1955’s Damn Yankees, with a libretto by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, music by Richard Adler, and lyrics by Jerry Ross, is iconic in its own right. It is a retelling of the classic Faust story, with Joe Boyd selling his soul to Mr. Applegate in order to play for his favorite baseball team – the Washington Senators. It marked the first collaboration between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, leading to their multi-decade relationship and partnership. It ran for 1,019 performances on Broadway and spawned a reasonably successful film adaptation in 1958. So, why is Damn Yankees revived so rarely? Aside from a short, but successful, run in 2008 as part of the City Center Encores! Series, the last major American production of the show was its 1994 revival – a revival that ran for over two years, itself. If the show is as popular as it seems, why is it so rarely done outside of schools and other smaller theatres? Perhaps it has something to do with its subject matter and how well it has stood the test of time? That is certainly true for other Golden Age musicals. But is it true for Damn Yankees? Maybe not. In fact, Damn Yankees is one of the rare Golden Age musicals that holds up relatively well. However, there are certainly things that can be done to make it more appealing for a modern audience – most notably an update in its depiction of women.
When thinking about the problems that might prevent Damn Yankees from being more frequently staged, a few ideas might arise. The first: is baseball as relevant today as it once was? Surely changing the sport at the heart of Damn Yankees to something like basketball or football would immediately increase its appeal, right? Well, maybe not. According to the New York Times, while many football and basketball players might have more of a national presence, ticket sales are higher in any given baseball season than they are in any given football or basketball season and the players of local baseball teams are as popular and well-known in their hometowns as football and basketball players are nationwide (Love). So, while this might seem like one of the most obvious problems, it probably is not as relevant as it might seem.
Arguably, the biggest problem impacting Damn Yankees’ ability to be revived is its treatment of women. None of the female characters really exist as characters in their own right but as plot points and obstacles that the male characters must fight against/for and overcome – and this is most true in regards to Lola and Meg Boyd. Of all the female characters in the show, Lola certainly has the most agency but that is not saying much. While she begins as one of Applegate’s lackeys, trying to seduce Joe in an effort to keep him under Applegate’s influence, she quickly changes allegiances and sides with Joe in his quest to best Applegate and return to his normal life.
Lola has a lot of power in the story; she uses her sexuality as a method of getting what she wants, an idea that was fairly progressive for the 1950s but is normal for today. She holds great sway over those she interacts with – as she says in “A Little Brains, A Little Talent,” she knows what her assets are and how to use them. She even gets a fairly meaty character arc throughout the show as she goes from a willing participant in Applegate’s game to an active obstacle. The problem is that she does not have a lot of agency for herself. The bulk of what she does throughout the musical is based on her interactions with Joe. She goes against Applegate’s orders to save Joe, not to save herself. In fact, Lola only seems to exist to give Joe something to resist as he pines after his wife.
Speaking of Joe’s wife, Meg, she has even less agency. In fact, she has so little to do in the musical that she barely registers as a character at all. She exists less as a wholly fleshed out person and more as the ideal of a safe life at home, contrasted with Joe’s dangerous tryst with the devil. Sure, Meg ends up helping Joe in the musical’s second act as she testifies in support of Joe at his hearing, but much like Lola’s actions in support of Joe, Meg does not do this to further her own interests but to help Joe’s.
On a similar note, there is the character of Gloria Thorpe, a reporter who looks into Joe’s past. While Gloria has one of show’s most fun numbers, “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, MO,” and her reporting is what leads to much of the show’s second act, she also only seems to be important when the show needs her to stand in the way of Applegate or Joe. In fact, all of Damn Yankees’ lead female characters seem to only exist in ways that impact Joe’s story instead of ways that impact their own story and it is a big factor in keeping the show from resonating with a modern audience that expects more from a show’s female characters.
So, how could a future revival fix this? There are a few steps that could be taken, the first of which would be to keep most of the changes made in the show’s 1994 Broadway revival. That revival tweaked a few things – including the arrangement of the show’s opening number, “Six Months Out of Every Year,” giving it a more upbeat, tongue-in-cheek feeling that undercuts some of the sexism that might otherwise be inherent in the song, and having Lola take a more active role in the show’s climax by distracting Applegate with “Two Lost Souls,” instead of singing it with Joe as a kind of commiseration as she does in the original version. But these changes are not enough. Some bigger ones need to be made.
The first of these is to beef up Lola’s character arc. If Joe gets to properly struggle against, and eventually overcome, Applegate’s influence, then so should Lola. How did Lola end up in Applegate’s service? What made her decide that was a good idea? Why does she want out now, after all of these years? Answering any – or all – of these questions would help the audience relate to Lola as more than a half-baked antagonist and would bring them into her head, allowing them to actively root for her as well as root for Joe. Seeing Lola try to undermine Applegate and break out from underneath him would make for an interesting subplot that runs parallel to the show’s main plot. Lola could even take a stand for everyone under Applegate’s servitude. She could work to not only free herself, to not only free Joe, but to free everyone. Her fate and her success could still be left in the air, but it would definitely be nice to see her take a more active role in the story.
The biggest change to make would be to combine the characters of Meg and Gloria into once character. In the original show, both of them feel like one half of a whole person. Meg is the ideal wife, waiting calmly at home for her husband to return while Gloria is an antagonistic character who foils several Joe and Applegate’s plans. So, what if the characters were combined? What if Meg worked as a reporter by day, covering sports, and that is why she does not have much of an interest in her husband’s favorite baseball team? Then, when Joe disappears and becomes Joe Hardy, Meg has to go investigate this new golden boy. And as she investigates him, she feels that he is oddly familiar, reminding him of her husband who has recently gone missing. Unlike in the original production, Applegate should not be the one to initially plant the idea that Joe’s background is false/nonexistent; it would be more interesting for Meg to discover this on her own and grapple with what to do with it. She finds herself drawn to this man but she also has a duty to herself and to her profession to share the truths she has learned. This central conflict would give her character something concrete to grapple with.
In the interest of changing as little of the original text as possible, all of the songs would remain the same. Joe could still end up renting a room at Meg’s house, like he does in the original show, but this would just add extra tension to Meg’s job as she is investigating the same man who is boarding at her house – and having him as a boarder borders pretty closely on a conflict of interest. In fact, having this plot element remain would add another layer to Meg’s struggle. Does she want to ruin the life of this man, whom she now has grown close to? She could still decide to ultimately support Joe in his hearing towards the end of the musical, but having it as the culmination of an entire musical’s worth of character development would help her feel like a more active participant in the story. Giving both Meg and Lola more agency could really help the show resonate with a modern audience more than it currently does.
While Damn Yankees has held up fairly well in the nearly seventy years since its premiere, there are certainly some things that could be tweaked to make it more palatable for modern audiences. By giving the female characters in the musical some agency and massively beefing up Meg’s role in the story, Damn Yankees can easily become a show about men and women overcoming temptation instead of just another men’s tale for men. Everyone likes to see characters who are like them exist in media, growing and evolving and having real problems and agency in the stories featuring them. Damn Yankees would benefit much from giving its female characters such agency.
1994 Original Broadway Cast. Damn Yankees: 1994 Original Broadway Cast Recording, 17 May 1994.
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