A legend

The man whose name is etched into the Super Bowl trophy famously said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

That quote wasn’t original to Football Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi — UCLA’s Henry Russell “Red” Sanders expressed the idea first — but that crystallization of unwavering drive and perfectionism was quintessential Lombardi.

Not all that many plays and musicals are set in the world of sports. Yes, there are Golden Boy and The Great White Hope (boxing), Damn Yankees and Take Me Out (baseball), That Championship Season (basketball). But the list of successful stage shows isn’t a long one.

Eric Simonson’s Lombardi, which will get just its second post-Broadway production when it opens next weekend at Plantation’s Mosaic Theatre, adds to that limited list.

Simonson, a director, playwright and actor who’s a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is a Wisconsin native who shared an Oscar for the short documentary film A Note of Triumph. Steeped in the legend of the ex-Green Bay Packers coach, he read and loved When Pride Still Mattered, the 1999 Lombardi biography by Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss. Simonson tried two versions of a hallucinatory Lombardi play modeled on the Don Juan in Hell segment of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. But in crafting Lombardi for Broadway, Simonson took a more conventional approach to his subject.

“I didn’t want to do it as a cradle-to-grave story,” says Simonson, who aimed for a warts-and-all portrait of a legend and an examination of that drive to win.

His solution was to create the character of a journalist interviewing Lombardi for a magazine story in 1965, at a critical point in the coach’s career. But other than fictional writer Michael McCormick, the characters in Lombardi are representations of their real-life counterparts: Lombardi, his wife Marie, and Packers players Paul Hornung, Dave Robinson and Jim Taylor. Starring Wonder Years dad Dan Lauria as Lombardi, the play opened on Broadway in the fall of 2010, chalking up 31 previews and 244 performances.

When Mosaic artistic director Richard Jay Simon founded his company 10 years ago, he says, “I wondered how to make theater like a sporting event.” In other words, a big-deal event, not just one more show. Simon started with Lombardi by casting Ray Abruzzo, who played “Little” Carmine Lupertazzi on The Sopranos, as the coach, with Carbonell Award-winning actors Laura Turnbull as Marie Lombardi and Antonio Amadeo as the writer.

He has invited ex-Dolphins greats (Dwight Stephenson, Jim Jensen, John Offerdahl, Keith Byars, Kim Bokamper and Nat Moore) and sports broadcasters or journalists (Phil Latzman, Greg Cote, Jesse Agler, Dave Hyde, Will Manso, Ethan Skolnick, Jim Berry and Sid Rosenberg) to see Lombardi and participate in discussions after the show. The evening performance on Nov. 20 will have two special guests: Broadway Lombardi star Lauria and Lombardi’s daughter Susan, a Floridian who will soon move back to her beloved Green Bay.

Susan Lombardi went to the opening night of Lombardi on Broadway and thinks Simonson got her late parents just right.

“He captured to a ‘T’ the way my mom and dad were at home,” she says. “I went up to Judith [Light, who played Marie Lombardi] afterwards and said, ‘I don’t know if I should call you Judith or Mom.’ ”

Lombardi agrees with those who believe her father was football’s greatest coach. She and her mother would travel with the Packers, her busy father’s way of keeping the family close, and she had the same curfews as the players did. Her dad, who had once planned to become a priest and went to Mass every day, wasn’t easy-going.

“ ‘Tough’ is not the word for what he was. I lived at home until I was almost 21. He was as tough there as he could be on that ballfield. But I miss him terribly,” she says of her father, who was 57 when he died of colon cancer in 1970.

The script captures Lombardi as a tough, gruff, emotional guy who really cared about his family and his players. He would tell his wife to shut up, but verbally she gave as good as she got. When he did the show on Broadway, Lauria says, “I tried to find the moments that showed his humor. Everybody knows about the yelling.”

The facts of Lombardi’s career — victories in the first and second Super Bowl games, his play on the Fordham University offensive line as one of the “Seven Blocks of Granite,” his famous “power sweep” play, his long coaching apprenticeship before getting the Green Bay head coach’s job in 1959 — are artfully woven into the script. But it’s the human drama that carries Lombardi.

Abruzzo is taller and slimmer than the real Lombardi. Both he and director Simon have done prodigious research on the coach, watching a 2010 HBO documentary, listening to audio of him speaking, reading books about him. The actor isn’t trying to be a Lombardi impersonator, of course, but Abruzzo is doing everything he can to capture the essence of a legend.

“I prepared as I would for any role,” he says. “I saw Lombardi on Broadway twice, and I’m familiar with the music of it. There’s so much video of him.”

Turnbull says she has drawn a bit from her own marriage to actor Avi Hoffman to understand Marie Lombardi.

“You have to adjust and adapt, being married to anyone in the spotlight whose light shines brighter than yours,” she says. “Being married to Vince Lombardi changed her.”

The actors and Simon argue that sports and theater are not, after all, strange bedfellows.

“A lot of what people like about sports is the drama of it,” Amadeo says.

Simon adds that, on Broadway, many in the Lombardi audience were first-time theatergoers.

“Twenty percent of the people in the New York audience had never seen a show before,” he says. “For a change, a guy can drag his wife to the theater, instead of the other way around. We can already see that we’re getting lots of new business.”

Simonson has written another Broadway-bound, sports-related play. Magic/Bird, about the rivalry and friendship of basketball greats Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, will open at a still-to-be-chosen theater in March. Plays about sports figures, Simonson says, make sense.

“We theater folk tend to write about the same things over and over,” he says. “There are a whole lot of people who care about other things. Sports happens to be one of them.”


Source:  Miami Herald