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Theater Continues Its Love Affair With Our National Pastime

Baseball comes to the stage in such shows as Damn Yankees and National Pastime.

Sam Prince, Carson Kressley, and Ray DeMattis in Damn Yankees
(© The Ogunquit Playhouse)
Baseball may be America's premier sport, but how has it fared in the world of theater?

Unquestionably, there have been a few truly memorable meetings: Richard Greenberg's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Take Me Out, the plays Back, Back, Back, Cobb, and The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, the Broadway musical The First (which featured David Alan Grier as Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson) and the Off-Broadway revue Diamonds. (There are also baseball-related songs in Ragtime and Falsettos.)

And if Bombshell -- the musical being created by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman for NBC's Smash -- ever really makes it to Broadway, we'll probably get to see Joe DiMaggio on the Great White Way, even if it's primarily in the guise of Marilyn Monroe's second husband.

Then there is the greatest baseball musical of them all, Damn Yankees, which is currently onstage at Maine's Oguqnuit Playhouse in the revised version written by two-time Tony Award winner Joe DiPietro, and starring Carson Kressley as the devilish Mr. Applegate.

"I think the sport of baseball does lend itself to the physicality of actors and dancers," says DiPietro. "But it can be hard to theatricalize the game itself. You can't really see someone swing the bat or see where the ball goes."

In DiPietro's version of the show, which was originally written a decade ago for Boston's North Shore Music Theatre, the Yankees' rival are no longer the Washington Senators, but the real-life Boston Red Sox. "It's the biggest natural rivalry in baseball. I went to see the show in Ogunquit, and not only did the audience go crazy for the Red Sox references; one guy came to the theater in a Red Sox t-shirt," he says. "Plus, there was the interesting twist of the legendary curse of the Red Sox, which was supposedly caused when one of the team's early owners sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees."

The cast of National Pastime
(© Jeremy Daniel)
Another Red Sox fan and longtime baseball aficionado is songwriter Albert Tapper, who has written the score for the aptly named National Pastime, which is playing at Off-Broadway's Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.

The show, which is the only musical to have performed in the auditorium of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, is aiming for a longer commercial run after this one.

"A few years ago, I went to see my friend Tony Sportiello's one-act play about a small town in Iowa in 1930s, and I know it would make a perfect musical" he says. "Their radio station is almost out of business so they invent these baseball games to air on the radio. They make up this team, the Baker City Cougars, and they become the greatest baseball team that ever existed. It's a bit of an old-time screwball comedy, with sort of a Frank Capra feel."

At one point, Tapper had even considered displaying some of his personal baseball memorabilia at the theater as an added incentive: his collection includes the original home plate from first Yankee Stadium, the cap Bobby Thompson wore during the winning game of the 1951 World Series, and the cleats his hero, Ted Williams, wore during his final professional baseball game.

But in the end, Tapper believes there should be no trouble attracting all sorts of audiences to this show. "I don't think it should be so hard to get sports fans into the theater, especially a show about baseball," he says "After all, there's a certain ballet when someone hits a ground ball or single, and watching everyone on the field all move together - and move beautifully. I think even going to a baseball game is theatrical. And baseball has an aura about it that no other sport has. It really is our national pastime."