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‘Lombardi’ Makes a Play On Broadway

On Sunday, two of the most storied franchises in football history, the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, will compete for the chance to bring home their sport’s most coveted prize: the Lombardi Super Bowl trophy.

The recent Broadway play Lombardi , written by Eric Simonson, captures the man behind the great Lombardi myth — a man to whom “God, family and the Green Bay Packers” were most important (“but not necessarily in that order,” as wife Marie Lombardi once put it).

Simonson’s first take on the Lombardi story was a play called The Only Thing, which debuted at the Madison Repertory Theater in Madison, Wisconsin in 2007. The new version is focused more biographically on Vince Lombardi’s character, family and team and is about to extend its run at the Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway through June 2011.

Simonson talked to Art Beat about adapting the iconic football figure for the stage, and the good timing of having the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl:

Why do you think that Lombardi has become such a revered figure among football and sports fans? What is it about the man, years and years later, that still speaks to people?

Well, he is a very intelligent guy who had his ear to the ground and I think anybody who speaks a certain kind of truth has an effect on people. Lombardi kind of did that over and over again with his speeches and his sayings. The one that keeps coming back to me these days is, “we can chase perfection; we may not get to perfection but if we chase perfection we might catch excellence.” When people are looking to be motivated, often they go to Vince Lombardi’s quotes. It’s not just what he said, it’s the way he said it. If you listen to his speeches, he has a kind of cadence to the way he said things. I always like to describe it as kind of like a machine starting to spin out of control, but just at the point when you think it’s going to fly apart, he caps it off with a big crescendo and a big finish. I think he just inspires people with his words. And also his actions – I mean, to win five championships in seven years is unbelievable.

And Lombardi came in at just the right time, when professional football was coming into its own and nationally televised games were coming into being. And the Green Bay Packers alumni, the ones who were coached by him, are like disciples of Jesus who have gone off to spread the good words of Vince Lombardi every chance they get.

Are you a football fan and a Packer fan yourself, and did that have any bearing on your decision to write the play?

I like football, I grew up with it and I grew up with the Packers. Vince Lombardi is kind of a Wisconsin icon. I wrote a play about Frank Lloyd Wright (called Works Song) and I thought, I’ve written a play about Frank Lloyd Wright that did pretty well; what other Wisconsin icon can I write about? The natural conclusion I came to was Lombardi.

What kind of audiences have you found that the play attracts? Mostly Packer and sports fans, or theatergoers of all kinds?

Really all kinds, as far as I can tell. You know, when the Packers have been playing on Sundays, we still get good-sized audiences at the matinees. I can’t believe that those are rabid Packer fans or football fans, they have to be theater people. The performances have been getting a lot of really good of word-of-mouth in the theater community and there are lot of people who come to see the play because they enjoy theater and they enjoy good acting. The whole cast is great, and the more showy characters are the roles of Vince Lombardi and Marie and I think Dan [Lauria] and Judith [Light] just do a spectacular job playing those characters.

How has the Packers’ appearance in the Super Bowl affected the popularity and the message of the play? Have you noticed a heightened interest?

I haven’t been fanatic about looking to see all the sports coverage leading up to the Super Bowl, but I have noticed that Lombardi gets a lot more shout outs than he probably normally would in a Super Bowl because the Green Bay Packers are there. I think it’s also because there’s our play and there is an HBO special (about Lombardi) and there seems to be something in the air about bringing this guy back to life. We have noticed that ticket sales have picked up and certainly people are referencing the play as we talk about the Super Bowl. The cast is really excited and there is kind of a feeling around the production that there is something magical happening.

How was the NFL involved in the production and advertising surrounding the play?

They are an in-kind producer of the play. Our producer Tony Ponturo knew (National Football League commissioner) Roger Goodell from his Anheuser-Busch days and so the producers formed a relationship with the NFL where (the league) would come in as producing partners. They haven’t invested money in it but they’re behind the production and they have supported it. The play appeared on their website and you could buy tickets through them, and during the playoffs there were these video clips using Dan Lauria as Vince Lombardi sort of urging the playoff teams to win games through motivational speeches.

Do you think that this show has stood out as unique somehow in the Broadway community? Was there a process of integrating into the Broadway scene that you had to go through?

I think that we were looked at as kind of a curiosity when we came in. We are not a typical production, this isn’t a play thematically that you would normally see on Broadway and I think it was pretty apparent that we were looking to reign in a new kind of audience. You know when you get to the theater world, and particularly the Broadway community, you feel like you are entering a tribe in the middle of Africa or something. It’s got its own set of rules and does and don’ts and taboos and I think we broke a couple of those, oddly, by being more in the mainstream. It’s an interesting world.

What’s next for the show and what’s next for you in your work?

We’ve had people interested in producing (the show) outside of New York but that’s to be determined. I always have about ten different projects that I’m working on and that hasn’t changed. I direct a lot of opera. I have two outstanding play commissions I have to write and then a bunch of television projects that I’m working on.

Watch a clip from “Lombardi”:

Are any of your upcoming projects sports-related?

Yeah, there has been a lot of interest in the TV world. I’ve had a few meetings now where people are pitching me their sports team projects, which I don’t I mind. I think it’s a great area to get stories from.

Do you have a Super Bowl pick, and will you be somewhere watching the game this Sunday?

I’ll be watching the game. I’m supposed to go to a Super Bowl party, even though I do a lot better when I watch these things by myself. I’m suspicious about picking winners when it comes to the Packers because you know you are setting yourself up for disappointment, but I actually think they are going to win.

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