smile, Frey was one of Bway’s great musical character actors—and a real lug of a guy. And that’s the sort of image these ballplayers convey: numbskulls unskilled for any other labor. (There’s even a chewing tobacco joke here, which by coincidence was also mentioned in Pajama Game). Mental deficiencies aside, it’s a little surprising these guys aren’t in better physical shape. Obviously Abbott didn’t have Josh Logan’s eye for fit bodies. He has the team quartet perform “Heart” straight out; a stage picture from the George Abbott album. His scene-work is precise, distinctive. During Joe’s tryout for the team, we’re shown his first ball flying over the fence but afterward Abbott knows to stay on the team faces & Van Buren as they react to Joe slamming ball after ball--the only way they could convey it on stage, but just as effective here. There are silly bits, too: a small witch answering the door for Applegate; an old bag snubbing young Joe as she walks home, pushing a stolen grocery cart. In trimming the show, Abbott gives us less athletes, more marriage. Joe Hardy is so single-minded and faithful to his washed-out wife (where he was all but indifferent to her before) that there’s barely any conflict. In those pre-Viagra days, wouldn’t he respond to sudden youth again with some newfound lust? Whatsmore, he isn’t simply transformed into a fit 22 year old, he retains his memory, and presumably all his life experience—which is something even greater; the best of both worlds. And a most interesting facet that’s left entirely unexplored. All this guy can think of—aside from winning the pennant—is his frumpy wife.

Faust as a musical had already been parodied by Comden & Green in their screenplay for The Bandwagon only a couple of years prior. (How many times now have we seen “beyond the pale”-concepts that once could only be joked about, actually materialize on stage—sometimes with great success and invention.) But Yankees took it one step further; instead of satirizing the idea, they went and converted it into a contemporary morality play. But everything about the show is a reinforcement of 1950s middle class mores—sex is there to dangle for temptation, but wifey wins the guy in the end—even from the clutches of Satan. Not just in the end, she has him by the middle; instead of enjoying his freedom and anonymity Joe goes home to a woman he’s used to neglecting. In a way, it was a misguided notion to cast Tab Hunter, presumably to attract “the youth.” For Tab spends the whole movie pining for a middle-aged housewife—how fun is that? I used to find the show rather bourgeois, but I enjoy the sentiment now as the product of another age. That’s the joy of “present day” musicals—before you know it they’re period pieces—and often make the best time capsules. Visual case in point: the home of Meg & Joe Boyd in full Technicolor, a primer in mid-century suburban Americana in all its Sears/Roebuck splendor.Applegate’s Washington lair (from which the Capitol Bldg looms on the horizon), however, looks incredibly Vegas: drenched in purple & royal blue with kitschy furnishings. Walston does his one number here, a would-be tour-de-force: the devil in reminiscence: “Those Were the Good Old Days.” Sad to say, it’s a second-rank song, with lyrics meant to be funny in the Chas Addams manner that instead seem obvious and unimaginative. The Devil’s work is about taking souls, not lives. Talk of crashing planes and driving men to suicide leave a bitter taste—one that Walston’s lack of charisma doesn’t sweeten. (Peter Lorre would have oozed more charm.) The show ends with Joe winning the pennant, and getting out of his deal with the devil, but it doesn’t finish on a sweet note; not with Walston having a puny fit, screaming, “Thief! I’ve been robbed.” This doesn’t send the audience out on a cloud as the Sleeptite fashion show coda does for Pajama Game. Why not a bright finish here? It could be as simple as a celebration for the Senators winning the World Series--even without Joe Hardy (happily cheering, with his wife, from his armchair) Just a thought.

My introduction to the show was neither on stage or screen, but an NBC TV special that aired on April 8, 1967. Despite a decent cast (Lee Remick as Lola; Jim Backus as Van Buren, Linda Lavin as Gloria Thorpe; and Phil Silvers as Applegate—a definite step up) the production values were beyond cheap, they were unbelievably cheesy. Astonishing as it seems, clips from this archeological travesty are accessible today to one and all with just a mouse click away on YouTube. Aside from cardboard sets that any high school art department would outdo today (and I don’t mean in the exaggerated style of Glee—which ridiculously rivals Bway production values), the entire show seems to have been filmed in closeup, with an occasional medium shot. But the influence of the “Sixties” is everywhere apparent in the overuse of simple animation and modern-art graphics. “Two Lost Souls” has Remick and Jerry Lanning (the grown up Patrick in Angela Lansbury’s Mame) dancing on paisley wallpaper and Rorschach blots in a sequence as bizarre as it is tedious. Surely the movie left a better impression when I saw it for the first time in September ’68. But I wasn’t nearly as wowed as I’d been by Pajama Game, tho it afforded me my first visual record of Gwen Verdon, who was already my favorite Bway star, determined solely from her recordings. Not the best singer by a long shot, but with so much character in her voice I couldn’t help but love her. Her looks didn’t hurt, but of course her prime asset: dancing, put her over the top. Even so, perhaps the film didn’t enchant then because of my disinterest in, if not aversion to, spectator sports. Now I find the ballpark scenes among the most compelling.

My affection for the show, however, was given the biggest boost by Jack O’Brien’s ’94 “revisal,” which I saw prior to Bway at the lovely Old Globe in San Diego—in what was, for me, a definitive production. Perhaps it was in part by how well it fit the venue—an intimate house of around 600 seats; for I heard nowhere near such enthusiasm for the show once it hit Bway—but I found it one of the happiest evenings I’ve ever spent in the theater. From the top with a brightly staged “Six Months Out of Every Year”—which opens the film, too, abridged and split-screened, but not nearly as exciting—the show was red hot. Together with choreographer Jerry Mitchell, O’Brien knew exactly where to goose up the already sexy tale. First and foremost: the ballplayers. These would make Josh Logan proud; fit, handsome and often in various states of undress, not to mention fetching uniforms, this was quite a crew that included rising stars like Gregory Jbara, Michael Berrese & Scott Wise. The casting & production was sterling thru-out, but best of all was the attention paid to the score. With some polished orchestrations and revised tempos I found Adler & Ross’s ballads revealed to me for the first time. Go listen to “Near to You,” and tell me it isn’t up to the Cole Porter standard. From childhood on I have always idolized the prolific; I couldn’t tell you why but I am somewhat obsessed with long careers; the ups & downs, the hits & misses; all fascinating to me: George S. Kaufman, Richard  Rodgers, Jule  Styne, Tennesse Williams, Woody Allen, Stephen Sondheim. And then there are those whose gems are a handful: Leonard Bernstein, Frank Loesser. Adler & Ross had but two. They were “pop” songwriters, yes, but there was a real learned theatricality in their music. By finding music in sewing machines and locker rooms they were advancing the form of musical theater, while making it so accessible to the general public that soon anything and everything could be source for a tuner. Adler & Ross’s two musicals came quick one after the other, and the films were just the same. The songs are so contagious, so filled with Loesser’s wit & quirkiness, with Berlin’s ease of melody; so Hit Parade 1955 (Whatever Lola Wants” has been recorded by at least 25 artists, as varied as Xavier Cugat & Gracie Fields. My personal favorite is a down-low, hard-driving Della Reese from her Della Della Cha Cha Cha album) that I can only lament they never wrote another show. Now that I’ve covered their complete oeuvre, I find my respect for them elevated still. It’s not easy to compose a couple of scores that go down so easy.

The film opened at the Roxy in New York on September 26, 1958, and soon thereafter in general national release (while Gigi and South Pacific were still in exclusive Roadshow bookings only.) Warner’s wasn’t making any fancy big-budget Roadshow musicals—not yet. It also wasn’t reaping their grosses. Damn Yankees made a modest $2,600,000, only a hundred grand more than Pajama. And tho it was still a popular film, and one of the truest adaptations of the Bway original, the show itself has had such consistent shelf life in professional, community and school productions that the film stands less in collective memory as the benchmark for the musical, as do many other Hlwd adaptations. There’s been talk of a film remake for many years now. In the ‘80s it was said to be on John Hughes schedule. Lately it’s rumored to be back in the pipeline as a vehicle for Jim Carrey, with Jake Gyllenhaal as Joe Hardy. I can buy that, but I’m not sure updating it will work with a score so dead-on for mid-century. But you never know, I’ve been persuaded in many unlikely things.

Next Up: Porgy & Bess

Report Card:    Damn Yankees
Overall Film:    B
Bway Fidelity:  B+   cut ballads, less baseball
Songs from Bway:   9 
Songs Cut from Bway:  3
New Songs:  1 (by Adler alone)
Worst Omissions: “Near to You” “The Game”
Standout Numbers:  “Two Lost Souls”
               “Whatever Lola Wants”
               “Who’s Got the Pain”
Casting:  All Bway + Teen Idol
Standout Cast:   Gwen Verdon
Sorethumb Cast:   Ray Walston
Cast from Bway:  All but Hunter
Direction:  Breezy, well-rehearsed
Choreography:  Primal Fosse
Ballet:  None
Scenic Design:  Suburban Life in Technicolor
Costumes:  American casual
Standout Set:  The Boyd house
Titles:  Modern neo-Saul Bass, neon-colored
     graphics, with a lively overture. Great fun.
Oscar Noms:  1: scoring

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