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'Damn Yankees' DVD Revival Showcases Fosse And Verdon's 1st Collaboration


This is FRESH AIR. Earlier this year, an Emmy-nominated TV miniseries drama called "Fosse/Verdon" told the story of the complicated personal and working relationship of two Broadway legends, choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon. Sam Rockwell played Fosse and Michelle Williams, who just won an Emmy for her role, played Verdon. In real life, the actual Fosse and Verdon first collaborated on the 1955 musical "Damn Yankees" and Warner Archive has reissued the DVD of the movie version. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.


RUSS BROWN: (As Benny Van Buren) Now, listen to me. This game of baseball is only one half skill. The other half is something else, something bigger. (Singing) You gotta have heart. All you really need is heart. When the odds are saying you'll never win, that's when the grin should start. You gotta have hope.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: The musical "Damn Yankees" opened on Broadway in 1955 and ran for over a thousand performances. It was the irresistible dancer Gwen Verdon's first starring role, and she would win a Tony. The choreographer for "Damn Yankees" was Bob Fosse, who had appeared in several movie musicals and had only the year before made his Broadway debut as a choreographer in "The Pajama Game," which also ran for over a thousand performances. Fosse's scintillating choreography for the song "Steam Heat" became a dance landmark. The songs for both "The Pajama Game" and "Damn Yankees" were by the same songwriting team, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, whose hit songs for these shows included "Hey, There," "Hernando's Hideaway," "You Gotta Have Heart" and "Whatever Lola Wants." Adler and Ross were on their way to becoming Broadway's next Rodgers and Hammerstein, but, tragically, Ross died of a lung ailment at the age of 29.

"Damn Yankees" is the story of a middle-aged baseball fan named Joe who sells his soul to the devil to become a great young player who can help his team, the Washington Senators, win the championship. But when Joe misses his wife and wants out of the agreement, the devil sends in Lola - Gwen Verdon, of course - whose motto is whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. But instead of seducing Joe, she falls in love with him.

Most of the original Broadway cast joined Verdon in the film, though Broadway's original Joe was replaced by teen idol Tab Hunter, who's not much of an actor here, although his sincerity is touching. Verdon's comic Spanish accent and cartoonish Fosse strip tease make the song more a parody of a seduction, unlike the smoky hit recording made by Sarah Vaughan. Here's Gwen Verdon in the movie.


GWEN VERDON: (As Lola, singing) Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. And, little man, little Lola wants you. Make up your mind no regrets. Recline yourself. Resign yourself. You're through. I always get...

SCHWARTZ: The devil, called Mr. Applegate, is played by the sly Ray Walston, probably best known for playing the title role in the '60s TV show "My Favorite Martian." In the movie, as in the show, his big solo is a parody of an old-time vaudeville number, "Those Were The Good Old Days," in which he celebrates some of the world's worst atrocities.


RAY WALSTON: (As Mr. Applegate, singing) I see cannibals munchin' a missionary luncheon. Years may have flown off, but the memory stays, like the hopes that were dashed when the stock market crashed. Yeah, those were the good old days. I'd walk a million miles or more for some of the gore of those good old days.

SCHWARTZ: The main reason this is a must-see movie is a number the "Fosse/Verdon" TV series devotes practically an entire episode to. Before the Broadway opening of "Damn Yankees," the producers decide to cut a big production number, which enrages Fosse. But when Adler comes up with a new tune, he lights up. It's called "Who's Got The Pain." And it pokes fun at the grunting noises that come with the latest dance craze, the mambo.

On TV, Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell dance together in the Broadway show. In fact, on Broadway, Fosse was only the choreographer and never appeared on stage at all. But in the movie, Fosse - in a cameo role - and Verdon actually dance together.

The number has nothing to do with the story, but they are electric. Every one of their body parts seems to be simultaneously in motion. Even their eyes are dancing together. For three minutes and 39 seconds, "Who's Got The Pain" captures these two Broadway icons at the beginning of their relationship and at the height of their power.


GWEN VERDON AND BOB FOSSE: (As Lola and character, singing) Ugh. Who's got the pain when they do the mambo? Who's got the pain when they go ugh? How's got the pain when they do the mambo? I don't know who. Do you? Who needs a pill when they do the mambo? Who needs a pail when they go ugh? Who needs a pill when they mambo? I don't know who. Do you? Someone must be sick with the heat or stepping on everyone's feet. But if everyone's feeling OK, why don't they just say ole when the music carries them away? Ugh.

SCHWARTZ: Thanks to YouTube, you can see Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon dancing together on a number of '50s TV shows. But the movie version of "Damn Yankees" is the only time they dance together on the big screen. And their sparks set it on fire.

BIANCULLI: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He reviewed the movie version of the Broadway musical "Damn Yankees," available now as a Warner Archive DVD. Coming up, I review "The Politician," the new Netflix series from Ryan Murphy. It stars Ben Platt from the Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED KATZ'S "OLD PAINT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.