Will “Lombardi” Score a Touchdown on Broadway?

Before seeing the final performance of Patti LuPone’s Gypsy, the bloggers who brunch gathered at Thalia’s for another one of our Algonquinesque gatherings. As always, we met knew friends, caught up with old ones and this time we were particularly curious to talk about the “Penultimate Patti” episode at the previous evening’s performance of the Great American Musical. After brunch, we made our way down to the Marriot Marquis where we decided to continue the party at the Atrium. While we were sitting around with our morning libations, I couldn’t help but notice that the Giants-Eagles game was on the big screen TV above my friends’ heads. While we talked, I found myself constantly getting distracted by the events onscreen. Then when the Giants scored, all hell broke loose as I couldn’t contain my excitement bringing about looks of surprise from the others at the table.

I’ve come to realize that it’s rather a lonesome existence being both a sports and theatre fan. There aren’t too many people out there who are both. I know there are, of course, but it’s rather difficult talking sports to theatre people and theatre with sports people. When I was college, I was met with considerable scorn from some theatre students when I said that I spent my Sundays watching football with my housemates or that I was hoping the Yankees would win another World Series. Until recently, it seemed to me that most of the theatre people I knew or surrounded myself with seemed to dismiss organized sports of any kind. Even my college voice teacher thought it was insane that I’d watch the Super Bowl. It just seemed to me if you liked sports and you were involved with theatre, it was better just to keep that information to yourself.

On the other hand, and much to my amazement, my housemates and friends who weren’t involved in theatre – and were far greater sports devotees than I ever was – were the exact opposite. I would come home from the city, mostly after seeing The Light in the Piazza, and one or more would ask me about the show. Nothing in depth, just seeing if it was good and if I had a good time. You wouldn’t have seen them dropping everything to see Grey Gardens or Spring Awakening, but their interest was genuine.

While football and theatre seem miles apart, I think there are similarities between the two. Fans gather in one location, whether it’s a theatre or a stadium, for a few brief hours of communal enjoyment and entertainment. Neither is as exciting on TV as it is live. There are players, who have worked hard at their craft and are fueled by their adrenaline and discipline to succeed. Then there’s the audience (whether it’s the more subdued big black giant in a Broadway house, or the arena filled with noise, team colors and pride) who is the inactive participant in both realms. Football even plays out with high drama. Each player has a specific role to play on the field. Every play has been carefully rehearsed from every possible angle, there have been practices and drills. When the game starts, however, anything can happen, in a sort of athletic improvisation. Injuries, upsets, energy fueled disasters and comebacks are all possible. The experience is even similar post-show or post-game: spectators walk away with defined opinions, talking about what was good, what was bad and the memorable players involved.

I like to think that my housemates, who would watch three games of football every Sunday,  are a primary target audience for the new Broadway play Lombardi, which opens tonight at the Circle in the Square Theatre. In an unprecedented move, the NFL is making its Broadway debut as a producer of Eric Simonson play about arguably the most famous coach in football history. It seems an unlikely combination and I know there are many wondering whether or not there is an audience for it. (My buddy Linda Buchwald wrote a great piece on Lombardi’s marketing strategies and challenges for TDF). What has been interesting to me; however, is that I have non-theatre friends coming out of the woodwork asking me about the play or excited that it’s happening. Even my father, whose sole Broadway experience was the 2008 revival if South Pacific, has expressed interest in going.

I guess you could say I’m a NY Giants fan by birth. It’s been a team my family has supported for years. My uncle went to elementary school with someone who worked for the team, so he, my father and grandmother regularly attended Sunday home games at Yankee Stadium (for free) and even got to know some of the team players of the 1950s. (My grandmother had a big crush on 20-something Frank Gifford and even started to cry after he was famously tackled by Chuck Bednarik). However, I first became aware of the Green Bay Packers in 1992 while my family was vacationing in Wisconsin while taking in the Great Lakes region. One of our stops was Lambeau Field and the Packer Hall of Fame. Ever since, I’ve had a soft spot for the team, rallying them on in their 1996 Super Bowl win and beyond. My uncle also went to elementary and high school with Bob Hyland, who was a member of the team from 1967-69 and 1976. So there’s long been an interest in the team.

I don’t know what fate awaits Lombardi, but I am curious to see the show. Lombardi is a fascinating, larger than life persona who was known for his work ethic and great success on the field and is still quoted among football fans like scripture.  His popularity was such that legend has it Nixon considered him for Vice President in 1960 (apparently not aware that Vince was Democrat and Kennedy supporter). He led the Green Bay Packers to victory in the first two Super Bowls, and the trophy is named after him making him forever synonymous with the sport. Forty years after his death (of cancer at age 57), he is still one of the most recognized and iconic figures in American sports.

Opening any new play on Broadway is a significant risk and I think everyone involved, or even on the periphery,  is curious to see how this will be received. Plays about football are few and far between; the original Good News from 1927 is the only success that comes readily to mind (even its revival closed in two weeks), so it seems to be an uphill climb. The lobby of the Circle in the Square Theatre has been transformed into a mini Lombardi museum, with sports memorabilia and the unlikeliest of Broadway lobby displays – the Vince Lombardi trophy itself. Football fans have been seen in the theatre, dressing up in Packers’ jerseys. I know there is some hope that theatre first-timers will enjoy the experience enough to come back. Between Mark Sanchez admitting his love of showtunes and appearing on the Tony Awards to this original play, I like to think that we’re bridging a gap.

Is anyone else as interested in see Lombardi as I am?

3 thoughts on “Will “Lombardi” Score a Touchdown on Broadway?”

  1. I bought my ticket yesterday! It’s my 10th ticket for the fall theatre season in New York, so it wasn’t super high on my list but I was intrigued, especially when it started to get some good buzz on Twitter.

    Partly it was a process of elimination, not wanting to see other shows. But part of it is genuine interest. I was a sports fan as a kid, even though my parents were not. I followed the Red Sox and I’d watch football on TV. And when I worked in Syracuse, I’d go to minor league baseball games with my friends.

    But really, my interest in Lombardi stems from the fact that he’s such an iconic American figure and I like seeing and supporting new American plays. Coincidentally, Lombardi takes place in the same year as the recently completed season of Mad Men, so it’ll be interesting to see the mid 1960s from another angle.

  2. And here I thought I was the only person who loved theater and football!

    Another fantastic post. I hope I get a chance to see the play. It’s not often we get football and theater at the same time. Good News isn’t exactly done all the time…

  3. I know the reviews weren’t that great, but I still think it’s an interesting cross-over idea. I like that there is an attempt here to introduce theatre to a new audience, and that professional football is involved in the process.

    Were you given any strange looks while at college, Kevin? I’ll never forget the expressions; like the audience at “Springtime for Hitler.”

    As for “Good News” I wouldn’t mind seeing it done… (hear that, Encores…?)

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