“As a female with a long-standing aversion to baseball, brought about no doubt by two baseball aficionados in my home (husband and son),” went Eva Meinwald’s letter, “I would like to praise the new musical ‘Damn Yankees’ on two counts. First, for its sympathetic treatment of the ‘baseball season widow’ and second, and much more important, for a delightful evening of theatre in which the baseball theme is used but briefly as a prop on which a wonderful night of spoofing, make-believe wickedness and genuine tenderness are draped.”
Meinwald wrote that letter to the drama department at the New York Times in May 1955, a couple of weeks after the famous musical opened (on May 5) on Broadway’s Forty-sixth Street Theatre. Who knows, maybe Meinwald retired to Palm Coast and will be in the audience when the curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m. tonight on “Damn Yankees” at the Flagler Auditorium. The show has a great history of longevity behind it, starting with its creator, the celebrated George Abbott, who was 106 when he left his Miami Beach home to be at the latest revival of his musical, back in 1994.
And of course there’s “Damn Yankees” itself, which keeps returning to stages around the country with what looks like the regularity of spring training (take heart fans, pitchers and catchers begin reporting to camp in 11 days), though the story’s inspiration has dimmed a little since 1955, and 2012 looks nothing like the finned, black-and-white gullibilities of the Eisenhower era. The curtain goes up this evening just as the polls close on a presidential primary that may yet give Eisenhower gallstones in his Abilene burial grounds. Which may just be the reason to go to the Flagler Auditorium for a good mental colonic. There’s a bonus in it for Yankee haters.
When “Damn Yankees” premiered on Broadway in 1955, the New York Yankees had won 15 of the previous 28 World Series, and would go on to win four of the next eight. The play was based on a romp of a book by Douglas Wallop, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, where Joe Boyd is one of those lifelong fans of loser teams, in this case the Washington Senators. Like all misguided Americans, he hates the Yankees with the kind of passion that in other circumstances might animate a Slobodan Milosevic. So he makes a deal with the devil, in this case shrouded, without much of a stretch, as a Madison Avenue fast-talker who calls himself Mr. Applegate (you can see his work in any campaign commercial on TV to this day). Basically, it’s the Tim Tebow story in reverse. Applegate promises to turn Joe Boyd into Joe Hardy, a home-run-slugging superstar for the Washington Senators. Not only that, he promises to have the Senators turn their fortunes and beat the Yankees. Which they do. Of course, Boyd-Hardy has to sell his soul to the devil in the bargain. And so Faust descends on first base.
There’s a leggy temptress called Lola along the way, the ex-“ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island” (not to be confused with Nabokov’s Lolita, published a few months after “Damn Yankees”’ premiere), a great deal of send-ups about the national pastime and plenty of riffs over Casey Stengel’s Yanks, all of which added up to the perfect mixture for a musical in Abbott’s book. The story goes that one night when Abbott’s “Pajama Game” was in full production on Broadway, its co-producer slipped into the theater with Wallop’s book under his arm, its dusk-jacket reversed so he wouldn’t give away the show to his competition, and looked for his colleagues, who were constantly on the hunt for the next hit. This was it, the producer told them. They rustled up Abbott and the great choreographer Bob Fosse (“Pajama Game” was his first big show, “Damn Yankees” would be his second) and together with Wallop, Abbot wrote the musical.
Low-grade devilry aside, the story is so innocent that it harkens back to a time when baseball players like DiMaggio and Mantle, Berra and Martin could give off the illusion that they never doped up, never screwed anything that moved, never grasped any dollar they could and stood roughly as high as the granite on Mount Rushmore. The songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross convey that innocence with zip, or a little unzip, as with the “Whatever Lola Wants” striptease. There’s an elegy to “the good old days” by the devil himself, and bacchanalian dance numbers like “Who’s Got the Pain” and “Two Lost Souls.” And there’s that 1950s feel of utter, featherweight pleasure that makes not one demand on the senses, like a perfect entertainment.
In other words, a perfect antidote to election night even if, as a closing irony, Washington wins.
“Damn Yankees” is a one-night only engagement, Tuesday, Jan. 31, at the Flagler Auditorium, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: adults, $39, youth, $28. Call the auditorium box office at 386/437-7547 for tickets or visit the auditorium’s website.