Posts Tagged ‘Broadway’

The Year the Yankees Won the Tonys

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

In 1956, Mickey Mantle won the American League Triple Crown, Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series, and Whitey Ford led the major leagues in Earned Run Average.  It was also the year of another World Series championship for the Bronx Bombers, further emphasizing the team’s dominance in the 20-year period after World War II.

The Yankees represented a source of drama beyond ballparks in 1956—Damn Yankees, based on Douglas Wallop’s novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, got a plethora of recognition in the form of Tony Awards for:

  • Best Musical
  • Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Ray Walston)
  • Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Gwen Verdon)
  • Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Russ Brown)
  • Best Conductor and Musical Director (Hal Hastings)
  • Best Choreography (Bob Fosse)
  • Best Stage Technician (Harry Green)

Damn Yankees also got a nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Rae Allen).

Ray Walston played the Devil, also known as Applegate, in Damn Yankees. Convincing a hapless Washington Senators fan to sell his soul for the chance to lead the Senators to baseball glory made Applegate an epic character in popular culture.  “Mr. Walston was satanic with a wry twist, underplaying a role that could have become villainous and singing wistfully about death and destruction in ‘Those Were the Good Old Days,'” wrote Mel Gussow in his 2001 obituary of Walston for the New York Times.  Lewis Funke praised Walston in his analysis of Damn Yankees when the show débuted in 1955:  “Authoritative and persuasive, he does not overdo a role that easily could become irritating in less expert hands.”

Gwen Verdon was a theater touchstone, winning four Tony Awards in her career.  Married to legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, Vernon had abundant work as a guest star on television, including roles on WebsterGimme a Break!M*A*S*HFameDream OnThe Equalizer, and Touched by an Angel.  Verdon’s body of work in movies includes The Cotton Club and Cocoon.

Los Angeles Times Theater Writer Don Shirley quoted Times dance critic Lewis Segal in his 2000 obituary of the dancer:  “Verdon was to Broadway dance what Ethel Merman was to Broadway song; an archetypal personality whose talents inspired the best from those who created works for her.  More than anyone, Fosse continually mined her saucy yet vulnerable stage persona for new facets, using her as a living anthology of show-dance style.”

Shirley wrote, “Her dancing was characterized by her ability to make the most intricate technical choreography look spontaneous and almost carefree.”

Walston and Vernon reprised their roles for the 1958 movie version of Damn Yankees.  Tab Hunter took on the role of Joe Hardy, a standout with the Senators, thanks to the machinations of Applegate.  Stephen Douglass played the role on Broadway.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 18, 2016.

Brooklyn, Baseball, and Broadway

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Jackie Robinson has inspired an abundance of portrayals in popular culture, unsurprisingly.  Examples include Blair Underwood in the 1996 HBO tv-movie Soul of the Game, Chadwick Boseman in the 2013 movie 42, and the man himself in the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story.

In The First, a 1981 Broadway musical, David Alan Grier projected Robinson’s travails in breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947.  Grier, later known for the 1990s sketch comedy television show In Living Color on FOX, received plaudits from theatre critics, along with the other cast members.  Frank Rich of the New York Times noted, “The casting of all the principals is good.  In his Broadway debut, Mr. Grier gives us an impassioned, strong-voiced and tough-minded Jackie Robinson—not an impression, but a real performance.  Though the role of Rachel Robinson hardly exists in the script, the striking Lonette McKee manages to fill her with vitality and warmth.  The sandpaper-voiced David Huddleston captures both the idealism and pragmatism, as well as the humor, of Branch Rickey.”

However, Rich was less laudatory of the play, which covered the same ground that 42 did three decades hence; it débuted on November 17, 1981 and closed less than a month later.  Rich wrote, “While this show offers about five minutes of good baseball and a promising star in David Alan Grier, its back is broken by music, lyrics, book and direction that are the last word in dull.”

A lack of endorsement from the Gray Lady is to a Broadway show what a stake is to a vampire’s heart.  The 1982 movie Author! Author! illustrates this point with bluntness wrapped in humor concerning the opening night of a Broadway play.  Referencing theatre critic Stewart Klein of New York City’s WNEW-TV (later WNYW-TV), a character says, “Let me tell you.  In this town, you don’t get a rave from the New York Times, you close.  I don’t care if Klein was enthralled, enraptured, and reached orgasm.  Without the New York Times, we’re dead.”

In my 2015 book Our Bums:  The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture, McKee graciously shared her experience.  “[Rachel Robinson] was so very warm, magnanimous and supportive during the entire process,” McKee said.  “And I still believe that the play and any stories about Jackie Robins and other trailblazers are important for all of us.  After all … how can we know who we are and where we’re going until we know where we’ve been and who the heroes were that paved the way for us.  The Robinsons are important civil and human rights leaders.”

Noted baseball author Robert W. Creamer reviewed the play for Sports Illustrated, acknowledging that it “does an admirable job of presenting a momentous occasion in American sport and, for that matter, American history.”

Further, Creamer explained, “I saw The First two nights after it opened, after the derogatory reviews had appeared.  I eavesdropped at intermission and after the final curtain, trying to find out what the audience thought.  Repeatedly, I heard people say, almost with embarrassment, almost apologizing for being so gauche as to disagree with the critics, ‘I like it.’

“So do I.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 31, 2016.

World Series Pranks and Franks

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

As dusk anticipated relieving the sun of its duties during the twilight of October 3, 1956, Paul Newman hustled through the stage entrance of the Mansfield Theatre, an august Broadway institution on West 47th Street in Manhattan.  Before he achieved icon status in the 1961 movie The Hustler, Newman plied his acting trade in legitimate theatre and live television dramas.  But his appearance at the Mansfield did not require his thespian skills.

Newman arrived at the theatre to prepare for a prime time television appearance on I’ve Got a Secret, a game show featuring Garry Moore as host and a panel of four celebrities trying to deduce the contestant’s secret through questions and answers.  On this October night, Newman was a contestant.  His secret?  He paraded around Ebbets Field as a Harry M. Stevens vendor during Game 1 of the World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees earlier that afternoon.  And he sold a hot dog to panelist Henry Morgan without Morgan realizing his identity.

After Morgan surrendered his guessing, Moore encouraged Newman to go offstage.  Then, he followed with a description of the prank:  “Henry, we not only knew that you went to the World Series ball game this afternoon.  We even contrived to have a friend call you up and invite you to go to the ball game.  We knew what seats you were sitting in.  We knew exactly where you were.  Through the good offices of Sports Illustrated, we did have a photographer out there taking pictures from time to time.  But you don’t remember the occasion.  Paul, are you ready?  Maybe you’ll recognize him better this way.  Paul, come out!”

Newman returned in his vendor garb, shouting a familiar refrain with heavy Brooklynese in his voice:  “Get your hot franks here, ladies and gentlemen!  Get your hot franks!”  Morgan replied, “I didn’t know that you looked so ordinary!”  He then certified Newman’s Ebbets Field presence.

Morgan:  “Weren’t you the one that we had all the trouble with?  You waited on like fifty people?”

Newman:  “Yes.”

Morgan:  “And we were screaming and yelling.”

Newman:  “I understand that you were very irritated because you were very hungry and didn’t have any breakfast.”

Morgan:  “You were there.”

Going incognito as an Ebbets Field held an inherent risk of recognition.  Newman built an extensive résumé with credits including a breakthrough role as Middleweight Champion Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, a film that premiered during the summer of ’56.  Additionally, a week prior to the Ebbets Field charade, Newman starred in The United States Steel Hour television adaptation of Bang the Drum Slowly, the second book in Mark Harris’s literary quartet of baseball fiction featuring pitcher Henry Wiggum.

After the secret’s revelation, Newman admitted that he was “terribly nervous” in carrying out the hoax.  But his commitment to the role would have made Thespis beam with pride—he sold dozens of hot dogs to unsuspecting fans!

Morgan remarked that Game 1 was “some game!”  Newman exclaimed, “I didn’t see any of the game!”

The Dodgers beat the Yankees 6-3.  Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Gil Hodges, and Jackie Robinson went yard.  Mantle’s dinger knocked in two runs for the Yanks; it was the Oklahoma-bred slugger’s only hit for the day.  Enos Slaughter went 3 for 5 and scored on the Mantle home run.  Martin’s was a solo shot and also his only hit.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 1, 2013.

The Odd Couple’s Triple Play

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

The New York Mets have a treasure chest of memories, moments, and merriment—Tom Seaver winning the National League Cy Young Award three times, Mr. Met serving as the first three-dimensional mascot for Major League Baseball, and the 1969 Mets performing a baseball miracle by beating the vaunted Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

One of the greatest achievements in Mets history isn’t in a box score nor is it in the team’s record books.  On June 27, 1967, the Pittsburgh Pirates played the Mets at Shea Stadium.  Bill Mazeroski, the Pirates’ star of the 1960 World Series, hit into a triple play.  Sort of.

“The triple play, filmed just before the start of the regularly scheduled Mets-Pirates game, was staged for a scene in Paramount Pictures’ ‘The Odd Couple,’ the film adaptation of Mr. [Neil] Simon’s Broadway comedy about a couple of grass widowers,” explained Vincent Canby in the next day’s edition of the New York Times.

The grass widowers are New Yorkers—sports writer Oscar Madison and television news writer Felix Unger.  Oscar’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is a sanctuary for Felix after Mrs. Unger says that she wants a divorce.  Heartbroken, Felix finds emotional support from his poker buddies—along with Oscar, there is Murray, Roy, Speed, and Vinnie.  Oscar, already divorced, understands his friend’s predicament.  So, the two become roommates.  But empathy for a poker buddy does not translate to a good roommate relationship.  Oscar is sloppy, carefree, and disorganized.  Felix is neat, budget-conscious, and fussy.

Simon added the Shea Stadium scene and others to give an authentic New York City flavor to the film version of The Odd Couple.  It highlights the difference between Oscar and Felix.  During the top of the ninth inning of a Mets vs. Pirates game, the visitors trail by one run with the bases loaded and Bill Mazeroski at bat.  Because he is making franks and beans for dinner, Felix calls Oscar in the press box to instruct him to avoid eating frankfurters at the ballpark.  During the phone call, Oscar misses Mazeroski hitting into a 5-4-3 triple play.

Walter Matthau played Oscar, a natural fit as he originated the role on Broadway with Art Carney as Felix.  Jack Lemmon played Felix in the film.  It’s one of several starring Matthau and Lemmon.

The actual Mets vs. Pirates game resulted in a 5-2 Mets victory.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 31, 2013.

Oscar, Felix, Jack, and Tony

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

RemingtonNovember 13th may be known as Felix Unger day, for that is the day, as stated in the opening credits of The Odd Couple, that “Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence.  That request came from his wife.  Deep down, he knew she was right.  But he also knew that some day, he would return to her.”

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Paul Newman’s World Series Pranks and Franks

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

As dusk anticipated relieving the sun of its duties during the twilight of October 3, 1956, Paul Newman hustled through the stage entrance of the Mansfield Theatre, an august Broadway institution on West 47th Street in Manhattan.  Yes, that Paul Newman.

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