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'Bull Durham' headed for Broadway

Shelton adapting iconic baseball comedy into a musical
December 10, 2013

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- This just may be the biggest news to emerge from the Baseball Winter Meetings: Crash Davis, Nuke LaLoosh and Annie Savoy are all coming out of retirement.

It was announced on Tuesday evening that Bull Durham, the iconic 1988 comedy from Minor Leaguer-turned-Hollywood director Ron Shelton, is being made into a musical. The production, adapted for the stage by Shelton, is set to premiere at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre in September 2014 in advance of a Broadway run.

In addition to helping establish the A-list bona fides of Kevin Costner (Crash Davis) and Susan Sarandon (Annie Savoy), Bull Durham helped fuel a Minor League Baseball renaissance, not just in the Bulls' home of Durham, N.C., but nationwide. Inspired by the film, moviegoers were moved to seek out their own, oft-neglected teams, helping in its own small way to pave the way toward the industry's current vibrancy. So what better place to read about this breaking story than - the official website of Minor League Baseball?

In an exclusive interview, Shelton and several of his key creative collaborators gathered in a conference room at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel to talk about how the project came to be, adapting to a new medium and, above all, his certainty in its eventual success. As he put it: "We've got a composer [Susan Werner] who's never composed for Broadway, a writer who's never written for Broadway and a director [Kip Fagan] who's never directed for Broadway!"

What could go wrong? You have said that, with Bull Durham, you "struck lightning in a bottle." Once it became a phenomenon, did you begin to think about ways in which you could re-visit these characters?

Ron Shelton: I toyed with a sequel for many years, and people wanted me to do it, but I kind of thought of it as a story that was finished. How do you open it back up unless you have Crash and Annie break up, and then everybody would be screaming at me? So I never quite figured out the sequel.

A number of Broadway producers called me over the years, saying, "Are you interested?" and I said "Yes, but not now." I was always busy with this or that. But when [lead producers] Jack [Viertel] and Laura [Stanczyk] called, the timing was right. Their reputation was great, we just hit it off over the phone and I flew to New York. They said I have to write the book [the narrative that bridges the songs together]. Well, what does a book look like? (laughs) While you have a lot of experience as a writer, did you have any experience with something like this? With writing "the book" for a musical?

Shelton: No clue. I said that I have to of course do it, but about three hours before going to the airport [to meet the producers], I realized I had never seen a book; I didn't know what one looked like, much less read one. So I ran over to Samuel French bookstore and was calling all of my theatre friends -- they're all recommending different ones. So I bought five of them and only managed to get through one on the plane, and probably I've still only read one cover to cover and that's Gypsy. But Jack held my hand and Laura held my other hand and for me it's easy to spin stories with this group of characters and this world because it's in me. What sort of challenges arise when faced with adapting a movie scene for the stage?

Shelton: Well, there's a particular sequence that, when I wrote it, I said, "How do you do this?" and it turns out to be everybody's favorite scene. So I'm going to keep writing things like "I don't know how to do this, you figure it out." Was it difficult to figure out what points in the story merited a break for a song?

Shelton: Well, it's a process. Is the scene setting up the song and is the transition natural and is the song telling enough of the story? I think I'm getting a better sense of it as we go and then you get to try it, rehearse it, and go to labs and workshops. That's why it takes three or four years.

Susan Werner (composer): The material is built into the story. It is this fantastic love triangle between very physical, sensual people of appetites. Annie likes good food, good wine -- she mentions a glass of good red wine in one of the songs -- and this physicality really informed the music. The music, if done right, should make you want to bop. It should make you want to move and throw and catch and swing and dance. I tried to keep things as fun as possible and as physical as possible. It's a show with biceps, well-defined biceps. But no steroids.

Jack Viertel (producer): That's an interesting point. I think that we're trying to stay as steroid-free as we can. At a time when Broadway is counting more and more on special effects and elaborate scenic tricks, we're trying to tell a story about three human beings. How far along are you into the casting process?

Shelton: We had readings and labs every six months, and now we're deep, deep, deep into it.

Laura Stanczyk (producer): In this audition process, the guys not only have to swing with a bat, they have to dance with a bat.

Werner: It's been enjoyable to follow the process of the choreography, the movement of the show. It's informed by the actions of baseball: you throw a ball, you swing a bat. If we do this show right, you should be able to smell some sweat in the hall. Baseball has been referred to as its own sort of ballet.

Stanczyk: We're not going to give anything away (group laughter).

Shelton: We might even have a scene like that. Beyond that, we won't say. The show is going to start in Atlanta and then expand from there. How big do you see this getting?

Shelton: You're always thinking big. If you go to Broadway, you're thinking big.

Viertel: Broadway is the destination after Atlanta, but when shows are successful they then tour the United States while the Broadway show is still running. With this one, I think you have a very good chance of doing Japan and the Asian market and certain South American countries.

Shelton: You don't have to know a lot about baseball to get it.

Stanczyk: It's a love triangle!

Shelton: And the songs are fabulous.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.