“Bull Durham” is headed for Broadway.
Considered one of the best baseball movies of all time – Sports Illustrated actually ranks it the greatest film about any sport, ever – the 1988 romantic comedy has been adapted for the stage by its original writer and director Ron Shelton after a five-year incubation period.
First stop: Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, a prestigious regional showcase that has previously hosted premieres for film-to-stage adaptations like “Bring It On” and “The Color Purple.” If all goes well, “Bull Durham” will migrate to Broadway afterward, following the path of those successful musicals.
In the event that you’ve been in orbit and/or a coma for the last 25 years, “Bull Durham” tells the story of a curious love triangle set against the backdrop of old-school minor-league baseball – specifically, the Durham Bulls in the late 1980s. A huge hit critically and commercially, “Bull Durham” was a breakout film for Shelton and its three stars: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. Shelton has gone on to a successful Hollywood directing career as well (“White Men Can’t Jump,” “Tin Cup”).
Audiences responded to the humor and authenticity of “Bull Durham” – Shelton spent five years in the minor leagues himself – and the film has arguably made the Bulls the most famous minor-league team in baseball. The film’s 25th anniversary last year sparked renewed enthusiasm around the movie, including the local “Bull City Summer” project, in which writers and photographers documented the entire 2013 Durham Bulls season. “Bull City Summer” is on view through Aug. 31 at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh.
For the new musical, Shelton worked closely with folk singer-songwriter Susan Werner and a team of Broadway veterans to translate the story from screen to stage. Speaking from his home in California, Shelton discussed the new stage show, filming the original movie in Durham, and the challenge of R-rated baseball musicals.
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Q: How long has this idea for a “Bull Durham” musical been in the mix?
A: Quite a while, actually. I was approached a number of times by Broadway producers over the years. The timing was never quite right. Then a few years ago, I got a call and it was a better time. I said I’d love to develop it, but I had to write the book (or script). Then I realized I’d never even seen a book. I was scrambling to read some on my flight to New York.
Q: Now that you’re on the other end of it all, what were the differences writing a story for the stage instead of the screen?
A: The basic difference is that a movie has three acts and a Broadway musical has two. In a conventionally structured movie, you would takes acts one and two and rework them into one act, so that act three of the movie becomes act two of the musical. The problem is that nobody noticed I didn’t have an act three to “Bull Durham” the movie. That was the challenge. (Laughs.)
Q: How did you come to set the original film in Durham?
A: My producer, Thom Mount, actually had a small minority interest in the Bulls. Back then, you could buy a lot of minor league teams if you just paid off last year’s utility bills to the city. Seriously, that’s how un-valuable they were.
He didn’t say shoot in Durham, he just said check it out. I liked the ballpark in Durham. And the town was so depressed that I knew I could shoot anywhere for cheap. Those abandoned warehouses, that’s where we built our locker rooms. Annie’s house I found two blocks from the ballpark.
Q: That area has seen a remarkable revitalization in recent years. Have you been down here lately?
A: I was invited down five years ago for the 20th anniversary. I was stunned. I couldn’t get over how far the area had come. When we were there, downtown Durham was boarded up. We have a shot or two of Kevin walking the streets at night. There was nothing there.
We also shot at Mitch’s Tavern in Raleigh. We can’t call it Mitch’s Tavern in the musical, or Mitch will want money. (Laughs.) It’s a watering hole that we go to many times. The tavern is one of our three main locations, along with Annie’s bedroom and the ballpark. Those are our main go-to spots.
Q: How do you handle the actual baseball action on the stage?
A: The director and the choreographer have handled it very freely, which I encouraged. A ball field is evoked by a guy pitching or a guy hitting. We can’t put a field on stage, but we can put bits and pieces – the dugout, or Annie’s seat in the stands. I’m thrilled with the way it’s been done.
Q: Will we see all the supporting characters?
A: Yep, you’ll see Skip and Larry, the pitching coach and the manager. You’ve got Jimmy and Millie – Jimmy’s the religious kid, Millie is the girl who slept around. They become a fairly important story. We have a new character who’s not in the movie, who shows up in act two and steals a few scenes. He’s the player who is sent up to replace either Crash or Nuke. He’s funny – very active and full of himself. He’ll be a revelation, I think.
Q: Watching the movie again, I’d forgotten how sexy it is. There’s a lot of very authentic, candid sex in there. Will this be an R-rated musical?
A: I think so. Like the movie, the sex is not prurient – it’s earthy and funny. We get to see what happens when Annie ties up Nuke in the bedroom, and it turns into a musical number. We get to see Crash and Annie fight, and that’s a musical number. We get to see Annie try to seduce Nuke when he’s on a winning streak and Crash won’t let him sleep with her. We get to stage these things.
Q: What stage is the production at now?
A: We’re ready to go into rehearsals in Atlanta. We run that for five weeks, then if all goes well, we’re on Broadway next spring.
Q: Is the script locked at this point?
A: It is more or less locked. We had a big reading in January in New York – reading means singing, full music, nonstop. I’ll be there for rehearsal if a scene needs tightening, or something isn’t clear or they’re not laughing.
Q: What is the collaboration process like, introducing music and lyrics into the story?
A: I think Susan (Werner) really has the heavy lifting. She had to write 40 sings to find the right 18. Some of the songs that get rejected are gorgeous, but they just don’t do what the musical needs to do at that moment. I’m crazy about the music she’s written, it’s very un-Broadway. It’s real roadhouse. You pull over to the side of the road, back in the day, in North Carolina or Mississippi, this is the music that might be going on.
Q: Do you get involved with the lyrics?
A: I do. For instance, I got an email today. There’s a famous monologue that was cut from the movie. It’s been referred to as the lost scene from “Bull Durham.” It’s Annie explaining how she came to discover baseball. Why it got cut out of the movie is a story for another interview, or a lot of drinks, but we’ve gone back and put a scene in the musical about it.
Susan wants to elaborate on that lyrically, because it’s turning into a new song, the only song that hasn’t been written yet, actually. So in this case, I’ll email her back about what it means to me. That’s the kind of exchange we have all the time.
It reveals things about Annie that are important: Her discovery is, “When you know where home plate is, you know where everything else in the universe is.” Which is sort of an Annie thing to say – over-the-top and still sort of accurate. Pure Annie.