Misunderstood Musicals: "The First"

by Joel Fenster, OnStage Columnist On paper it reads like a rejected season arc for the failed TV series Smash. An unknown actor cast as an American Icon in a musical version of said Icon’s life directed by an award-winning director and written by a famous film critic, what could possibly go wrong? In this case the Icon in question is Jackie Robinson, the actor is David Alan Grier, the book writer is film critic Joel Siegel and the director is Martin Charnin, who also wrote the lyrics - just coming off of the monster hit Annie - with music by Bob Brush. And the show is appropriately titled The First (which was ironically the second musical I ever saw on Broadway).

So why did this musical about Jackie Robinson open on November 17, 1981 only to close on December 12, 1981 after 33 previews and 37 performances? Let’s examine why using what little research material is available coupled with my memories from having actually seen the show.

The Internet yields little beyond entries on Wikipedia, the Internet Broadway Database and a few other minor websites (although I found one song used as an audition on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEcrbQ7nR3k). Samuel French licenses the show, so a script is available to anyone for purchase; however, the music is only available for perusal if you’re connected with a theater. The sheet music for two numbers can be found at Musicnotes.com and two songs; “There Are Days And There Are Days” and “Will We Ever Know Each Other,” are on the first volume of Unsung Musicals, now out of print on CD. There is no cast album although a poorly recorded audio bootleg could be found many years ago.

So we’re relying mostly on the memory of a forty-five year old who not only remembers seeing the show, but can remember lyrics and the tune of a song not part of his bootleg. I couldn’t tell you when exactly as I don’t keep tickets. Well, I did for a while, but don’t anymore. My guess is I saw one of the 37 performances and not one of the 33 previews. I was twelve at the time. A time that I still had a love for baseball (which pretty much ended when the Mets won the World Series in 1986) .But my father had died the year before. I was still in a daze about that and looking back thirty-something years later, I’m impressed I remember as much about the experience as I do (with some help from the script, the bootleg – well two-thirds of it – and the internet).

The biggest name in the cast at the time probably would have been David Huddleston (who played Olsen Johnson in Blazing Saddles and would later play Santa Claus in Santa Claus: The Movie). Looking back from our vantage point here in 2014, the biggest name in the cast is obviously David Alan Grier who would go on to become famous for playing Don “No Soul” Simmons in Amazon Women on the Moon. Kidding - he became famous for all the parts he played during his stint on the variety show In Living Color. I just wanted to reference Amazon Women on the Moon and that role because it’s funny. Seriously. See it if you get the chance.

Anyway, The First is all about Jackie Robinson, or, as one of the songs calls him, “Jack Roosevelt Robinson” and the events leading to his becoming the first African-American Professional Baseball Player in the Major Leagues.

There are 19 scenes and 16 songs spread across the two acts of what reads like a very formulaic work. The book feels a bit jumpy at times as Act One opens with the silhouetted images of the Dodgers behind a scrim and then careens across Robinson’s career from his time with the Kansas City Monarchs to his signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and ending with the strikingly staged closing image of a silhouetted Robinson (again behind a scrim) being called every name in the book and having a watermelon thrown on the field during his first game with the Dodgers. Act Two is a bit more compact as Robinson continues to cope with his own feelings, his wife’s feelings, the feelings of his teammates and the fact that he has now led the way to open up baseball.

The show takes itself too seriously at times and not seriously enough at other times. The closing image of Act One is shocking in its outright racism, but when we come back from intermission we get a musical number that’s nowhere near the level of that one image. A jaunty number entitled “You Do Do Do It Good,” sung by Robinson’s old team mates from the Monarchs as they visit him in New York to explain how well, in their opinion, he’s doing, is not a bad song, but it just feels wrong coming so soon after that one striking image, even with a scene before it.

The relationship between Robinson and his wife is also not quite fleshed out. Rachel appears out of nowhere in the middle of Act One as his girlfriend and at some point off stage, three scenes later, they are married. She remains his dutiful wife through the rest of the show and, while she gets two nice ballads - one with Jackie in her first scene and one to herself in Act Two - she really doesn’t get fleshed out beyond that.

Robinson and Branch Rickey seem the most fully dimensional characters, with Rickey being the more engaging of the two. That’s a problem when your musical is about the other guy. The Dodgers who make up most of the ensemble are either played as goofballs or racists and don’t add much beyond that to the proceedings, with the exception of Leo Durocher and Clyde Sukeforth.

So if the book is all over the place and more of a “Cliffs Notes” version of a specific time in Robinson’s career, how’s the music? Well, it pretty much matches. We get a couple of good songs that can stand on their own: “There Are Days and There Are Days” and “Will We Ever Know Each Other,” both of which involve Rachel as well as Robinson’s own ballad “The First.” Then there are a couple of fun songs: “Bloat” in which the Dodgers come back to training after becoming out of shape during the winter off and “The Brooklyn Dodger Strike” which finds Rickey and Leo explaining to a few of the Dodgers how the game is going to be played with Jackie on the team. And then there is the closing number “The Opera Ain’t Over” that compares baseball and…well…opera during a final match between the Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates. It is a memorable closing number (I still have parts of it stuck in my head after all those years – “The opera ain’t, the opera ain’t over, the opera ain’t over til the fat lady sings” - and the bootleg isn’t a help in keeping it there because it ends before we get to that point in the show). Every other song is there to push the “plot” from point A to point B and they do it in the most perfunctory manner possible.

This Misunderstood Musical was flawed, it was a flop and it has been pretty much forgotten. Is it a bad show? Not at all. It’s not bad, but it’s just kind of there and if you’re going to write a book musical about Jack Roosevelt Robinson it should be as great as he was and as inspiring as he became. Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on a couple of white guys who wrote a musical about a black man? In the end the box office did the show in. It didn’t get great reviews at the time and it barely lasted two months of previews and performances.

I believe that this would actually be a good musical for an amateur group or community theater looking to do a musical “off the beaten path”. Not being well-known, but having a large cast – which includes a couple of meaty parts in Robinson and Rickey in addition to some nice supporting roles in Rachel, Durocher, Sukeforth and Casey Higgins, being about an American Icon, having some decent songs and a book that at the very least doesn’t drag (or disgrace itself) is what it has going for it.

In an ideal world, the show could use a rewrite to give it a bit more meat in spots, something highly unlikely to happen since Joel Siegel has passed on. Perhaps a creative team with vision and passion could take what is on the page and stage it in such a way that even with all the flaws, it becomes a visually arresting piece where the one memorable and striking image that concludes Act One actually resonates through the rest of the show. But maybe that’s all just wishful thinking for a show that is essentially just a footnote in David Alan Grier’s career at this point?

Next time we tackle Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle” (that’s what they say).

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