In 1994, when the New York Rangers won hockey’s Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940, a man in the stands held up a sign that read: “Now I Can Die in Peace.” Does that seem extreme? Then you must not be a sports fan.
The highs and lows that come with loyalty to a team have more in common with the dramas seen on a Broadway stage than you might initially think. There are heroes and villains, twists and turns, agonies and ecstasies. A standing ovation is just as well learned by a spectacular catch as by a show-stopping dance number. For the truest of fans, sports can feel like the stuff of life and death, and the need to see a beloved team become victorious can take on epic proportions.
That’s how Douglas Wallop was feeling in the 1950s as he watched his Washington Senators play baseball. At the time, the saying around town was, “Washington: first in peace, first in war, last in the American League.” Watching his team lose, particularly to the dynastic Yankees, over and over again, Wallop wondered what a fan might be willing to do to save his team. To be a fan is to be without control, and while you might observe some superstitions in the hope of influencing an outcome (wearing the same socks, eating the same food), there’s little to do but yell at the television when things go awry.
But what if a fan were given the chance to actually change something? Somehow this question made Wallop land on a German legend dating back to the 16th century—that of Faust, who made a deal with the devil himself, trading in his soul as the price for getting what he wanted. In his novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, Wallop brought that same deal into the world of baseball and told the story of a fan who bargained his soul to help the Washington Senators win.
Musicals thrive on high stakes, and what could be more dramatic than a ticket straight to hell? Wallop’s novel was published in 1954, and by 1955 he had teamed up with director/librettist George Abbott and the songwriting team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (hot off the success of The Pajama Game) to bring this story to the stage under the title of Damn Yankees. With choreography by Bob Fosse and a breakout turn by Gwen Verdon as the devil’s henchwoman Lola, the show was a huge success. It won 7 Tony Awards® and ran for more than 1,000 performances.
Damn Yankees remains a beloved show today partially because of its incredible score, packed full of hits like “Whatever Lola Wants” and “Heart.” But it also speaks to the passion that a sports fan of any era feels for their team. The Washington Senators may not be around anymore (they long ago became the Minnesota Twins), but that desperate need to see your team win will never go away. After all, “Now I Can Die in Peace” isn’t so far off from giving your soul to the devil for a pennant, is it?
2017-2018 Season, Special Events