Despite the old stereotype that theatre and sports don’t mix, musical theatre has tackled a number of sporting events, whether it’s a show with a plot all about sports, like Damn Yankees, or just a single number, like “She Likes Basketball” from Promises, Promises.
With Major League Baseball's Opening Day March 28, we’re taking a look at seven times musical theatre sang about baseball, from drama in the stands to musicalizations of the games themselves.
1. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”
The most iconic and ubiquitous song about baseball ever comes from the theatre; the story behind the famous tune—which, to be fair may be partly apocryphal—is that Vaudeville entertainer Jack Norworth was riding the subway in the summer of 1908 when he saw a sign advertising a baseball game. The sign, which simply read “Baseball Today—Polo Grounds,” got Norworth thinking that the beloved “American pastime” might make a good basis for a song. He collaborated with composer Albert Von Tilzer after he’d written the lyrics, and soon enough they had a song. Norworth and his wife, Nora Bayes, performed the song on the Vaudeville stage and it became an immediate hit. Strangely enough, historians can’t point to it being played in a ballpark—its most frequent venue today—until 1934, 26 years after Norworth made it an audience favorite on the stage.
2. “Heart,” Damn Yankees
Richard Adler, Jerry Ross, George Abbott and Douglass Wallop’s 1955 Broadway hit Damn Yankees is a retelling of the Faust legend, setting it in 1950s Washington, D.C. and the world of baseball. Middle-aged Joe Boyd, a fan of the unsuccessful Washington Senators baseball team, sells his soul to the devil to become Joe Hardy, the young pitch hitter that could be exactly what the Senators need. Obviously lots of the show deals with baseball, but “(You Gotta Have) Heart” may be the most iconic, as it features the Senators in their uniforms singing about how to keep their chins up despite their failings as a team.
3. “T-E-A-M,” You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown Listen here.
Charlie Brown is probably more famous for the football games in the cartoon strip, but when it was musicalized, Clark Gesner decided to dramatize a baseball game played by the young friends. Charlie Brown, as he writes to his pen pal, narrates the tumultuous game. Balls are caught and dropped, Snoopy bites the opposing team, and Linus catches fly balls with his blanket, all leading up to Charlie Brown at bat with two men on and two outs. As the climactic final pitch comes in, Charlie gets distracted by the red-headed girl and misses the ball. Good grief!
4. “What You’d Call a Dream,” Diamonds
Diamonds isn’t the most well-known show; it opened Off-Broadway in 1984 and only ran for three months. The show featured a collection of scenes and songs all about baseball—hence the title—written by a variety of composers, lyricists and book writers including Alan Menken, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Larry Grossman, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Cy Coleman, and Howard Ashman. “What You’d Call a Dream,” with music and lyrics by Craig Carnelia, is probably the most-famous of the show’s songs, in which the singer recounts a memory of a successful game-winning run in the ninth inning with his father in the crowd. In addition to becoming a popular audition selection for male musical theatre actors, the song has been recorded by such artists as Aaron Tveit, James Barbour, and Philip Quast.
Another song worth looking up from Diamonds is “Song for a Hunter College Graduate,” written by Howard Ashman and Jonathan Sheffer, which, like Ragtime’s “What a Game,” juxtaposes a proper and scholarly college graduate with the trash talker she becomes in the stands of a baseball game.
5. “What a Game,” Ragtime
Being about America at the turn of the century, putting a song about baseball into Ragtime seems almost compulsory, and composer/lyricist team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens didn’t disappoint. “What a Game” provides a rare light moment in an otherwise heavy second act as Father takes his son, Edgar, to a baseball game. Father waxes poetic about baseball being a genteel and high-brow game, only to then find himself and his son surrounded by a crowd of raucous, spitting, and epithet-throwing drunks. The scene allows Ahrens and Flaherty, along with book writer Terrence McNally, to explore the show’s larger theme—the challenges created by cohabitation in the American melting pot—from a more humorous angle.
Currently back on Broadway in its first revival, Falsettos features a scene in its second act at a little league baseball game. Young Jason plays as his family watches, cheers him on, and cringes at his mistakes. “We’re watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball,” sing composer and lyricist William Finn’s characters. The bulk of the song focuses on the drama in the stands—Marvin’s ex-boyfriend arrives to watch the game, much to the dismay of his ex-wife Trina—but luckily for Jason, the song ends with a successful hit!
7. “The National Pastime,” Bombshell (Smash) Listen here.
Written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (or was it Tom Levitt and Julia Houston?), “The National Pastime” features Marilyn Monroe, newly dating Joe DiMaggio, getting a crash course in the sport of baseball courtesy of a team of dancing chorus boys and as many double-entendres as could be crammed into two-and-a-half minutes. The song premiered in the pilot episode of Smash, but with rumors persisting of a real-life Broadway production of Bombshell, we may just see the song make its stage debut as well.