Friday, January 29, 2010

A WAY OUT


Gwen Verdon, rehearsing on Broadway

George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (writers, based on the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics) Damn Yankees / New York, 46th Street Theatre, May 5, 1955

George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (writers, based on the novel by Douglass Wallop), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics), George Abbott and Stanley Donen (directors) Damn Yankees [film version] / 1958

George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (writers, based on the novel by Douglass Wallop), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics) Damn Yankees / New York, Marquis Theatre, March 3, 1994 / The performance I saw was in 1995.

About twice every summer, Howard and I watch the 1958 movie version of the American hit musical Damn Yankees. In 1995, moreover, we saw the Broadway revival of that musical with Bebe Neuwirth as Lola and Jerry Lewis as Mr. Applegate.

It was only the other night, however, that I realized that this work—which I believe I first witnessed at a community theater production as a child in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—metaphorically expresses the tribulations of those I have described throughout my critical memoirs as the American boy-men: adult males who, through their obsession with their memories of childhood activities, particularly sports, appear unable to cope when faced with their older selves.
I am sure women also have a parallel phenomenon (perhaps in the form of the eternal “beauty queen”), but I have particularly noticed this painful condition in American males when they reach what is generally described as “mid-life crises,” of which the character at the center of Damn Yankees, Joe Boyd, “the most devoted fan of the Washington Senators,” is a perfect example. Six months out of every year, he literally abandons his wife as his attention turns to sports, particularly baseball. But this year, more than ever, he is furious with the Yankees, and is willing to sell his soul for “one long ball hitter.”

Suddenly the devil appears in the form of Mr. Applegate (played on stage and in the film by Ray Walton, who died on New Year’s Day this year), whom passing friends of his wife cannot even see. To them Joe appears to be aging, muttering to himself. No matter; as fast as you can say Hannibal, Mo., Joe signs away his life, and, transformed into a much younger man (played in the movie, somewhat ironically given his gay sexuality, by Tab Hunter), leaves his wife a short note that explains that, while he’ll miss his “old girl,” he must be off.

Although we recognize that in the movie the separation will likely be only temporarily (after all Joe has insisted upon an escape clause), metaphorically speaking his disappearance stands for the thousands of American boy-men who at middle age suddenly seek out women other than their wives and/or are convinced they must escape the “confines” of their marriages (we’ve seen public examples of that behavior in all walks of life, including our Presidents, and I have personally observed such behavior by several of my relatives and friends).
Like many such males, without his marital ties, Joe feels like (and in terms of the play’s device, actually is) a younger man. But we all know that youth, after one has lost it, can never be regained “as it was.” Joe can suddenly hit the ball out of the ballpark, but he is clearly unprepared for his transformation—he literally cannot fit into his shoes—and as he explores his new-found youth, he is as shy and bashful as a virgin.

In his newly discovered role as a handsome young man, he can barely tolerate the advances of Applegate’s minion, Lola, a sexy bombshell (brilliantly played in the original production and the movie by Gwen Verdon) who climbs around, over, and across his body in her attempt to seduce him (“Whatever Lola Wants”). Tab Hunter’s obvious discomfort in the role is absolutely perfect, for whatever new-found power and freedom Joe now feels, he is quite unable to consummate a new relationship, and, consequently, seeks out a way to return secretly to his abandoned wife.
But then Joe has the advantage of looking unlike his previous self, and it is likely that, having him rent a room in her house, Joe’s wife, Meg, feels some vague sexual excitement herself.

The joy of this work is our observation of the mad machinations of the Devil in disguise, Applegate, as he attempts to cheat Joe out of the agreement and send him on his way to eternal damnation—which in the 1950s was what some folk deemed as the natural punishment for such behavior. And ultimately, Joe feels as lost in his new identity as Lola is in hers—having been centuries ago transformed from the ugliest woman in Provincetown, Rhode Island to the beauty she is now. Ross and Adler’s lovely lament of their condition, “Two Lost Souls”—

Two lost sheep, in the wilds of the hills
Far from the other Jacks and Jills, we wandered away and went astray
But we ain't fussin'
Cuz we've got "us'n"

We're two lost souls on the highway of life
And there's no one with
whom we would ruther
Say, "Ain't it just great, ain't it just grand?"
We've got each other!

—speaks of their estrangement from life. Enraged by Lola’s betrayal, Applegate transforms Lola back into an ugly hag, and, as Joe reaches for a catch at the end of the final game, changes him back into the middle-aged misfit he was at the beginning of the movie. Suddenly, they do not even have that lamentable friendship.

Despite Applegate’s fury, however, Joe does catch the ball, saving the day and dashing off to return to his marriage with Meg.

As the Devil attempts to convince Joe to return, Joe begs Meg to hold him tightly as he sings of his failed attempt to solve the fears and frustrations of old age:

A man doesn't know what he has until he loses it,
When a man has the love of a woman he abuses it,
I didn't know what I had when I had my old love,
I didn't know what I had 'til I said, "Goodbye, old love!"
Yes, a man doesn't know what he has 'til it is no longer around
But the happy thought is
Whatever it is he's lost, may some day once again be found!

So ends Douglass Wallop’s and George Abbott’s fable about mid-life male infidelity in the “Age of Anxiety.” Would that all such suffering men could so clearly perceive their inevitable fates.

Los Angeles, August 16, 2008

No comments:

Post a Comment