Red Sox musical comes to the ART
The Red Sox, race, and show tunes? They’re all in 'Johnny Baseball.'
NEW YORK — In an airy rehearsal room near Times Square, history is doing some tricky gymnastics.
First stop: 1920, a nightclub in Harlem, where a glamorous African-American singer named Daisy Wyatt is belting out an upbeat number called “As Long as There’s a Chance.’’ Daisy is singing it for the love of her life, Johnny O’Brien, a white pitcher for the
“As long as there’s a chance I’m happy/Any little chance will do!/As long as there’s a maybe, baby/I’ll take another chance on you!’’
If true devotion is a matter of faith, nobody knows the feeling better than the star-crossed lovers and Red Sox fans whose entwined sagas are brought to life in “Johnny Baseball,’’ a new musical that makes its world premiere May 16 at the American Repertory Theater. With spirited tunes, a Greek chorus of Sox obsessives, and a grand finale (no spoiler alert needed) that features a Curse-busting home run, “Johnny Baseball’’ might well have amounted to a fluffy, feel-good night at the theater.
But that infamous Curse, whose end is signaled with a monumental whack of Big Papi’s bat, supplies the real meat of this musical. And it has nothing to do with the Bambino.
In “Johnny Baseball’’ it’s racism, not Babe Ruth’s storied sale to the Yankees, that’s at the root of the Sox’ 86-year dry spell. And while the show’s writers have taken some liberties with a plot that liberally blends fiction with the facts, there is one indisputable chapter in the team’s history that provided playwright Richard Dresser and lyricist Willie Reale, the story’s co-writers, with the central theme of their show: The Red Sox were the last major league baseball team to sign an African-American player.
“For me, growing up in New England, the whole notion of the team being cursed because they sold Babe Ruth, and we’d never win because of it, was a comforting kind of myth,’’ says Dresser, a long-suffering devotee who now lives north of Manhattan. Dresser was the subject of a 2004 New York Times article about raising his son, Sam, as a Red Sox fan in Yankees territory. Exactly one year before that story was published, the seeds for “Johnny Baseball’’ were planted during Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.
The Sox had tied the best-of-seven series against the Yankees. Dresser was watching in his basement with Sam. Lyricist Reale was at Yankee Stadium with five Red Sox fans. It was the eighth inning and the Sox were up, 5-2.
“I was sitting on the end of the aisle and these guys next to me were all doubled over, holding themselves, and I said, ‘Guys, you’ve got this one. Lighten up.’ They looked at me as one and just stared a hole into me. Of course, we know what happened.’’ The Yankees came back to win, and it was “Wait till next year’’ all over again.
“Riding home,’’ Reale recalls, “these grown men, men with careers and lives and families, were barely holding back the emotion on the D train. It was so powerful.’’
The next day Reale called Dresser — the two had been searching for a project to collaborate on — and said he thought there might be a musical there. Dresser agreed, and the pair began fleshing out their ideas. After discovering during their research that the Sox were the last team to integrate, with the signing of Pumpsie Green in 1959, the premise took a serious turn.
“Johnny Baseball’’ traces the Curse back to 1919 and the collision of three lives: rookie player Johnny O’Brien, his idol Babe Ruth, and Daisy, the object of his affection. The play’s action moves back and forth among three time periods: the early days of Johnny and Daisy’s romance; 1948, when a talented young black player tries out at Fenway Park for team owner Tom Yawkey and general manager Joe Cronin; and Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, when David Ortiz hits a two-run walkoff homer in the 12th inning to save the Sox from elimination, and the Curse begins to lift. The voice you hear calling the plays during the show? None other than Sean McDonough. The musical mixes spry tunes composed by Reale’s brother Robert with provocative social history, which makes it an ideal project for ART artistic director Diane Paulus, whose mission is to create populist theater with integrity.
“This is exactly the kind of show we should be doing,’’ says Paulus, who was, serendipitously, attached to “Johnny Baseball’’ as a freelance director before she was hired to run the ART. “Part of what we do in theater is keep our stories alive and keep our history present. And so much of what I’ve been interested in this year has been kind of enlarging what we call the [theatrical] experience.’’
To that end the ART, which has already this season staged an immersive production of “Macbeth’’ in an empty schoolhouse and a reimagined “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ as a disco romp, is turning the area around Cambridge’s Loeb Drama Center into a mini-Yawkey Way with hot dog vendors, popcorn, and beer that — hold onto your caps — will be allowed in the theater. Paulus hopes their love of the game will lure neophytes who would otherwise be more inclined to spend the evening at a sports venue than in a playhouse.
But some wonder if Paulus and the company are prepared for the responses the show may elicit. Glenn Stout, sportswriter and editor and coauthor of “Red Sox Century,’’ has a long list of concerns.
“What worries me more than anything is I hope it doesn’t trivialize a subject I don’t think should be trivialized,’’ Stout says. “Racism is a dangerous, complicated subject, and I’m not sure a commercial musical is the right way to explore it. I assume it has a happy ending? A story that makes it seem like it’s over now? That’s a real concern. I’m not saying today’s Red Sox are the same as in the past, but racism is still an important element in all professional sports. And I think some members of Red Sox Nation are going to be angry the subject is broached at all.’’
Among the latter is Dick Bresciani, Red Sox vice president and team historian, who responds to a question about how racism is documented in the Sox archives with exasperation.
“I don’t think there’s any way we’ve dealt with it in the official annals. Who can say what is racism? We don’t believe we had racism,’’ Bresciani says. “You can’t judge people who are deceased by their beliefs. You can’t judge them by what you read or hear. That’s not factual.’’
One fact is that the Red Sox had a chance to sign Jackie Robinson when he tried out at Fenway in 1945. But the team passed, and Robinson went on to break the major league color barrier two years later and become a superstar with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Another fact is that Tommy Harper, who played for the Sox in the early 1970s and returned for several stints on the team’s coaching staff, successfully sued the Red Sox for firing him in 1985 after he complained in the media about the club allowing segregated festivities during spring training in Florida. Harper — now a minor league consultant for the Sox who is being inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame this year — believes that a refresher is in order.
“I hope the play will be enlightening to younger people,’’ says Harper, who is working on a book about his experiences. “To be honest with you, there are not a lot of young people today, or young players today, that know the history. But look around. It’s still prevalent. I do think the new owners, being the good people they are, came in and are doing the right thing.’’
Since buying the team in 2002, Sox brass John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino have been vocal about the need to confront the franchise’s troubled racial past. They also have plans to attend “Johnny Baseball’’ — which was titled “Red Sox Nation’’ until Dresser’s agent, a Yankees fan, told him point-blank she wouldn’t pay to see that show. Which raises the question: Does a musical about the Boston Red Sox have a life beyond New England? The creative team is confident that it can speak to musical-theater lovers and baseball fans everywhere. And two little words support their case:
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com.