Broadway, baby? Maybe!
New York City playwright Tony Sportiello and composer Al Tapper hope their musical’s Wilkes-Barre run becomes a stepping stone to the Great White Way. “National Pastime” opens Oct. 25, at the Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre.
The show, set in 1933, revolves around the WZBQ radio station staff in rural Baker City. Times are tough after the Great Depression, so the station owners hatch a scheme to broadcast fictional games played by the nonexistent Baker City Cougars to boost ratings and the town’s morale.
The Wilkes-Barre run will be the second of three engagements, giving Sportiello and Tapper a chance to fine tune the music and dialogue in their masterpiece. The show just completed a run in Austin, Texas, and performances start next spring in Peoria, Ariz.
They also took it on the road “to see how it did in front of a real, Americana audience,” Sportiello said. “Our goal is to have it back in New York in the fall of 2014. Hopefully, we will learn about what works and what doesn’t work and make it a better show.”
Sportiello first wrote a one-hour piece in the early 1990s for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. That inspired him to create a full musical revolving around baseball. He got together with Tapper, who he had worked with on another production.
“I saw it and thought it would make a wonderful musical,” Tapper said. “It had all the elements of a screwball comedy.”
The radio station’s con would’ve worked in 1933. The popularity of baseball and the novelty of radio make the plot entirely possible, Tapper said.
“Baseball was the only game that was broadcast,” he said. “It was the sport. It was the national pastime.”
Besides the Little Theatre run, “National Pastime” has another connection to Northeastern Pennsylvania. Plymouth native and Wilkes University graduate Dan Van Why nabbed the role of station employee Joe Miller when the production staff brought it to Washington, D.C. for a run in 2011.
For his performance as Miller, Van Why was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award. When the show went to New York City, Sportiello called him and asked him to audition again, and he won the part back.
“I loved the show. I had a blast doing it. I was lucky enough that they had me back (in New York),” Van Why said, adding he was honored to be nominated for the Helen Hayes Award among friends and performers. “The ultimate is to do the best work you can, and have the best time doing it – and when someone points it out, it’s just great.”
While Sportiello and Tapper had already been discussing the possibility of a Wilkes-Barre run, Van Why facilitated it. His friends, including Hollie Major – who will serve as assistant musical director for the Little Theatre production – came to see the show, Van Why said.
“They had seen the New York production and loved it. That began a conversation with the authors and the Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre,” he said.
Sportiello said it’s a dream for any playwright to see their play performed in a space like the 350-seat Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre. Theater space in New York is very limited and you don’t see that style of theater anymore, he added.
“This is all I want. I could die happy doing shows in a space like this,” Sportiello said.
After the Peoria performances next spring, the “National Pastime” team will take the show back to New York City for backers’ auditions. That will hopefully generate enough funding for the Broadway production – they’ve already generated interest based on the off-Broadway production, Tapper said.
“It played for a week, and we had a lot of interest from lead producers on Broadway,” he said.
Van Why said he’d love to join the production again if it makes it to Broadway.
“Absolutely. I would love to have the opportunity to audition for it again,” he said. “It’s definitely a screwball comedy, and it’s easy for me to relate to. It’s the kind of stuff I love to watch, so it’s even more enjoyable for me to perform it.”
Walter Mitchell, Little Theatre general manager, said while a show usually runs for five performances at the Little Theatre, for this show, they’ll hold 11.
“Here are nonprofessional actors, producers, techs, directors, who see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.
Director Christa Manning agreed, adding it’s a different type of excitement this time around for the cast. While she said cast members usually get pumped up for any performance at the theater, this time, if the show goes to Broadway, they can say, “I did that first.”
Manning called it an honor to direct the show, calling it a “fresh slate” – with only a few prior performances, the audience and cast won’t have preconceived notions about how it should go.
“I get to see what I see through their work,” she said, gesturing to Sportiello and Tapper, “and hopefully bring that to life.”
1991: Playwright Tony Sportiello writes a one-act play called “Contract Time.”
1992: “Contract Time” premieres at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and inspires Sportiello to write the full-length “National Pastime.”
2010: A reading of “National Pastime” takes place at the Hall of Fame. Sportiello brings composer Al Tapper on board to write the songs.
2011: The musical premieres at Keegan Theatre in Washington, D.C. Plymouth native and Wilkes University graduate Dan Van Why plays the part of Joe Miller.
2012: “National Pastime” plays off-Broadway at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre for a limited engagement. Van Why reprises his role. He is nominated for the Helen Hayes Award for outstanding supporting actor, resident musical, for his role in the Washington production.
September 2013: Austin Theatre Works in Texas produces the show.
October-November 2013: “National Pastime” premieres at the Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre.
March 2014: The musical debuts at Peoria Theatre Works in Arizona.
What: “National Pastime”
Where: Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre, 537 N. Main St.
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 25, 26 and 31, Nov. 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9; 3 p.m. Oct. 27, Nov. 3 and 10
READ ORIGINAL SOURCE