WILLIAMSTOWN -- If there's one thing the collaborators behind the Red Sox musical "Johnny Baseball" know about, it's second chances.
When the musical debuts this week on the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage, playwright Richard Dresser and songwriting brothers Willie and Robert Reale, will be taking a second swing at presenting "Johnny Baseball" to the public -- an almost completely revamped version since its first run at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) in 2010.
‘I think it's great to give ‘Johnny Baseball' a second chance," WTF Artistic Director Jenny Gersten said during a recent press conference at the Williams Inn. "When it was done at the ART, it was a great first look at that musical, but as we all know, musicals take a great long while to figure out."
Billed as the "quintessential American musical," Johnny Baseball brings to life the "Curse of the Bambino" through the stories of three orphaned souls -- hard-luck 1919 Red Sox right-hander Johnny O'Brien; his idol, Babe Ruth, and Daisy Wyatt, a dazzling African-American blues singer. Their intertwining fates reveal the source of the curse and the secret to its triumphant end in 2004, while also examining social and racial undertones that have impacted the team throughout its history.
"We started talking about this musical in 2003 when Aaron Boone hit that cheap tragic home run ...," Dresser said. "My collaborators, both Yankee fans, called up not to gloat, but with this notion that maybe the team really was cursed. Then [the Red Sox] won in 2004. We felt we couldn't do this musical because there was no curse, but then we realized the Red Sox had given us the end of the show."
Since debuting in 2010, the musical has been through several workshop performances and numerous rewrites. Songs have been deleted, others added. Characters have been rewritten, roles expanded and themes softened.
"There were too many times in the script, where we were coming up boldly about racism. There were all these things that played a part in the production that we ultimately took out," Dresser said. "It's really a great thing to have another shot. There's six new songs. About 60 percent of the book is new. It has a completely new look and feel."
Director Gordon Greenberg, who recently joined the production, described it as "a really joyful collaboration" and "one of the most democratic, current and American new musicals I've worked on in a long time."
"It tells this wildly theatrical story, which is still rooted in what we all know and love: baseball and Massachusetts," he said. "Yet it stands for something much more bigger. It uses baseball as an allegory for America and it explores the causes of racism, the ideas of redemption and second chances, letting go, broadening your perspective -- all kinds of healthy, adult ideas -- but it comes in this juicy, joyful, sugary, fun package."
One of the most prevalent changes in the musical is the expansion and deeper look at the love story between Johnny O'Brien and Daisy, who's also been transformed from a wide-eyed country girl to a stronger version -- a woman intent on becoming something in a world that sees her as an outcast.
Actress De'Adre Aziza, who plays Daisy, said she fell in love with the character because of her strength and the women she represents -- women who rolled the dice and struck out on their own to follow their dreams.
"I won't call her a dreamer, but she has huge dreams. She is ambitious. In doing research, I found there were so many young black women in that time just trying to make a place in the world and figure out their place in society without really any laws to protect them," she said. "If you look at that time span -- post emancipation to that time period (1919), it's just one generation away -- they probably had parents coming from very unfortunate circumstances. But it was that idea of possibility and potential [that motivated them]."
Book by Richard Dresser
Music by Robert Reale
Lyrics by Willie Real
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Cast: De'Adre Aziza, James Snyder, Tom McGowan, Brooks Ashmanskas, Joe Cassidy, Derrik Baskin, Allan H. Green, Rodger Robinson, Kelly Karbacz, Andrew Kober, Rebecca LaChance, Kyle Cameron, Molliann McCully
When: July 24 to Aug. 3
Where: Nikos Stage, Williamstown Theatre Festival
Tickets: $55; Purchase by phone: 413-597-3400; online at wtfestival.org or at the Box Office at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St., Williamstown