Devil’s Baseball Bargain: “Damn Yankees” at Gilman

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First produced on Broadway in 1955, Damn Yankees tweaks and transplants the story of Faust to 1950s D.C., when the New York Yankees’ winning streak seems unbreakable to diehard Washington Senators fan/protagonist Joe Boyd except by clever devil’s bargain. The beloved comedic show, featuring rousing monologue-style song and spirited ensemble dance, premieres this Thursday, May 2, at Gilman in the Alumni Auditorium and runs through May 5.

As always, the Upper School musical, directed by John Rowell, features a cast of skillful high school kids whose busy schedules leave little time for the memorizing of lines and dance steps. I talked to Rowell about the glitches and glories of making ambitious musical theater succeed at the secondary-school level.

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What’s been the biggest overall challenge this spring?

Damn Yankees is a great show, a classic show, but it belongs to an older tradition of musical theater that most really young people today are not familiar with.  To honor the spirit, or maybe I should even say the DNA of the piece, it’s important for the actors to tap into the style of presentation and the particular way of projecting the story through their characters that the script and the songs require.  It was a big challenge, albeit a fun one, to get them to learn how to do that.

What is your favorite scene?

All of them!  Seriously, I love the storytelling of this piece.  First of all, the baseball theme is unusual for a musical; there aren’t a lot of musicals about sports.  Yet the show is about many things.  It marries the Faust legend to Major League Baseball, so the Devil himself is a major character. And there are romantic, tender scenes between middle-aged characters, and fun, sexier scenes between the younger characters, and then the baseball players do a lot of the heavy lifting of the story — their scenes and numbers are going to be crowd pleasers.  In a way, the baseball players in Damn Yankees are like the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; they keep interrupting the romance to bring on the comedy.

How do you organize enough rehearsal time with overbooked teens?

Um, where should I start?  Teenagers in 2013 in a very active tri-school community are committed in a lot of different directions.  Lacrosse games, college visits, field trips….it isn’t easy.  We’ve been rehearsing since the end of February, four nights a week and Sunday afternoons.  And then a little something called spring break came in there somewhere.  I’m hoping the entire cast will be present on opening night!

What does this particular show mean to you?

What the show means to the cast is the most important thing to me.  And I hope what it means to them is a memorable experience in which they feel they have come together and given their all to something really worthwhile and done their best in order to make a great deal of people in the audience very happy.  But I can answer what Damn Yankees means to me personally, too.   I love this piece passionately; it has a fabulous score–a score which I actually think is still a bit underrated.  “Whatever Lola Wants,” “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo,” “Near To You,” and, especially, “Heart” are examples of truly great musical theater writing: these are indelible songs that are witty, tuneful, and thoroughly character-based.  Most of all, though, the show, for all its comedy and rowdiness and high energy, is about primal but simple human elements: the power of enduring love, and the capacity of that enduring love to conquer evil.  I really do feel that’s a message that resonates more deeply than ever, and I think that makes Damn Yankees not only timely but timeless.

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