musicals with sports themes have had a tough time of late on Broadway and Off
Broadway. Dancing in the End Zone, about a confused star college quarterback,
closed after three weeks. Diamonds, a baseball musical revue, got mixed notices
and is on the ropes. Last year, a one-man show about Babe Ruth, The Babe, was
panned and shut down after a handful of performances, and a couple of years
before, The First, a musical about Jackie Robinson, lasted only a month. The
jury is still out on Requiem for a Heavyweight, the late Rod Serling's TV
boxing drama, which was recently revived as a stage production in New York.
So what gives?
Are we to believe that sports themes don't make good theater? A line in one of
the early numbers of Diamonds, sung a bit too exuberantly by someone with the
bill of his baseball cap pushed up, says, "Baseball's like a Broadway
show!" Well, it really isn't.
not theatrical, and the theater is not athletic," says Martin Charnin,
director of The First. He's right. Barring some terrible mistake, a play is
going to be the same, night after night. A sporting event plays with the
loosest of scripts. Anything can, and should, happen.
are uncomfortable seeing athletes onstage. "It's possible," says
Charnin, "that we hold sports heroes in such esteem that we don't want to
see them reduced to any kind of humanity. They're always bigger than life when
we see them and experience them. Invariably when you do a musical about the
internal human qualities of whoever the hero may be, it may take some of the
air out of him." Who, after all, ever paid money to hear Babe Ruth
difficulty is the transfer of sports action from the field to the stage. Even
movies rarely handle it well. Note William Bendix on film trying to swing a bat
like Ruth, or Ronald Reagan trying to throw like Grover Alexander. But then,
actors joined the drama club in high school, not the junior varsity.
Ironically, one of the redeeming qualities of The First was the baseball
action. The actor playing Jackie Robinson had to steal bases on a stage only 55
feet wide. A shifting of scenery altered the audience's perspective at each
base with good effect.
Maybe we don't
like what some plays tell us about sports and our society. Dancing in the End
Zone trots out platitudes about football's being a manifestation of our
culture's destructiveness. The First dredged up unpleasant memories of
But not all shows
with sports themes have done badly. That Championship Season, which has to do
with five former high school basketball players who gather for an annual
reminiscence, was a tremendous Off Broadway hit in 1972 and moved uptown for an
even longer run. Golden Boy, a drama about boxing that hit Broadway in 1937,
was Clifford Odets' greatest success, and the much-changed musical version,
starring Sammy Davis Jr., did well. The Great White Hope, with James Earl Jones
as the first black heavyweight champion, won several awards and had a long run.
And The Changing Room, which takes place in one afternoon in the locker room of
an English rugby team, was well received and did respectably.
The problem isn't
theme but what the writer does with it. The usual pitfalls—bad book, lousy
songs—can beset sports shows as they can any other. "For every good show
about a subject, there's going to be one that's inane," says New York Times
drama critic Frank Rich. "It's simply a coincidence a number of sports
shows have flopped recently."
Sports is no less
legitimate a theme for a play or musical than Seurat's neoimpressionist
painting is for Sunday in the Park with George—not a bad title, by the way, for
a baseball drama set in Yankee Stadium about the fortunes of Mr.
Steinbrenner—or the real-estate business is for Glengarry Glen Ross. Actually,
"theme" is probably the wrong word. Baseball, art, real estate—these
are really the window dressing behind which you find an examination of basic
human motivations. A good show pleases and interests its audience, and a
successful show that has elements of sports in it is not so much about sports
as it is about people. And it is timeless. The real theme of Damn Yankees, the
most successful sports show of all time—a man selling his soul to the devil to
fulfill a dream—derives from a well-worn medieval legend. One even older than
the tale of Abner Doubleday.