Earlier this year, the return of fans to Yankee Stadium, first in limited capacities and then with unrestricted attendance, marked a major milestone in the reopening of New York, a city that was both among the first cities hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and among its hardest hit. This week saw another major stage in the city’s return to (a new) normalcy, as Broadway’s biggest shows — Wicked, Hamilton, and The Lion King — returned to the stage, continuing the ongoing reopening of America’s largest theatre district.
Not surprisingly given their shared locale, the Yankees and Broadway have long had their paths intersect over the course of their history. In fact, even the origin story of the Bronx Bombers has Broadway ties, as legend has it that the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 because owner Harry Frazee, the Broadway producer who founded the Longacre Theatre on West 48th Street, needed money for the musical No, No, Nanette. As funny as it would be for this story to be true, it’s easy to disprove, as No, No, Nanette did not premiere until 1925, a full five years after the Ruth trade and after Frazee sold the Red Sox. Although the play upon which No, No, Nanette was based, My Lady Friends, did open the same month as the trade, it had already opened and was wildly successful; the connection between Ruth and Broadway was nothing more than a tall tale.
The clearest intersection between the Yankees and Broadway came over thirty years later, through the musical Damn Yankees. Written after the Casey Stengel-led Yankees won five straight World Series titles (and 12 in 19 years, dating back to the Joe McCarthy era), the 1955 musical by George Abbott, Douglass Wallop, Richard Adler, and Jerry Ross tells the story of a Washington Senators fan who makes a deal with the devil to become the “long ball hitter” that the Senators needed to beat “those damn Yankees.” Although, in truth, the Yankees are more a MacGuffin than an antagonist, their role as the titular antagonist in the musical and its subsequent film adaptation in many ways anticipated their villainous appearances in films like Major League.
The next major appearance by the Yankees as an organization within a Broadway show came in 2014, as the Yankees and Major League Baseball combined with Tony-nominated Eric Simonson playwright on Bronx Bombers, a play in which Yogi Berra interacts with a number of Yankees stars from throughout the organization’s history, from Ruth to Derek Jeter, while trying to smooth over issues between Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin following their infamous fight. The third of a series of Simonson’s shows based on individuals from sports, following the 2010 play Lombardi and 2012’s Magic/Bird, the show was successful during its limited off-Broadway run but bombed on Broadway, closing within a month of opening after just 29 performances.
Just two years later, the Yankees would return to the Broadway stage in the 2016 musical A Bronx Tale, an adaptation of Chazz Palminteri’s 1989 one-act play and 1993 movie of the same name. An fictionalized version of Palminteri’s life, the musical centers on a young Calogero Anello’s encounters with the violence world of organized crime. Because the show takes place on Belmont Ave in the Bronx (also known as Arthur Ave or Little Italy in the Bronx), the Yankees feature prominently — not only does the young Calogero wear a Yankees jacket during the first few scenes of the show, there is an entire song about Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, “Look to Your Heart.”
A Bronx Tale ran for 700 shows, from December 1st, 2016, to August 5th, 2018, in the Longacre Theatre, the very same place founded by the former Red Sox owner. While it is purely coincidental that the beginnings of our story and the most recent major representation of the Yankees on Broadway, there is a certain symmetry to it that is downright theatrical.
Over the years, members of the Yankees organization have had close relationships with Broadway. Although Suzyn Waldman is known primarily in this space as John Sterling’s partner on the WFAN radio broadcast of Yankees game, prior to her career in sports, Waldman was a musical theatre actress, including a major role in Man of La Mancha as Dulcinea (she has also had roles in Nine and No, No, Nanette). More recently, CC Sabathia made a cameo appearance as “Bourbon Room Bartender” in the off-Broadway production of Rock of Ages as part of a benefit to support the the Carlos Beltrán Foundation.
Even off the stage, the Yankees organization remains a constant presence in the city’s thespian community, as they apparently sponsor the Broadway Show League, a Central Park softball league that of actors, stagehands, designers, orchestra members, and front of house workers throughout Broadway. Divided into 22 teams across three divisions based on their show and/or union affiliation, they play 10-game seasons and full playoffs, plus All-Star Games, Old Timers’ games, and charity events. What role the Yankees have exactly in this organization, I cannot tell for certain, but their website has “Presented by the New York Yankees” plastered at the top of it, so I imagine they do something important behind the scenes. At the moment, the league is currently on hiatus due to the pandemic, but it expects to return next March.
As you can see, the New York Yankees and Broadway have been closely intertwined, two important pillars that make up the beating heart of this wonderful city. And, in many ways, there is no better way to highlight this than the very familiar way that the city’s theatre community celebrated its reopening.