According to the musical Damn Yankees, "all you really need is heart." Joe DiPietro has plenty of that, and it shows in the Red Sox version of the hit musical now running at Goodspeed Musicals. The Tony Award winner behind Memphis and Nice Work If You Can Get It will step up to bat a number of times this year as several of his projects are slated to run at theaters across the country. Between shuttling to and from rehearsals for Chasing the Song, a new musical that reunites the Memphis team, and accepting honors at George Street Playhouse and Rutgers University, where he is being named a 2014 Distinguished Artist and Alumni, DiPietro is premiering his fifth production at Goodspeed. He spoke with TheaterMania about introducing the Yankees' biggest rival to the world of musical theater, and gave a sneak peek at a slew of his exciting projects about to hit the stage.
In your rewrite of Damn Yankees, you make a pretty significant change. Why did you do it and where did the idea come from?
Jon Kimbell, who was the artistic director of North Shore Music Theatre, had the idea several years ago to do Damn Yankees but to insert the Red Sox for the Washington Senators. Obviously, the Washington Senators are now defunct and the Red Sox–Yankee rivalry is a lot of fun. It opened in 2006 at North Shore, and it was really only supposed to be just for that theater. We were just doing one and that would be it! [The Goodspeed production will be its third, after having also run at Ogunquit Playhouse in 2012.]
How did you approach making creative changes for the adaptation?
The most interesting thing I discovered in research was that people feel the Red Sox were cursed because their owner had traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees to earn money to produce No, No, Nanette on Broadway. He was also interested in shows! I don't know if that's really the reason he traded Babe Ruth, but it's close enough, and I thought, Wow, that's saying that Babe Ruth has cursed the Red Sox this whole time because of a musical…putting that in a musical would be perfect. I always say that before you begin to write, you need to find what makes you connect to it and how you can write it. I was just delighted by this bit of lore, and I thought it was totally the basis for the new version.
Some New Yorkers might wonder if you have an allegiance to the Red Sox…
No, I grew up in New York. Here's my only connection to baseball: My dad played minor league ball for the Brooklyn Dodgers farm team many years ago. I was never particularly into it, but it was a nice sort of connection with my dad to do this baseball story, something I would probably never otherwise have come up with on my own.
The known rivalry is nice because you don't have to explain the hate for the other team. I'm an outsider within that world, so I'm a good person to write it because I don't have any particular biases for either team.
I'm going to throw out some names of projects you have on deck for this year. Can you tell me what excites you about each of them?
Chasing the Song [La Jolla Playhouse, 5/13-6/15] is about what it's like to make music in the 1960s in the Brill Building, and what it's like to be a woman in the 1960s trying to make your way in society as a working woman instead of just someone's wife. It's an innovative musical, and we get to spend two months working on it and performing it. There's nothing that excites me more than that.
Living on Love [Williamstown Theatre Festival, 7/16-7/26] is an adaptation, a throwback to a sophisticated type of 1950s-style comedy, though it's brand-new. It has one set and glamorous costumes and people. It's going to be really fun to revisit it and work again with Kathleen Marshall and Renee Fleming.
Clever Little Lies [Guild Hall, 7/16-8/3] is the same production that was done at George Street Playhouse last year, and it was probably one of the most successful straight plays I've ever done. I love the play, the cast [which includes Marlo Thomas], and I love the director, David Saint.
Last question. In the vein of Damn Yankees' Joe Hardy, if Joe DiPietro was given the chance to go back to being twenty years old, what would you have him do with himself?
If I had a Joe Hardy-type dream, I would either like to become a tennis player and win the U.S. Open, or I would like to be a sprinter and win the 100-meter dash at the Olympics. I was a sprinter and I'm short and stubby, and I wasn't a jock so I didn't really develop myself. But I'm quick!