When Damn Yankees opened on Broadway 26 years ago, no one really expected it to be much good. I mean, a baseball musical? Come on. Baseball movies were awful. How could a stage show be any better? But Damn Yankees was better, a lot better. It had wonderful tunes, lively lyrics, great dancing, a glorious star named Gwen Verdon and an honest-to-God plot. It's still being staged—Joe Namath starred in a damp version at the Jones Beach Theater in New York last summer—and it's as much fun today as it was in the 1950s.
Now you'd think, in view of Damn Yankees' lucrative success, that show-biz people, with their penchant for blind imitation, would have followed it with one baseball show after another in an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle again. But I can't recall another diamond-based musical coming to Broadway until last week, when The First, based on Jackie Robinson's arrival in organized baseball, opened at the Martin Beck Theatre in Manhattan. That's when I understood why there had been no previous attempts, for the skepticism was still there.
Baseball? On Broadway? That's a joke. It can't work. The theatrical purists who write drama criticism for the three New York daily newspapers conceded that the production has some charm but appeared to be more interested in cutting the show down with those arch comments that make a critic's day: "The First never gets to first base" (chuckle) and "The First is one long seventh-inning stretch" (hee-hee) and "It's not exactly hitting a home run" (Oh Lord, that's clever).
But the fact is The First is an entertaining—if imperfect—show that does an admirable job of presenting a momentous occasion in American sport and, for that matter, American history. It's not comic fiction, like Damn Yankees, and it inevitably distorts some characters and events in a way that will annoy knowledgeable people, but it works. David Alan Grier, the 25-year-old Yale Drama School graduate who plays Robinson, evokes the first black major-leaguer's imposing presence, his intelligence, his restlessness, his smoldering fury. Without resorting to obvious imitation, Grier re-creates Robinson's distinctive pigeon-toed walk, the way he ran with his hands flailing in front of him, the arrogant, dignified curl of his lip. Grier's Robinson is believable, which to me is astonishing.
Just as astonishing is David Huddleston's performance as Branch Rickey, president of the Dodgers, who brought Robinson into the majors. Before one of the National League pennant playoff games this October between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Montreal Expos, Bryant Gumbel presented a salute to Robinson on NBC-TV, because Robinson had broken into organized ball with Montreal and starred with the Dodgers. During that program, some clips of The First, then in rehearsal, were shown. At that time Darren McGavin was playing Rickey, and in the clips he was terrible. I don't know whether McGavin jumped or was pushed, but he left the cast and was replaced by Huddleston, who is perfect as the somewhat pompous snake-oil salesman, preacher and practical man that Rickey was. Even the New York News's acerbic sports columnist Dick Young, who tends to find fault with almost everything, wrote that Huddleston's performance was remarkable. Young, who covered the Rickey-Robinson Dodgers, said Huddleston had Rickey's voice, Rickey's mannerisms, Rickey's walk. "He was Branch Rickey," Young marveled. Young objected to some of the historical liberties Joel Siegel took in writing The First, but he also said, "I enjoyed the show immensely."
David Chapman's settings, evocative of the ancient girders of Ebbets Field, the famous outfield wall, the antique scoreboard, are perfect, and the lighting by Marc B. Weiss extraordinary. The songs (by Bob Brush, with lyrics by Martin Charnin) aren't in a class with those of Damn Yankees, but there are lively numbers and some funny, occasionally touching lyrics. There's an obvious but nonetheless hilarious operatic takeoff using just the name of Cookie Lavagetto, an aging Dodger whose last season was Robinson's first. There's also a clever quintet in which Rickey and Brooklyn Manager Leo Durocher (Trey Wilson) play cards with three anti-Robinson ballplayers and demonstrate with poker hands and deft lyrics why a proposed strike against Jackie won't work.
I saw The First two nights after it opened, after the derogatory reviews had appeared. I eavesdropped at intermission and after the final curtain, trying to find out what the audience thought. Repeatedly, I heard people say, almost with embarrassment, almost apologizing for being so gauche as to disagree with the critics, "I like it."
So do I.