Leveraged-buyout specialist Al Tapper has nursed two dreams since the early 1950’s, when he was a 10-year-old in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“One was to play center field for the Red Sox and the other was to write a Broadway musical,” Tapper, 70, said last week. “I don’t think I’ll be trying out for the Red Sox any time soon. But maybe I’ll get the other one.”
“National Pastime,” for which Tapper wrote music and lyrics, began performances last night off-Broadway. With a book by Tony Sportiello, it’s about a struggling small-town Iowa radio station in 1933. The station manager plans to boost ratings by airing imaginary games of a fictional minor-league team.
“You couldn’t do that with TV or internet,” said Tapper, who was wearing dark slacks, a blue dress shirt and Ferragamo loafers at a recent rehearsal in Manhattan’s fashion district. “Even if it’s silly and screwball comedy, it could theoretically happen.”
Tapper grew up idolizing Ted Williams -- one of baseball’s best -- and listening to vinyl LPs of cast recordings of “My Fair Lady” and “South Pacific.”
At Boston University, he wrote a musical about college life and played center field for the B.U. team. After enlisting in the Army during the Vietnam War, he got married.
“I had a baby right away,” he said. “I was 22 and I had to make a living.”
Tapper and his older brother, Charles, got involved in a variety of businesses, from plastic cutlery and tumblers to steel wool.
At their peak, the Tappers employed some 1,000 people, generally financing acquisitions with debt. Jet Plastica and Rhodes American Steel Wool are among the entities they created by combining existing companies. (Both concerns still exist, although the brothers sold their stakes.)
“Our philosophy was anything that wasn’t a hula-hoop -- something faddish,” he said. “Steel wool was around for 100 years and it would be around for another 100 years.”
“I was very good at what I did but I never liked it,” he said. “Going to work was like having root canal done.”
Stressful as business was, it paid for homes in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Boca Raton, Florida and a 4,000-square-foot midtown Manhattan apartment Tapper put on the market for $5.5 million. (He plans to move to a smaller apartment at the Pierre Hotel.) It also funded an extensive baseball memorabilia collection that he describes as a legacy for his four grandchildren. It includes the original home plate from Yankee Stadium, which opened in 1923, and cleats that Williams wore in his last game.
Success subsidized his artistic endeavors, such as the musical “Sessions,” originally titled “I Never Sang for My Therapist.” It played both New York’s Algonquin and a theater in Guadalajara, Mexico. Sportiello, who’s worked for Bloomberg Television, produced that show.
“National Pastime,” Tapper’s first about baseball, premiered last year at Washington’s Keegan Theatre. It includes a catchy anthem, “We are America,” which Tapper wrote at his piano days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Nelson Pressley in the Washington Post called the show “syrupy” and bemoaned “the lack of an actual plot.” Tapper and Sportiello said the tough reviews weren’t far off; they’ve done extensive rewrites.
They’re not inviting critics to the two-and-a-half-week New York engagement. They are charging $35 per ticket, which probably won’t go far in recouping production costs of about $200,000. Tapper and Sportiello both said they invested in it.
“I just want to make sure we have it right,” Tapper said.
Through Aug. 25 at 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://nationalpastimethemusical.com.
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, Jason Harper on cars and Lance Esplund on art.