‘Yankees’ takes swing at Beantown rivalry in new prod’n

Theater, Sox see possible expansion with cross-marketing

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — It won’t be the Washington Senators battling those “Damn Yankees” when the 1955 Richard Adler-Jerry Ross tuner receives a revised revival at North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, Mass.

It will be the Boston Red Sox, longtime rivals to the Gotham baseball dynasty.

But the one-time-only matchup is also serving as a cross-marketing opportunity for not only the theater but the Sox, both of which are interested in expanding into each other’s turf.

John Kimball, executive director of the in-the-round theater located just north of Beantown, was looking for a way for the theater to tap into Boston’s sports mania. By changing the Senators to the Sox in “Damn Yankees,” Kimball felt he found the perfect vehicle to make a familiar title exciting and connect with a wider audience — especially if he tied the show in some way to the 2004 World Series win by the Bosox, its first championship since 1918.

“We started exploring sports-marketing techniques several years ago,” says Kimball, who hired Stuart Layne, a consultant in that field to help the company broaden its 20,000-member subscription base and annual attendance of 355,000 at the 1,500-seat theater, with increased corporate tie-ins.

The American League team as well was also looking for ways to reach beyond its own base, especially to a high-end audience, and turned to Nick Gregorian, senior VP of sales and marketing for the team — Gregorian’s grandfather’s cousin is the musical’s co-composer/lyricist Ross.

“This cross-promotion allows us to combine two of our favorite pastimes: baseball and theater,” Gregorian says. “It’s a win-win situation for both of us.”

Kimball then tapped Joe DiPietro, best known for “All Shook Up” and long-running Off Broadway play “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” but also a scripter who reworked “Babes in Arms” for Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House and “Allegro” for Virginia’s Signature Theater.

“I thought it was a great idea,” says DiPietro, who grew up in New Jersey a Mets fan. “But I really felt excited when I started working the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ into the show.”

The legendary Sox “curse” began when the team sold Babe Ruth — the star of its last World Series win in 1918 — to the Yankees in 1920, allegedly because the Beantown team’s owner needed money to invest in Broadway musical “No, No Nanette.”

However, some have challenged that story, pointing out that the show didn’t made it to Broadway until 1925.

In “Damn Yankees,” a middle-aged fan sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the chance to lead his beloved but hapless team (the Senators) past the unstoppable Yankees.

Problematic for DiPietro was the fact that in the ’50s show, the Senators beat the Yankees — but the Red Sox triumph didn’t come until 2004. DiPietro says he thinks he’s found a way to be true to the ’50s script while noting the 21st-century win and ending the show on a high note.

But you can’t score until you touch all the bases. So in January, Kimball and company pitched the proposal to adapt the musical to the licensing agency Music Theater Intl., composer Adler and Joy Abbott, widow of the show’s original director and co-author George Abbott.

Since it would be a request for a single production in Massachusetts, Adler gave the OK. But Abbott, even though she was attracted to the larger concept of the show, wanted to be sure the script was not compromised.

So some contemporary references were dropped and other changes were made to conform to what she felt was her husband’s style of writing, Kimball says. Last month, the theater presented its new version and received the wave from the umpire to come on home.

Running April 25-May 14, the show will star Jim Walton, Shannon Lewis and George Merrick. Barry Ivan helms the production, which reduces the cast size to 19. (The 1994 Broadway revival had 23; the original had 40.)

Marketing also kicked in to high gear with the Red Sox supplying vintage uniforms for the costume shop to adapt (the originals were wool), photos and memorabilia from the team’s archives for a lobby display, the Red Sox mascot on site for the run, the recorded voice of its Fenway Park announcer in the show and — for opening night — the World Series trophy. Cast members in turn will be singing the National Anthem at games during the run. Discounts will be available to members of the Red Sox fan club as well as to its youngster outreach program.

There are no plans — or approval in place — to take the retooled “Damn Yankees” production beyond Beverly, but Kimball notes that with the success of the new Broadway revival of “The Pajama Game” from the same writing-composing team, there could be renewed interest in the sibling hit, and he is already receiving calls from other regionals.

However, when asked if there was any chance to extend the rights elsewhere, Joy Abbott laughed and said, “No, no, no. It’s so special to the Boston area.”

The last Broadway revival of the show was in 1994, and starred Victor Garber as the devil — and later in the run, Jerry Lewis, who took the musical on the road. The Arena Stage in Washington D.C. had one of its biggest hits with a “Damn Yankees” revival that ended last month. Unsurprisingly, the theater was happy to keep the team the Washington Senators.