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A chat with Ron Shelton after his 'Bull Durham' musical debuted

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Bull Durham
Everett Collection

In Bull Durham, Ron Shelton’s classic 1988 baseball movie, Kevin Costner’s sage journeyman catcher, Crash Davis, is sent to the low-level minors to mentor a flame-throwing knucklehead named Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), who couldn’t hit water with his fastball if he fell out of a boat. One of them is on the fast-track to the big leagues, and the other is just trying to hang on for one more season of baseball—both of them are madly in love with a local Bulls’ groupie named Annie (Susan Sarandon).

On Sept. 3, Bull Durham the musical began a month of previews at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. Atlanta isn’t exactly the Carolina League—Aida and The Color Purple had their starts at the Alliance. But if Broadway is The Show, then the show’s producers—including the film’s writer/director Ron Shelton—are hoping their production is more like Nuke. “We’re here until Oct. 5, but beyond that, we can’t say anything concrete,” says Shelton, who also penned the musical’s book, “but Broadway is obviously everyone’s goal and intention.”

Shelton, a former minor-league player himself who’s directed some of the finest sports movies of the last 25 years (White Men Can’t Jump, Tin Cup), fielded musical-theater offers for years before finally agreeing to bring his most famous work to the stage. Producers Jack Viertel and Laura Stanczyk approached Shelton about four years ago, and this time, he said yes. Since then, Shelton and lyricist Susan Werner have set out to make a musical that somehow incorporates both locker-room humor and Bermuda-Triangle references to a woman’s anatomy. A pair of Tony-nominees, Will Swenson (Hair) and Melissa Errico (Amour), play Crash and Annie, and John Behlmann cuts loose as Nuke, a regular nuclear meltdown.

Shelton spoke to EW the day after the show’s premiere.

EW: Congratulations on the first preview performance on Wednesday. Did it feel different than opening night for one of your films?

RON SHELTON: It felt good. It’s similar to the first time you test-screen a movie. My eyes went from the audience to the stage, back to the audience all the time: “Oh, great, they laughed at two places I didn’t expect to laugh,” “Why didn’t they laugh at that one?” that kind of thing. We felt we were on the right track, and the audience seemed to think so as well.

Was there a particular moment of the show that either surprised you or that you took special pleasure in?

The first time they laughed, I was fine. I though, “Okay, we’re going to be okay.” Because things that are comedic are pretty ruthless to judge. If it’s Eugene O’Neill, I don’t know if you know how the audience reacted until a week later, you know. But if it’s supposed to be funny and they’re not laughing, you have a problem. There is the moment in Act II that’s like the movie, where Nuke is going to the big leagues because Crash has done his job too well, and the manager and the pitching coach say, “Crash, step into my office… This is the toughest job a manager has.” Which we’ve set up in Act I, when he releases another player. And the whole audience went, “Oh, no.” Even if they knew the movie, they’d forgotten that Crash is going to lose his job. And to hear the audience sigh before the lines are even delivered was really gratifying because I felt we had them.

At one point not too long ago, I recall, you were considering making a film sequel to Bull Durham. How did that creative energy get transformed into a stage musical?

People kept coming to me wanting to revisit these characters in this world, but I certainly thought the movie was a sort of closed-in fable, and there was nowhere to go with it. Do you really want to check in with Crash and Annie 10 years later and find out if their relationship survived? And my actors are getting older from the movie. You know, what’s Nuke doing, throwing knuckleballs in Venezuela? So, you didn’t want it to become pathetic or look like the writer/director was desperate. But there seemed to be people hungry for seeing what’s next for these people, and what’s next turned out to be a musical. I had been approached a number of times by various other people, but the timing was never right. But when Jack and Laura approached me, I thought, you know, it’s the right people and the right time. I knew I was in good hands, and I knew I could write these characters forever and put them in situations we haven’t seen them in.

You wrote the musical’s book, which only makes sense. But what were some of the challenges of bringing these characters to a completely different form of storytelling?

One is there’s no musical-theater equivalent for the closeup in a movie. That’s a question that comes up all the time, where a camera pushes in on a wonderful actor, and we see the decision being made internally. Now, that has to become a scene with a song. You don’t have to see Kevin Costner make his decision to go back to Annie; [in the film] we just see him driving and he runs his hands through his hair and he’s in the middle of North Carolina somewhere, and we cut to her house, and we get it. We get it that he’s done with baseball. Well, you can’t do that in musicals. So we have to find a song to do that.

How would you describe the flavor of the show’s music?

I think it’s raucous. It’s roadhouse, I would call it. Earthy, sexy, smart. It swings. It feels contemporary, but we don’t mind throwing in an old vaudeville for the old coaches and the guys in the bar. Because there’s a vaudeville quality to minor-league baseball anyway.

The film has so many classic scenes, like Crash’s “I Believe” speech, and the team meeting on the mound where the players discuss wedding gifts. I can only hope that they’re preserved in the musical.

They’re there. Both of those are there.

As songs?

No, his speech is just a speech still. We tried turning “I Believe” into a song and it kind of felt forced and we just went back to the speech and have that lead to another song. The meeting at the mound is there, and the candlesticks pay off because we now have a wedding-shower scene where poor Millie keeps opening gifts and they’re all candlesticks because that’s all the guys know how to give. The musical has the flavor of the movie, except we’re up and singing.

It seems like the play allows you to add loose ends or extended scenes that weren’t in the film or that you thought of later. Was that part of the fun? 

Yes. And Susan Werner, whose music I’m crazy about, would take lines from the movie and turn them into songs. For instance, the scene where Annie’s making a wedding dress for Millie, and Millie’s been around—

“We all deserve to wear white”…

There’s a song, “Every Woman Deserves to Wear White.” And it’s raucous, and the women are just claiming their territory. There’s a song “Opening Day” now that isn’t in the movie, about how we go from Annie’s bedroom to the ballpark in three minutes. I think Kip Fagan has done a great job of not worrying about the literalness of how you do baseball [on stage], which has my blessing. There’s a pitcher, there’s a catcher, there’s an ump, it’s a game, whatever.

I assume you had a strong personal interest in finding the right people to play these characters. I remember for the movie, Costner dragged you to the batting cages to prove to you that he could hit convincingly. I’m guessing those authentic athletic skills aren’t as important this time around.

Well, our guys don’t have to have been great baseball players but they better be good singers and dancers. But it has to feel like a very male show: sweaty, Southern, testosterone. It’s got to capture that, because then, the affection to woman is even stronger. Because the women are strong in their own way, and I think that gives it the fun and hopefully the power. It took us awhile as we were developing it to find the cast that we all said, “That’s it,” and we were very fortunate to have Will Swenson and Melissa Errico and John Behlmann, who you will fall in love with as Nuke. Will is very strong. I think to go from Javert in Les Mis to Crash Davis has got to be one of the best transitions in musical history.

In particular, the role of Annie is such an amazingly full and colorful character, as played by Susan Sarandon in the film. I don’t necessarily envy Melissa’s challenge of stepping into those shows.  

Well, Annie has to take over the room. At the same time, her vulnerabilities and needs are kind of showing at the edges. It’s a fine line. Because if it’s all just marching and strident, that’s not Annie. Annie is the one who confesses that her belief system is falling apart after all these years. It’s been a fabulous one, but this young-guy thing is starting to get old and she’s not as young anymore. She’s so colorful, and has a rich vocabulary and worldview to call upon. So on one hand it has to be strongly delivered. On the other hand, you have to be able to play the I-want stuff. And that’s not as easy as it sounds. And Melissa, who can really sing, she has just grown into that every day.

I saw the 16+ advisory for the show. Is that just a reflection of what’s in the film?

Yeah. Language of course is pretty ribald, but I think language is liberating. But when Nuke gets tied to the bed, do you want your 8-year-old there?

I’m so glad that scene is in the play.

Darn right, it is.

Are his socks on?

Yes. Until Annie says to take them off. To music now. It’s a really great scene.