Monday, August 22, 2022

Crowd Pleasers: Damn Yankees and Gaslight at the Shaw Festival

Jay Turvey with the Ballplayers in Damn Yankees, at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross might have entered the pantheon of Broadway songwriters if fate hadn’t extinguished their star so fast. Adler was thirty-one and Ross twenty-eight when George Abbott commissioned them to write the score for The Pajama Game (1954), adapted by Abbott and Richard Bissell from Bissell’s novel 7-1/2 Cents, about the tensions between labor and management in a Midwestern pajama factory. It was a legendary show: Abbott and Jerome Robbins co-directed, a young Bob Fosse staged the dances, and it ran for three years. (A boisterous movie version in 1957, helmed by Abbott and Stanley Donen, captures the spirit of the original, with all but two members of the Broadway cast reprising their performances.) In 1955 lightning struck again for Adler and Ross with Damn Yankees. Adapted by Abbott and Douglass Wallop from Wallop’s book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, Damn Yankees was as big a hit as The Pajama Game. But six months after its triumphant premiere, Ross died suddenly of lung disease. Adler never had another success, alone or with a collaborator, though his lovely score for the South Africa-set musical Kwamina, which he wrote for his wife, Sally Ann Howes, is ripe for rediscovery. (Its interracial love story was undoubtedly too controversial for 1961.)