So from what I understand, there are these things called sports which are like musicals in that the performers rehearse for a long time and then perform in front of an audience but unlike musicals they don’t have production numbers and you never know the end until you get there, which I guess is like The Mystery of Edwin Drood but with less sparkly costumes. And apparently one of those sports is called baseball, which you may be familiar with from its supporting role in Damn Yankees.
Okay, okay, I’m kidding, I was totally forced to play a year of Little League before I was old enough to self-advocate for theater camp, and also I live in the world, so I know all about baseball and could even debate the wisdom of the designated hitter rule if it would keep a cute boy talking to me a bit longer.
“Why is this relevant?” I hear you cry.
Because my (mother’s) beloved Red Sox are headed to the World Series!!!
(Actually, I think they’re already there by the time you read this, but I was busy at the screening of Merrily We Roll Along and wasn’t it just fabulous?)
I grew up in Boston, so it is my birthright to root for the Red Sox and curse the Yankees no matter how little I actually give a shit. This also means that I grew up steeped in the mythology of The Curse of the Bambino.
Since the curse was lifted almost a decade ago, I’m going to assume that at least some of our readers aren’t familiar with it, so let me lay a little Wikipedia on you:
“The Bambino” was the nickname of Babe Ruth, who was a famous baseball player before he was a disappointing candy bar. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman almost wrote a musical about him, but they were working on Little Shop of Horrors at the same time, and they started getting into fights with the fellow writing the book for Babe, so they cut their losses, put all their energies into Little Shop, and abandoned that project. (You can hear a couple of numbers on Debbie Gravitte’s excellent Alan Menken Album, though.)
Anyway, Babe Ruth played for the Red Sox in their World Series winning 1918 season. Just like Broadway gets really boring after the Tony Awards, baseball apparently has an off-season after the World Series ends that lasts until spring training. For the laypeople among us, we’ll call that season winter. Anyway, that winter, Harry Frazee, the owner of the Sox, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees because apparently baseball works just like slavery, I don’t know.
Why, you might ask, would Frazee sell one of his best and most famous players? Fucked if I know. From what I understand, Ruth’s brilliance really emerged in that final season he played with the Red Sox, and he set a team record for hitting the most grand slams in one season (four) that has yet to be broken. But here’s what I do know — Frazee, like all rightly-thinking wealthy people, liked to invest in Broadway theater. That takes money. And with a full producing slate on the docket, Frazee needed to liquefy some of his assets, so he sold Ruth to the Yankees. I’m told that sale was the most profitable baseball had yet seen, so that’s probably all you need to know.
Broadway lore tells us that the show Frazee financed with the Babe Ruth money was No, No, Nanette. So in a way, the charming Vincent Youmans show that gave us such standards as “Tea for Two” and “I Want To Be Happy” is directly responsible for the suffering of generations of Red Sox fans. How, you ask? Well, following the departure of Babe Ruth from the team, the Sox didn’t win another World Series again until 2004, a story you might know from Fever Pitch, which will probably end up on Broadway with a score by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones by the 2020 season. Anyway. That multi-generation losing streak became known — somewhat tongue-in-cheek — as The Curse of the Bambino. (BTW. In case it wasn’t clear where Frazee’s true heart was, by the time Nanette was on its feet, he had entirely divested himself of the Red Sox.)
As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that Broadway lore in this case is wrong. Frazee financed a number of shows between the sale of Ruth and the advent of No, No, Nanette. That said, one of those shows was a non-musical play called My Lady Friends that served as the basis for No, No, Nanette, so that’s basically the same. And besides, why let a silly thing like truth get in the way of a good story?
But I digress. Because none of this is the “real” Curse of the Bambino anyway. Oh, no. You’ve got to wait another 50 odd years to get to that, my theater-loving friends. For you see, the story of No, No, Nanette did not end in the ’20s.
In 1970 the piece was dusted off by a whole new team and given a new book by the hilarious Burt Shevelove (who had previously written A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and who also directed this Nanette), new orchestrations by Ralph Burns (with vocal arrangements by Buster Davis and dance arrangements by Luther Henderson), and fabulous dancing by Donald Saddler, under the “supervision” of legendary film choreographer Busby Berkeley. In the aftermath of the tumultuous 60s, nostalgia was in (remember, this was the same year, though not the same Broadway season, as Follies), and Broadway had never seen a revival quite like this.
The new No, No, Nanette was an enormous hit, and it signaled to producers that old shows + new talent fiddling with the script and score = big bucks. It’s not that revivals hadn’t existed before, but prior to Nanette, they either more or less replicated original productions (and often at City Center or Lincoln Center), or they were small, off-Broadway affairs. There were notable exceptions: no two productions of Show Boat were ever the same, and the Lincoln Center revival of Annie Get Your Gun famously dropped two characters and their songs to make room for a new showstopper, “Old Fashioned Wedding.” But the wholesale overhaul of Nanette without the participation of its original creators, and the enormous success of that endeavor, really gave birth to the era of the Broadway “revisal” in which we are still living.
So in some way, if you hated seeing “I Say A Little Prayer For You” shoehorned into Promises, Promises, or if you cringed when Bart Sher decided that South Pacific needed an extra song and more graphic racism, you can blame Babe Ruth or Harry Frazee (or both) and chalk it up to the lingering aftermath of the Real Curse of the Bambino.