MNfusion: Step Up To The Plate With Lawrence Clayton From ‘Damn Yankees’

Katie Fraser, MNFusion 6/15/15

Americans love baseball.

With a nickname like “The Great American Pastime,” it’s not hard to see how ingrained the game is in our culture. It is part of our history; it’s part of our cities’ architecture.

But maybe the real reason Americans can’t get enough of the sport is that anybody can be a good ball player.

Unlike other sports, there is no typical baseball player. It’s an everyman’s sport and every man, or woman, can play it.

Almost as integral to American culture as baseball is the devil.

From television (“The Twilight Zone” “The Simpsons”) to film (“H-E Double Hockey Sticks,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) to music (“The Devil Went Down To Georgia”) to the stage(“Little Shop Of Horrors”), the theme of making a deal with the Devil has infiltrated pop culture.

We love stories that tell the tale of the everyman selling his soul to the devil so that he may obtain his heart’s desire.

But more so, we love stories that prove that getting what you want is never as easy as it appears to be.

George Abbott and Douglass Wallop’s “Damn Yankees” combines both of these cultural staples as it tells the story of every-man Joe Boyd who wants his baseball team to win so badly that he makes a deal with the devil for it. And shows, once again, that in getting what you want you often lose something else.

As the show prepares to open at the Ordway I spoke with Lawrence Clayton, who plays Joe Boyd, about the upcoming production.

What drew you to have an interest in this show?

James Rocco, the director, got in touch with me on Facebook. He said he’d found this amazing young actor to play Joe Hardy and he thought I might be a good fit for Joe Boyd. I took a listen to the music, and watched the film. This wasn’t the kind of show I’d done in the past and I thought it might be kind of fun. And I was right, the show’s a blast. I think audiences are going to love this production.

Your character wants a win for his baseball team so badly that he is willing to gamble with his soul. Has there ever been something you wanted so badly that you were willing to do almost anything?

No, but I won’t lie, I’ve daydreamed about winning a Tony or having a string of hit records, but I wouldn’t be willing to sell my soul for that. My experience is that hard work is the thing that brings luck for those good breaks your way. Also, a mentor once told me that, “You should always strive to do the right thing, especially when no one’s looking.” So that’s how I try to live each day. And being raised in the Baptist Church in North Carolina, the idea of selling my soul is a bit too scary a concept.

This theme, of giving up something to an evil persona to get something in return, is a common theme in pop culture. Why do you think audiences respond to that?

I think no matter where we are in life, we always want more. We see how the rich and famous, especially athletes, performers and movie stars, are glamorized. There are TV shows that show you just how great they have it on the surface. And I think most people have daydreamed about that kind of life a time or two. But I think the thing to remember is that those two minutes of glamour, or that World Series victory or that Oscar Speech you see is really supported by years and years of hard work.

How do you think adding baseball into this theme attracts audiences?

It’s the great American pastime. It’s rooted in our national culture. We’ve all probably played the game in some form in our lives. We’ve all wanted to be the guy or girl who makes that amazing catch or home run. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be the guy who hits the home run, bottom of the ninth in game seven of the World Series? I know I would, if just for that moment.

What is your favorite scene/musical number?

There are so many great numbers in the show. But my favorite is the trio “Near To You” with Meg, and both Joe’s. It wasn’t written this way in the original show, but was taken from the last revival of the show on Broadway. It reinforces the idea, that despite being given the thing he’s dreamed of all his life, it isn’t what makes him happy.

What has been most challenging for you as you take on this character and show?

This isn’t the kind of show I’m normally cast in. I’m not known as a comic actor, so finding Joe Boyd’s truth and playing that in a way that’s lighthearted, but still real, has been the biggest challenge.

As this is your first Ordway appearance, what surprised your about the space? St. Paul?

The theater is just beautiful, I love the space. It has a wonderful sound, and although it’s fairly large, it seems like an intimate space. I’ve played Minneapolis in the past in touring companies of Dreamgirls and Jesus Christ Superstar, but I never made it to St. Paul. I’m loving the city. The people seem very southern in their friendliness. I’ve also learned the city has a rich African American history.

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