WILLIAMSTOWN — During a break from rehearsal at an elementary school here, the songwriting brothers Willie and Robert Reale took a moment to ponder the underlying message of their musical “Johnny Baseball.’’ The show, which explores the fabled “Curse’’ long blamed for the Boston Red Sox’s failure to win a World Series from 1918 to 2004, begins performances Wednesday at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
“So much of the play is about missed opportunities,’’ observed Robert Reale, the show’s composer. Willie Reale, who wrote the lyrics and conceived the story along with playwright Richard Dresser, dryly added, “Eighty-six years of Red Sox history is about missed opportunities.’’
Interestingly, they describe their original version of “Johnny Baseball’’ in similar terms. When the musical about racism, the Red Sox, and a pair of young lovers premiered in 2010 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, the verdict of Dresser and the Reale brothers was: not a home run.
“We learned a lot from watching the audience [at the ART], what worked and what didn’t,’’ said Willie Reale. “We were a little frustrated we didn’t have time to fix things.’’ In a later telephone interview, Dresser said: “We felt we had a lot of work to do. We felt that we could make it a really great show, but we had to throw out some things and have a fresh take on the show while holding on to what clearly worked in Boston.’’
So the creative team suited up again and plunged back into the fictional story of Johnny O’Brien, a white rookie pitcher for the Red Sox (whom a sportswriter nicknames Johnny Baseball), and Daisy Wyatt, an African-American nightclub singer, with a roster of supporting characters that includes Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Tom Yawkey. The show jumps around chronologically, spanning 1919 (Ruth’s last year with the Sox), the 1940s, and 2004, when the Red Sox finally won the World Series.
The pernicious effect of racism is a core theme of “Johnny Baseball.’’ In Act 1, mostly set in 1919-20, prejudice complicates the love affair between the young Johnny and Daisy, and in Act 2, bigotry raises its ugly head even more decisively when an African-American pitcher is granted a tryout at Fenway Park in 1948.
Harry Frazee, the Red Sox owner who sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, earned the undying enmity of generations of Sox fans, giving birth to the notion that the “Curse of the Bambino’’ lay behind the team’s failure to win a World Series for 86 years. But “Johnny Baseball’’ reframes the idea of the Curse, suggesting that it had to do with institutional racism, not the sale of the fabled slugger.
So how much of the show is new? The Reale brothers cut four songs from the original production and wrote six new ones, including “Mister Moon,’’ sung by Daisy while a spark flares between her and Johnny. Dresser rewrote the book so extensively that he estimates the current script is 50 percent new. The story now focuses more intently on the dynamics of the star-crossed love affair between Johnny and Daisy. Daisy is now a bit tougher, more worldly, more of a leader in the relationship, and less of a “country girl’’ than in the original, according to Dresser. The audience gets a more in-depth look at the blossoming of her nightclub career.
“I felt the love story, the center of the story, really needed much more depth and complexity and surprise,’’ said Dresser. “So I really went back to square one. It’s more of a slow build, but you understand how much these people have in common. They’re both outcasts. They both land in Boston not knowing a soul, but they find each other and rescue each other.’’
What Johnny and Daisy do not do a lot of, in the new version, is talk directly about race.
“I felt in the original incarnation there was a little too much of an obvious take on the racism of the era,’’ said Dresser. “I felt that when this interracial couple was together, they should not talk about race. People I know who are in interracial relationships, the issues in the relationship are not racial issues; they’re personal issues: ‘Why don’t you ever do the laundry?’ It seemed like it was a much more interesting way to go, and the audience would connect with them as real people rather than as representatives of something bigger.’’
Consequently, Dresser said, “In the private intimate moments we see in the show, [race] is not what they’re talking about.’’ He added: “Race does have an impact on their relationship, but it’s less obvious. I think it’s more pointed and more devastating the way we have it now.’’
The show reminds audiences that the Red Sox passed up the chance to sign Jackie Robinson and were the last team in Major League Baseball to field a black player: Pumpsie Green, in 1959, a dozen years after Robinson broke the color barrier by playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers (the subject of the recent film “42’’).
“The truth of the troubled racial history is still very much there,’’ said Gordon Greenberg, the show’s director (Diane Paulus, the ART’s artistic director, helmed the 2010 production). “We just don’t need to lean on it. . . . We can focus on the story and let that be the context.’’
The revamped version of “Johnny Baseball’’ features a cast that is almost entirely different from the Cambridge production. James Snyder, who created the title role in the 2008 Broadway production of “Cry-Baby,’’ stars as Johnny O’Brien. Playing Daisy Wyatt is De’Adre Aziza, a Tony Award nominee for her performance in the 2008 production of “Passing Strange.’’
In a telephone interview, Greenberg said that Snyder, as Johnny, “radiates a kind of star quality that makes everyone want to watch him and get involved in his story.’’ As for Aziza, the director said there was no doubt who would play Daisy once she auditioned for the part. “She came in and didn’t sing like everyone else on Broadway,’’ said Greenberg. “She came in and sang like Etta James, and we said, ‘That’s who we want.’ ”
Tom McGowan, best known as Kenny, the nebbishy, insecure radio station manager on “Frasier,’’ radically departs from that character to portray the bawdy, hard-drinking Babe Ruth. The Babe plays a more consequential role in the musical’s plot than he did in the original.
Both Yawkey and Frazee are portrayed by Williamstown Theatre Festival favorite Brooks Ashmanskas, who starred in a memorable production of Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers’’ last summer.
“Johnny Baseball’’ is framed by the fourth game of the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and the Yankees — the one that David Ortiz won with a dramatic homer, triggering an epic comeback and an eventual World Series victory that ended that 86-year drought for Red Sox fans. Anxious Sox fans serve as a kind of Greek chorus in the 2004 scenes of “Johnny Baseball,’’ but the revamped version devotes less time to the diehards of Red Sox Nation.
“We were so enamored of the fans the first time around that we got into their personal stories,’’ said Dresser. “What we realized this time around is we’ve got to stick with Johnny and Daisy and the Curse.’’ With regard to their own rooting interests, Dresser is a Red Sox fan, while the Reale brothers are, ahem, Yankees fans.
Though no members of the creative team would say directly they’ve set their sights on Broadway, they’re clearly hoping this won’t be the last time around for “Johnny Baseball.’’
“This is a show that can really play anywhere,’’ contended Greenberg. “It’s got such a broad appeal to it. What are the two greatest American pastimes? Baseball and musical theater. This is kind of a perfect union of the two. And it handles it in a juicy, entertaining, melodic way, but at the same time it’s got something important on its mind.’’