I don't know how else to say it: "The First," a musical about Jackie Robinson that opened at the Beck last night, never gets to first base. It seems to dawdle forever (it's quite long), and it really has nothing more to tell us than what is implicit in the title, that Robinson broke the racial barrier in major league baseball, where only the ball had been white up to then, when Branch Rickey signed him for the Brooklyn Dodgers' farm club, the Montreal Royals, in 1946, and brought him down to Ebbets Field the following year.
It may be that with a score of any quality - Bob Brush's music lends fresh meaning to the term commonplace - or lyricsof the slightest distinction - Martin Charnin's are only a cut above the music they accompany - "The First" would show some signs of movement. Actually, the moments of greatest interest are of a balletic nature as they show that noble team in silhouette before the game, or in practice (the players handle the ball well, and there's at least one good fungo hitter), or, in a detail, Robinson stealing base. Only a genuine game could truly save the show, and the Beck stage can't quite accomodate one in spite of David Chapman's clean and clever stage designs.
Although "The First" is centered around that first year of Robinson's career in the majors, with his hiring from the Kansas City Monarchs (a black club), his initial ostracism by fellow players (an invented teammate, called Casey Higgins, does most of the nasty work) and fans, and his final acceptance, it is Branch Rickey, the Dodgers' remarkable president, who dominates the evening, such as it is.
Joel Siegel, who has provided the sketchily serviceable book, with Charnin's assistance, has created enough of a character here (including his appearance in a long scene on the veranda of a St. Louis boarding house, where Jackie and his wife, Rachel, are forced to lodge while the rest of the team is in a hotel) to make one wish "The First" had been a straight play. Rickey, rather than Robinson, has obviously aroused the writers' interest the most.
For a first act curtain we have the figure of Robinson on the field in his Brooklyn debut amidst catcalls, boos and the hurling of a watermelon which splits open at his feet. Actually, according to a friend who was there at the time, he was greeted with warm applause. And had "The First" followed suit, we could all have been out of the theater a good hour sooner.
David Huddleston, looking somewhat like a corpulent FDR, gives a wonderfully assured, humorous performance as Rickey that should at least win the actor a Tony nomination next spring. David Alan Grier is winning as Robinson, but the role doesn't amount to much, being more symbolic than real. Lonette McKee makes a pretty Mrs. Robinson and discloses an attractive singing voice in her one solo, "There Are Days and There Are Days," the evening's only number that comes close to what might be termed satisfactory, unless we include a comic use of the Prologue to "Pagliacci" in honor of Cookie Lavagetto.
The staging - Charnin has directed the book and Alan Johnson the musical numbers - is commendable, and the show has a nice look throughout, but it stands still and we have only the names - Stanky, Durocher (saltily set forth by Trey Wilson), Reese, Robinson, Rickey and Red Barber (himself! announcing offstage) - to stir our memories. Well, it really did happen. In life, that is; not on the Beck stage.
What is the great American pastime doing in the great American musical theater? Well it's not striking out, but it's not exactly hitting a home run either.
There have been other theatrical excursions for baseball in the past - including the musical Damn Yankees - but The First, which opened at the Martin Beck Theater last night, is the first to take baseball literally.
It is also the first to embrace a real ballplayer and to deal with a phase of his life with almost documentary accuracy. For The First is the Jackie Robinson Story - or at least the story of that remarkable season in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers when, together with the Dodgers' President, Branch Rickey, and a little help from the manager, Leo Durocher, baseball, virtually in one season became an integrated sport.
For Robinson it was a season of silence and triumph, of rebuff and final acceptance. He was a brave man as well as a great ballplayer, and the history he made was not confined to Ebbets Field.
The idea for a Robinson musical came to the drama critic Joel Siegel, who passed it on to Martin Charnin. Siegel wrote the book, with assistance from Charnin, who also wrote the lyrics and staged the entire show.
Siegel's hunch that this episode in Robinson's career is the very stuff of drama is undoubtedly justified. Here was a black kid - well, not exactly kid, for he was a graduate of UCLA and had been an officer in the U.S. Cavalry during World War II - tearing down a racial barrier. Remember at the time the only major sports integrated were such one on one sports as boxing and track events. No team stuff - where black and white overcame together.
So the idea is dandy. But is the idea dandy for a musical? I can see it for example as a magnificent film. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to bring sports to the stage. Charnin has decided to simulate the game naturalistically, with real bats and real balls. It doesn't really work - even though one of the highlights of the performance is a highly realistic Robinson stealing third base. For the most part we just see people playing softball with more flourish than expertise.
Most people wanting to see a ballgame would conceivably rather see it in a ballpark rather than a theater. This would not have mattered had Charnin and his choreographer Alan Johnson had imaginatively stylized the movements of baseball so that one was watching the essence of the sport rather than a pale carbon copy.
Yet even then we are dealing with a subject that has had its drama defused by history. We know the issue, we know the outcome, and the breathless short-hand of musical comedy vignettes has neither time nor space to expand, or even comment, on the bare bones of fact.
Siegel's book is crisp and to the point - it has a few good jokes and is a model of dramatic development, set between the morning after the Dodgers losing one pennant and the occasion, with Robinson, of winning the next.
Charnin's lyrics are also admirable, fluent and tough, with a feel for the past, the people and the place. The music by Bob Brush shows far less certainty. It has something, appropriately, of the big band sound, possibly helped by the orchestrations of Luther Henderson, and something else of those old razzmatazz baseball songs. Indeed it is at its best in a jaunty finale, The Opera Ain't Over, which reaches a hilarious peak when one of the heartfelt fans breaks into Pagliacci! Perhaps we should have had more Leoncavallo and less Bob Brush.
The performances vary somewhat. David Huddleston as Branch Rickey is the model of a compassionate but hard-nose tycoon. Trey Wilson gets a gentle humor from Leo Durocher, there are various well-illumined cameo performances, including Court Miller playing with quiet menace Casey Higgins, a fictitious Southern pitcher who resented Robinson's emergence into the Major League.
There is also a touching, dignified and well-sung portrayal of Robinson's wife Rachel, from Lonette McKee. However as Robinson himself, a personable newcomer David Alan Grier makes very little impression. He doesn't seem like the bat that launched a thousand hits.
Who will love The First? Certainly old fans of the Dodgers - it should probably be playing the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And perhaps other baseball buffs will thrill to the well-worn story and be intrigued at what ballplayers look like when they wear greasepaint rather than dust and sweat.
If you're going to do a musical about how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major-league baseball, there are two very difficult tasks that must be done right: you must find a singing actor who can impersonate the charismatic Robinson of legend, and you must find a method for simulating baseball games on stage. The paradox of ''The First,'' which opened at the Martin Beck last night, is that both these tough demands have been met well - and that the more routine tasks of creating a musical haven't been met at all. While this show offers about five minutes of good baseball and a promising star in David Alan Grier, its back is broken by music, lyrics, book and direction that are the last word in dull.
''The First'' is remarkably successful in draining the passion out of an exciting true-life story that unfolded between 1945 and 1947. That story, of course, is about how Branch Rickey signed Robinson for the Dodgers, and about how Robinson heroically rode out the racism of some white fans and fellow National Leaguers to make baseball, at last, a truly national pastime. As retold here, the tale is pretty much intact in terms of facts and events, but it hasn't been shaped into theater.
Joel Siegel and Martin Charnin's book consists of windy, if sincere, scenes that are written with all the flavor of a civics-class chalk talk. The structure that connects them is almost brazenly undramatic. It takes most of Act I merely for Robinson to sign his contract; in the meantime, the authors repeat or overexplain information, give us second-hand descriptions of offstage events and wander down blind alleys to introduce incidental characters. It's typical of the writers' wrongheadedness that they lavish a lot of attention on Leo Durocher (well played by Trey Wilson), the manager who was suspended before Robinson's first season, yet never even bring his successor, Burt Shotton, on stage. For humor, we generally get the slapstick antics of obese chorus members.
Worse still, the librettists distance us from their central conflict - between Robinson and his more racist teammates. Presumably for legal reasons, the real-life story's villains are fictionalized here - an acceptable compromise - but they are also turned into typical musical-comedy clowns. That is not acceptable. By making Robinson's antagonists into wholly buffoonish sit-com rednecks, the authors have trivialized and muted the real hatred that their hero had to face. Although we finally get a virulent conflict between Robinson and a white teammate in Act II, the scene is too little and too late to bring the show to life.
Bob Brush's music doesn't help. It's so devoid of melody or style that you sometimes aren't immediately conscious of when the talk ends and the singing begins. The songs are all the cliches you might expect: The Love Ballad (for the hero and his wife, Rachel), The Sportswriters' Song, The Villains' Song, The Fans' Song, and so on. They generally have no narrative or dramatic relationship to the book, and they could be sung in reverse order without significantly altering the drift of the show. The prosaic sound-alike quality of Mr. Charnin's lyrics is exemplified by two back-to-back song titles in Act II, ''Is This Year Next Year?'' and ''There are Days and There Are Days.''
While the baseball sequences are superbly done, Mr. Charnin's waxworks staging of the book scenes makes it hard to believe he's the same man who directed ''Annie.'' Time after time, we must watch actors sit around a table or desk - chatting in place, as if posing for an official photograph. The choreography is credited to Alan Johnson, but, like the other three musicals to open on Broadway in the past week, ''The First'' has virtually no dancing.
The casting of all the principals is good. In his Broadway debut, Mr. Grier gives us an impassioned, strong-voiced and tough-minded Jackie Robinson - not an impression, but a real performance. Though the role of Rachel Robinson hardly exists in the script, the striking Lonette McKee manages to fill her with vitality and warmth. The sandpaper-voiced David Huddleston captures both the idealism and pragmatism, as well as the humor, of Branch Rickey.
The evening's fullest accomplishments belong to the designers - David Chapman (sets), Carrie Robbins (costumes) and Mark B. Weiss (lighting). Unlike the authors, they give the musical a colorful, period Brooklyn ambience, and they use daring, abstract effects to take us smack into Ebbets Field for the two innings of ballplaying that end the evening. Yet even their inventive finale can't disguise the fact that ''The First'' is otherwise one long seventh-inning stretch.