The drama of baseball finds its way to the stage with the musical "Johnny Baseball," based on the (now-broken) frustrations of the Boston Red Sox.
Life changed for Richard Dresser on Oct. 27, 2004. On that night, his beloved Boston Red Sox released him from the haunting and defining myth of his existence: They won the World Series. The dreaded curse that had hexed Red Sox fans in 1946, 1967, 1975, 1978, 1986, 2003 and countless other seasons -- had been broken. For the first time since 1918, pandemonium reigned in New England.
And Dresser had a happy ending for "Johnny Baseball," the Red Sox musical he wrote with brothers Rob (lyricist) and Willie (composer) Reale. The show, which had its premiere (naturally) at American Repertory Theatre outside Boston in 2010, opens in previews Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.
In popular lore, the "Curse of the Bambino" befell the Red Sox after they sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920. Ruth's Yankees became the most-storied team in the sport, and the once-dominant Red Sox were frustrated at every turn. Dresser and the Reale boys propose in their musical that the real cause of this losing streak was a different babe, who was affected by the racial climate of Boston.
"That's all I'll say; I don't want to spoil it," Dresser said the other day at Park Square.
"Johnny Baseball" might just be one more sports-related stage show -- only Boston audiences that have seen it can judge that. However, the real drama exists in the creative team. The Reales are Yankees fans from New York. Dresser would have cheered for Stalin had the old Communist ever fielded a team against the Yankees. Willie Reale sat with five Red Sox fans at Yankee Stadium when it appeared they had the New Yorkers beaten in the 2003 American League Championship Series. He watched those same friends blink back tears after the Yankees snatched the game away in the last two innings.
"I couldn't gloat," Reale said. "That would have been like hurting a kitten, they were so devastated."
Reale and Dresser have theater in common, though, having collaborated from way back. So when Reale phoned to console Dresser after the 2003 debacle, he mentioned they should have lunch and talk about the rich history and drama evident in the "Curse."
What's real, what's fiction
The Red Sox had won five of the first 15 World Series, with Ruth a key part of the 1916 and 1918 championships, primarily as a pitcher. He switched to the outfield and led the league in home runs in 1919. Then, just before the 1920 season, Boston owner Harry Frazee sold his prize player to the Yankees, using the cash to finance Broadway musicals -- or so the rumor went. Whatever, Ruth became a legend in the Bronx, and the Yankees, who never had won the Series before the Babe's arrival, now have 27 championship rings.
Dresser's play uses the Ruth incident as the jumping-off point, but he and the Reales involve a different young pitcher, Johnny Baseball (played by Joshua James Campbell) and an African-American jazz singer (Timotha Lanae). Their romance contains the seeds that grew into Red Sox futility.
Zach Curtis will play Ruth. The cast also includes Kasono Mwanze, Paul Coate and Kim Kivens. Jim Lichtscheidl is taking a turn as choreographer.
Dresser and the Reales deal in fiction, but they wanted to be accurate where the historic record was an issue. The debut at ART demonstrated how important that precision was. Fans, or theatergoers if you must, showed up in Red Sox hats, jerseys, uniforms, even cleats. They recalled one such gentleman who spoke at a post-show talkback. Dresser and the Reales were nervous when he rose to take the microphone, assuming he would pick apart the script.
"He said, 'I've been following the team for my entire life,'" Dresser recalled. "Thank you for telling the truth."
Musing on which years hurt the most in his Red Sox life, Dresser ticked off several -- with commentary on each often provided by the Reales, usually because the ballfield disasters involved the Yankees. Dresser did not, however, mention the epic 1986 blunder that let the Mets take one away.
"The only reason I can get up in the morning is because I blotted that year out of my mind," he said. "I just can't think about that one."
That's a serious baseball fan.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299
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