We opened this summer season of the Indiana Festival Theatre with the classic 1956 musical Damn Yankees, directed and choreographed by George Pinney and musical direction by Terry LaBolt. It ends its run this Sunday at the 2:00 p.m. matinee, with performances also at the Ruth N. Halls Theatre at 7:30 each evening (through Saturday night). It’s a great production of a great musical.
Here is the essay about Damn Yankees I wrote for the program:
“I like just about everything about New York except the Yankees. It is like living in Vatican City and liking everything about the place but the Roman Catholics.” —Frank Deford, sportswriter
At the beginning of the 1950s, baseball was a simpler thing: there were but sixteen teams playing in the two leagues, St. Louis was the most westward location for the National Game (although by 1960, baseball had reached San Francisco and Los Angeles), and there were no divisions within leagues and no playoffs: if you won the pennant, you played in the World Series.
There was an unchanging factor in baseball in the 1950s—the complete domination of the game by the New York Yankees. Their constancy was remarkable. In the 10 years from 1949 to 1958, the Yankees won the American League pennant 9 times, losing only to Cleveland in 1954; in their 9 appearances in this decade, the Yankees won the World Series 7 times. “New York, or so it seemed to outsiders,” wrote Douglass Wallop in his informal history of the game, “had … baseball all to itself, had it all locked up behind the high walls of the city.”
It is no wonder that Wallop’s 1954 baseball novel, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant—set in a wishfully happy future of 1958—was popular with so many readers outside the confines of the Big Apple. The book embodied a kind of national oath uttered by frustrated baseball fans—“Damn Yankees!”—which became the title of the Broadway musical Wallop co-wrote with George Abbot, Jerry Ross, and Richard Adler.
For the five years prior to his novel’s publication, Douglass Wallop and the rest of the country watched in anguish and astonishment as the Yankees won five pennants in a row. “Indeed,” he wrote, “and World Series victories each year.” The country was ready for his novel, which became a best-seller. (Ironically, the year of the publication of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant was a year the Yankees lost the pennant, edged out of first place—by eight games—by the Cleveland Indians).
A life-long fan of the Washington Senators, Douglass Wallop (1920-1985) grew up in Washington, D.C. and graduated from the University of Maryland. He worked as a journalist and, as writer Jonathan Yardley reports, “took dictation took dictation from Dwight D. Eisenhower for the general’s account of World War II, ‘Crusade in Europe,’ and longed all the while to write fiction.” His first novel, Night Light (1953), received good reviews but was not a commercial success. His second novel was about a wild fantasy based on the Faust legend, in which the Washington Senators took the pennant from the Yankees. “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”—so went a common mantra shared by many hapless Senators fans. Wallop’s book was picked up by two major book clubs, was the basis for the musical Damn Yankees, which was a success on Broadway, on tour, and on film, and ultimately sold 2.5 million copies. The book made Douglass Wallop’s fortune. His succeeding novels and a book of non-fiction, Baseball—An Informal History, were modestly successful but did not reach the popularity of his second novel.
The music for Damn Yankees was created by the songwriting team of Jerry Ross (1926-1955) and Richard Adler (b. 1921). The two young songwriters worked at the Brill Building, where many popular songs were created in the 1950s. They formed a songwriting partnership in 1950 and became protégés of composer, lyricist, music publisher Frank Loesser. Before entering the musical theatre they wrote “Rags to Riches,” a number-1 hit for Tony Bennett in 1953. They provided most of the songs for John Murray Anderson’s Almanack, a musical revue which enjoyed a six-month run beginning in early December 1953. By that time, the two were working on their first Broadway hit, The Pajama Game. Directed by George Abbott and Jerome Robbins, with choreography by Bob Fosse, The Pajama Game ran for 1,063 performances, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, and generating the popular songs “Hey There (You With the Stars In You Eyes,” “Steam Heat,” and “Hernando’s Hideaway.”
In 1955 their Damn Yankees also won the hearts of Broadway theatregoers, running for 1,019 performances and winning 7 Tony Awards, including that for Best Musical. Ross and Adler’s “Two Lost Souls,” “(You Gotta Have) Heart,” and “Whatever Lola Wants” easily made their way into the hit parade and the American Popular Song Book.
Unfortunately for the composer-lyricist duo, Jerry Ross never lived to see the full success of Damn Yankees: He succumbed to the lung disease bronchiectisis in November 1955, leaving his wife and a young daughter behind.
Richard Adler continued to write popular songs, although he never enjoyed the degree of success in pop music or musical theatre that he had with Jerry Ross. He branched out as a producer of “events,” most famously putting together the Madison Square Garden birthday party for President John F. Kennedy, at which Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to the guest of honor. More recently, he has created a large body of classical music, which has been performed by the Detroit Symphony, the American Philharmonic Orchestra, the Utah Symphony, and the Chicago City Ballet. He composed the Fanfare and Overture for the U.S. Olympics Festival in 1987.
Bringing these talents together, along with those of designers, technicians, and actors, was director and co-author of Damn Yankees, George Abbott (1887-1995). A native of upstate New York, Abbott studied playwriting at Harvard with George Pierce Baker. He arrived in New York in 1913 and took work as an actor. He became known as a successful “play doctor,” offering suggestions about and often rewriting sections of other writers’ plays—plays that were struggling out of town or limping along in rehearsals before opening in New York. His first great success was a revamping of Philip Dunning’s Broadway, which became a hit in 1926. Overall, he directed and wrote over ten films and 120 plays and musicals. For most of the twentieth century, a George Abbott play was running on Broadway, sometimes five at once.
A tall man (6’3″) who maintained the good looks he enjoyed as an actor throughout his life, Abbott lived well past the century mark. About a year before his death in Miami from a stroke, Abbott could be found in New York rehearsal rooms and the Marquis Theatre, making notes on rehearsals for Damn Yankees as he assisted director Jack O’Brien in revising the book for the musical’s revival. At the time he was 106 years old. His and O’Brien’s revised version of Damn Yankees ran for 533 performances, closing early August 1995, five months after the death of George Abbot, who, for most of a century, was “Mr. Broadway.”