Polled for their preferences in musicals, the Wick Theatre’s audience has consistently ranked 1955’s Damn Yankees very high. What is it about this Tony Award-winning show based on Douglas Wallop’s tongue-in-cheek novel, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, that is so appealing?
Jeffrey Moss, who directs the Wick’s production that begins performances Thursday, sums it up in two words: Nostalgia and heart.
“Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing. These musicals from that golden age have something at the heart of them. At the core of all these shows there is heart, as this show enunciates very clearly,” he says. “And the construction and the great songs, so well placed in the show. And the book captured the emotion so well.”
It was Wallop’s inspired idea to combine the great American pastime of baseball with the devilish, enduring legend of Faust. That is, a middle-aged avid Washington Senators fan sells his soul to Satan to help his beloved team beat the dominant club of that era, those damn New York Yankees.
“But it’s more than just being about sports,” adds Lauren Weinberg, who plays the devil’s secret weapon, a seductress named Lola. “It’s about following your dream. And then actually realizing what’s most important in life. It kind of makes everybody reflect on what makes them human, what makes them tick.”
“It contains an interesting idea,” says Moss. “It poses to the audience the question, ‘Would you do this? What would you sell your soul for?’ And when you do it, was it worth it?”
The legendary director/book writer George Abbott adapted Wallop’s novel for the stage, putting an added emphasis on the collector of souls, Mr. Applegate. He will be portrayed at the Wick by veteran South Florida performer Wayne LeGette, who was unfamiliar with the show when Moss cast him in it.
“I never saw a stage production of it. I always heard it was a big dancing musical, so I stayed away from it,” he explains. “I didn’t know that there was this absolutely wonderful role of the devil. It’s basically a speaking role. He gets one song in the whole show. But it’s a great character.”
And yes, LeGette has found himself identifying with Applegate. “If you can’t find something in yourself to bring to a character, why bother?” he says. “In the writing, this devil is a very flawed guy,”
The role of Lola was famously originated by Gwen Verdon, who won a Tony largely for her quirky, comic dance seduction of young baseball phenom Joe Hardy, “Whatever Lola Wants.”
“Lola is using dance as a catalyst to get what she wants and when I understood that, it was very inspiring,” says Weinberg. “She tries every tactic in the book to get Joe to sell his soul. Because that’s my job. And he’s giving me a hard time. So much so, in musical theater when you can’t speak any more, you sing. When you can’t sing anymore, you dance. So it’s about desperation and power and sex and control, or lack thereof.”
Underneath Lola’s sexy exterior is the “ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island,” who also sold her soul to the devil. “The stakes for Lola are very high,” notes LeGette, “because I keep saying if you can’t get this done, I might just change you back.”
Damn Yankees may be best remembered for its dance numbers and for its hummable score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, which includes such hits as “Heart,” “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.,” and “Two Lost Souls.”
But for director Moss, the show’s appeal is its sturdy, thought-provoking book. “It’s about something. These golden age shows are about something. That’s why we remember them. It’s more than just fluff.
“It contains one of the most interesting relationships in a musical. Young Joe and Meg,” the wife of his older self. “Here is this man, married to this woman. He leaves her but then comes back because he misses her, but he’s somebody else and he’s a younger version of himself. Is she attracted to him in some way? Is he attracted to her in some way? They have two ballads that deal with that subject. I think that’s what draws an audience in to the story. And they’re thinking ‘What would I do?’ It’s really interesting.”
For Weinberg, the bottom line is “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, and Lola wants you to buy a ticket to ‘Damn Yankees.’”
DAMN YANKEES, The Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. March 2–26. $89. 561-995-2333.