On Broadway, The (Sports) Play Is Rarely The Thing

Sports events are very popular at Madison Square Garden in New York. But just up the road, sports-themed shows do not play well on Broadway.

Broadway's top 15 top-grossing hits of all time include "Monty Python's Spamalot," "Mary Poppins," "Hairspray," "Jersey Boys," "Rent," "The Producers," "Cats," "Chicago," "Wicked" and "Phantom of the Opera."

No sports themes in there.

This year, "Lombardi," a capsulated version of the life of Hall of Fame NFL coach Vince Lombardi, managed to do what few sports-themed plays have done: Have a successful run on Broadway. "Lombardi" ran from Oct. 21, 2010 though May 22, 2011, drawing praise, awards and a bevy celebs and athletes to its performances.

Virtually the same roster-led by co-producers Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser and writer Eric Simonson-will try to duplicate that success on Broadway in 2012 with "Magic/Bird," which follows the intertwining lives of NBA Hall of Famers Earvin 'Magic' Johnson and Larry Bird. "Lombardi" was successful in part because it marked the first time that the NFL officially partnered with a Broadway production. It also came with the blessing of the Lombardi family. That gave the production an extreme aura of authenticity that was lacking in many previous sports-themed shows.

Likewise, the NBA is breaking its Broadway cherry with "Magic/Bird." as a producer. However, the bigger impact for fans is that Magic and Bird themselves are involved.

"There always are challenges when you are putting together a production. But especially so when you are dealing with sports," said Ponturo, who was vp-global media and sports marketing at Anheuser-Busch prior to forming his own management firm in 2009. "Those of us who are sports fans, we are a tough audience when it comes to credibility and authenticity. We can be very quick to see when something does not meet those standards. So when the real players, the coaches, the family members give it a thumbs-up about its credibility, that is very gratifying."

In addition to "Magic/Bird," the success of "Lombardi" has helped in part to inspire other projects. "Ernie," written by sportswriter Mitch Albom about the life and times of the late iconic Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, is now playing in Detroit. In November, "Coach," written by veteran sportscaster Dick Enberg, which delves into the life of Hall of Fame college basketball coach Al McGuire, will hit the stage in Milwaukee.

And being prepared for Broadway for 2012-13 is "Bruce Lee: Journey to the West," a musical about the martial arts expert turned Hollywood star.

When considering whether to back a sports-themed play, keep in mind the ones that had successful Broadway runs. Among them:

  • "That Championship Season," which ran from September 1972-April 1974, and had a three-month revival earlier this year.
  • "Damn Yankees," which ran from May 1955-October 1957, then had a revival in 1994-95.
  • "Golden Boy," a drama about boxing, which ran from Nov. 1937 to June 1938 then again in 1952.
  • "The Great White Hope," with James Earl Jones as the first black heavyweight champion, which won several awards during its run from October 1968-January 1970.

Also keep in mind that Broadway history is littered with sports stories that failed to score with critics and/or audiences. Among them:

  • "The Babe," a one-man play about Babe Ruth, was shuttered after three shows in 1984.
  • In 1982, "The First," a musical about Jackie Robinson, lasted only a month.
  • Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight" in 1985 lasted only three days.
  • "Buck White," starring Muhammad Ali, ran for less than a week in 1969.

This, of course, does not include "Broadway" Joe Namath, arguably the biggest one-man show to ever hit the Great White Way.

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