Interview with Neil Dale of SDMT's "Damn Yankees"

San Diego Musical Theatre Productions

Neil Dale of SDMT's "Damn Yankees"

Photos by Mark Anthony Holmes

Batter up––Damn Yankees is coming to town! This classic tale, produced by San Diego Musical Theatre, will run from June 2nd–18th at Spreckels Theatre. With 11 Tony Awards (including Best Musical and Best Choreography), Damn Yankees is a devilish comedy choreographed by Jill Gorie and directed by James Vasquez. 

Damn Yankees centers around baseball fanatic Joe Boyd, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for fame and his favorite team's success––but this simple exchange has unintended consequences as Joe and Applegate, the devil, battle over Joe's precious soul. With classic musical hits, including "What Lola Wants" and "Heart," Damn Yankees is a fun treat.

FINE Magazine spoke with Neil Dale, the conniving devil himself in Damn Yankees, about the upcoming production, his British roots, and his future involvement with San Diego Musical Theatre.

So you're from England. Tell me about your background.
I was born in Liverpool, and I started performing at the age of 10. My mom and dad were both actors, singers, and performers. I was part of a family show for the first six years of my life. I did TV and film in the UK at that time, as well. I also knew I wanted to do musical theatre and perform on the West End [in London]... [where] I was lucky enough to stay until I immigrated here in 2008.

Why did you come to the states?
I married a San Diego girl! My wife was born in San Diego and graduated from Cal State Fullerton. We met doing Miss Saigon in the United Kingdom, and we lived in England for quite awhile, before we immigrated to San Diego.

SDMT interview with Neal Dale

How did you get cast in Damn Yankees?
I'll be directing Billy Elliot [for SDMT] in the fall, as well, and when SDMT and I got together in the beginning, I was purely going to be directing in August. In the midst of talking to them about Billy Elliot, Jill [Townsend] asked if I'd ever thought about being in Damn Yankees. And, being of English descent, I hadn't considered of the show or the role because I wasn't raised around baseball... and I didn't know the stage show very well. But as soon as she asked me and I started looking into the show and––more importantly––the role of Applegate, I was hooked... and I think I underestimated [the role]; it's a lot more fun than I thought.

There are so many [memorable] songs in this show, that when people leave the theater, they'll say, "Oh, I didn't know this was from Damn Yankees!" Like "What Lola Wants." It's a great show and a classic piece of theater.

What can you tell me about Applegate? Who is he?
Applegate is the devil. I can't say that without a smile on my face. He's Lucifer. He's got this gig going on that he's had for hundreds of years where he has his ear to the ground, listening for people who would sell their souls to achieve something: be beautiful, rich, whatever it is. In this show, he hears a character––Joe Boyd––say he would sell his soul for one long ball hitter.

That's all Applegate needs, but he's never come across a Joe Boyd before. Most people are so wrapped up in the dream, in what they want that they forget that to achieve that, they're ultimately going to lose their soul. As much as Joe wants [his team] to win, his love for his wife, Meg, is always in the background. Every time Applegate draws him in like the good salesman he is, there's still that little thought in the back of Joe's mind that says, "This is great, but love wins out in the end." He always wants to go back to his wife, even with people putting him up on the highest pedestal possible... Applegate has never lost a soul, and Joe could be the first one.


SDMT Neil Dale

Do you enjoy playing the devil?
*Laughter* I think it's fun because [the production] shows vulnerabilities in the devil, and it shows that good can still win. In this show, the devil really doesn't come across as the bad guy, but there's still the reality that he wants to take Joe's soul. I like the challenges and frustrations we see in Applegate's character when he's not getting his way.

I don't know whether it's a compliment or not, but when I've said I'm playing Applegate in Damn Yankees, a lot of people [say] I'm going to play a great devil. I'm hoping it's just a visual thing, and not that people think I'm a nasty piece of work!

You're directing Billy Elliot for SDMT in August, as well. Have you thought about what you're going to do yet?
I think what a lot of people forget with Billy Elliot is that, as much as it's a piece written about a fictional [character], the surrounding story is very historical for England. I lived through it. I was fourteen years of age; it was 1984 when a lot of this stuff went down. Although my dad wasn't a miner himself, he was a part of a union, and a lot of the unions were impacted.

I want to bring honesty to the show. A lot of people [think of] Billy Elliot as a dance show with loads of ballet. And it is––it's a very entertaining show––but at the heart of the story is not only the financial struggle of a family to put food on the table but also the story of one guy just trying to do right by his family... I want to show the historical side of Billy Elliot, as well as the humorous side.

There's a lot of beautiful music, and California Ballet will be doing the choreography for the show. We don't want to replicate the London or Broadway musicals––we want to make it San Diego Musical Theatre's version of the show––but there will be aspects of the show that people will recognize. 

What's it like to direct theater as opposed to act?
It's a hard [question] to answer. I love being on stage. It's where home has been for thirty-six years of my life... I always feel most comfortable on stage playing a character.

When I started directing, it was scary because you have the responsibility to become the eyes and ears of [directors], people you respect. The way I look at it, when I go into a room to direct a show, I have a guide map for my cast. This is where we're going to start, this is where we're going to end––but ultimately, the journey will always change depending on the people I'm lucky enough to work with.

I'm excited to see who will walk through the audition doors to Billy Elliot. There's so much talent in San Diego, and I'm hoping they come out to audition for this show so, we have the opportunity to create a piece San Diego is proud of.

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