"It's a story of the hopes and dreams of what it means to be an American," Diane Paulus says, "and how that was realized, in many ways, through baseball."
Paulus, the new artistic director of American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA, and director of last season's Tony-winning revival of Hair, is talking about Johnny Baseball, a new musical she is directing at her theatre.
"It's about the infamous Curse — about the fact that the Boston Red Sox did not win the World Series from 1919 to 2004. It blends fact and fiction, looks at the reason for the Curse, and takes baseball as a metaphor for social history in America, examining the integration of African-American players into the game."
Johnny Baseball is part of A.R.T.'s America: Boom, Bust and Baseball festival this season. The theatre's critically hailed offering of Elevator Repair Service's Gatz — an approximately six-hour (plus dinner and two intermissions) presentation of every word of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby" — covered the "boom." A revival of Clifford Odets' Paradise Lost, about the Great Depression of the 1930s, handled the "bust."
Johnny Baseball's characters include the legendary Babe Ruth, a Red Sox pitcher before he was traded to the hated New York Yankees; Johnny O'Brien, a player on the 1919 Sox; and Daisy Wyatt, an African-American blues singer whom Johnny loves. Music is by Robert Reale with lyrics by Willie Reale, a team that won Tony nominations for A Year With Frog and Toad in 2003. The libretto is by Richard Dresser, the book writer for the 2005 Broadway musical Good Vibrations.
"They came to me with this project before I knew I was going to be A.R.T.'s artistic director," Paulus says. "When I got the job, I figured if there was one show I might bring along, it just might be this one about the Red Sox."
Paulus says that the musical, and the festival, are examples of "my interest as an artistic director in changing the model of how we produce theatre — not only the shows we choose but how we present them, how we market them. The festival is one of those ideas."
The mission of A.R.T., she says, "is to expand the boundaries of theatre through exploration of the classics and new work. That mission, for me, is a mandate for where I think theatre needs to move in the 21st century."
She has taken A.R.T.'s black-box space and turned it into a "club theatre," where she has presented The Donkey Show, a musical version of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream with popular 1970s music, which she co-directed for a six-year run in New York and then on a world tour.
"I looked at that black-box theatre and thought we could be using it not only to promote a higher activity of work but also explore different revenue sources. It's theatre not limited by chairs bolted to a floor and a certain kind of etiquette. At The Donkey Show, audiences [as they did in New York] dance, drink and socialize while taking in a theatrical event. It's a blending of nightlife and theatre."
Her goal "is to diversify and expand the audience at A.R.T. so it's not just the hard-core inner circle of theatre lovers. It's my desire to attract new constituencies. With Johnny Baseball, I'm hoping to reach out to an audience that might be baseball fans who don't ordinarily go to theatre — to make theatre part of people's lives in a more primary way than it has been."