If you asked true blue Boston Red Sox fans during much of the 20th century if they would sell their soul to the devil in order to lift the famed "curse" from their team, you would probably get more than a few volunteers.
That's Joe DiPietro's wicked spin on the revival of the 1955 musical "Damn Yankees," which is now in previews at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. (The show opens April 30 and continues to June 21.)
The folks at Goodspeed say this tweaking of the classic show is perfect for the theater because polls show the Connecticut residents' allegiance to the Yankees or Sox is split almost right down the Connecticut River with East Haddam being the center of that great divide.
In the original production of the show that features such familiar songs as "(You Gotta Have) Heart" and "Whatever Lola Wants", the Yankee team is portrayed as all powerful and their winning as inevitable. A middle-aged Washington Senators fan, exasperated at yet another losing season, makes the Faustian deal and is transformed into a young and vital slugger whose skills and spirit transforms the Senators, making them contenders against the invincible Yanks.
Eight years ago, DiPietro was approached by John Kimball, the executive director of the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass., about localizing the musical, switching the underdog team from the Senators to the Red Sox. (DiPietro's relationship with the theater went back to 2003 when the musical "Memphis" had its world premiere there. In 2010 it went on to win the Tony Award as best musical.)
"I thought it was a great idea because of the 'curse,' " says DiPietro in a recent telephone interview.
Ah, the curse, which legend has it, happened when the team owner sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees because he wanted to invest in a Broadway musical "No, No, Nanette." (It's not true but that's beside the point.) That's why the Sox, many believed, could never win the World Series. It was because of that damn Broadway musical.
The switch made the rivalry of the teams in the musical even more playful for local audiences. And even though the Sox have since gone on to win the World Series, the intensity of the rivalry still makes the script switch, well, a natural —- at least to East Coast fans.
"It was like a writer's dream," says DiPietro, adding he didn't tinker with any other aspect of the show. "This is not a rewrite."
DiPietro says the show was never in need of a fix, calling it "a great classic musical." But this single change —- which didn't require much tweaking in the script —- still needed the blessing from the license holders of the show.
Joy Abbott, the widow of George Abbott, who directed and co-wrote the script, gave the OK for a one-time-only production at the North Shore Music Theatre. (The Red Sox also gave the production permission to use its brand in the show.)
Approval was also given two years ago for a production at the Ogunquit (Maine) Playhouse. The Goodspeed show is the third major New England theater to receive the special dispensation to do this version.
DiPietro, who played baseball in Little League and says he's a Mets fan, says he identifies with the underdog. His own career was on the verge of collapsing when a little show that began at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre —- "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" —- went on to be an off-Broadway and regional theater hit —- and changed the writer's life. Instead of giving up on theater and moving to Los Angeles, he hung in there writing many more shows, including Broadway's "All Shook Up" and off-Broadway's "The Thing About Men," "Over the River and Through the Woods" and "The Toxic Avenger."
"I never took anything for granted and tried to get better and stretch myself," says DiPietro.
Behind The Scenes Of 'Damn Yankees'
DiPietro's relationship with Goodspeed goes back to 2000 when he scripted "They All Laughed," using existing music by George and Ira Gershwin. It was not a hit but years later he would rework it into the Broadway musical "Nice Work If You Can Get It."
DiPietro says one of the reason "Damn Yankees" works so well when other sports-themed musicals have flopped, is that it's not just a tale about teams. "It's a complicated love story," he says, pointing to the central relationship between the fan who gives up his life for the team and leaves his beloved wife behind.
"It also taps into that feeling of wish fulfillment that sports fans have, of wanting to be young again," says DiPietro.
The show's original creators —- including the musical writing team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, "just made the show so theatrically satisfying and fun. At the end of the day, sports are fun."
DiPietro says he would love to take a crack at writing his own sports musical but for now he has a full plate.
His next big show is a '60s theme music show called "Chasing the Song," that is being tried out at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. That show reteams DiPietro with Christopher Ashley who staged "Memphis" on Broadway and that show's composer and co-lyricist, David Bryan (who is also Bon Jovi's keyboardist).
This summer he will have another show. premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Massachusetts Berkshires. DiPietro took "Peccadillo," a failed 1985 play by Garson Kanin that originally premiered in Florida with Christopher Plummer, Kelly McGillis and Glynis Johns, and reworked it into "Living on Love." The new work will feature opera star Renee Fleming and directed by Kathleen Marshall, who staged "Nice Work If You Can Get It" on Broadway.
There's yet another play, "Clever Little Lies," starring Marlo Thomas that was produced at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey that will be produced in the Hamptons this summer.
DiPietro's busy schedule makes it look like he made a deal with the devil. Not quite he says. And if he did what would he do it for?
"Winning the 100 yard dash perhaps," he says.
Ah, the pull of sports.
DAMN YANKEES runs through June 30 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. Performances are Wednesday 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees beginning May 15; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. (with 6:30 p.m. performances though May 11).
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