PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Magic/Bird, a Tall Story on Broadway
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Eric Simonson's play Magic/Bird.
Not only were many of the faces of first-nighters filing in for Magic/Bird new to Broadway, so too were their heights. The Longacre Theatre, on April 11, was acre after acre of strapping young, and old, men. It was like a sequoia convention.
I was situated behind a 6-foot-4-inch New York Giant linebacker Mark Herzlich. Leveling with me, he said, "John Mara Jr. is one of the producers of this play. I'm here to support him, and"—lest he forget—"the fun and excitement of the show." Also dutifully in attendance was "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Rooney Mara, along with NBA Commissioner David Stern, player-coach-and-now executive Pat Riley and wife Chris, John McEnroe and son Sean, CBS Sportscaster Lesley Visser, NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, retired basketball greats Earl Monroe and Gail Goodrich, courtside fixture and film director Penny Marshall and John Starks of the New York Knicks. The superstars of the evening were, of course, the title characters — Earvin "Magic" Johnson, late of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Larry Bird, late of the Boston Celtics — there to relive their glory days when their fanatically fierce rivalry reluctantly, even grudgingly, turned into great and lasting friendship.
The key players who put Lombardi together last season for a respectable Broadway run — playwright Eric Simonson, director Thomas Kail and producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo — take to the court for another sports round of manly humor and heart-swelling sentiments.
The play begins with a pow! — on the day the competition died: Nov. 7, 1991, when Magic Johnson announced he had tested positive for the HIV virus and was retiring from the Lakers. The news had a spirit-killing effect on his longtime court rival and friend, who eventually followed him into retirement with back injuries.
The happiest of endings followed the fall of the curtain, when Magic Johnson, looking robust and well 20 years-and-counting later, joined his arch-friend/foe Larry Bird on stage with the cast of six for a few carefully selected words of appreciation.
Magic, of course, began: "We first have to thank Tony and Fran. When they called me up and told me they wanted to do this, I flew to New York to see Lombardi. It was a great, great production. And I called my friend, Larry, and — do you want to tell 'em what you told me?"
"I don't think so," Bird shyly demurred, drawing a huge laugh from the audience who quickly filled in the blankety-blanks with their imagined response.
"Trust me, it was short and to the point," Magic recalled. "We have been linked together," he said to his friend. "I don't know why God put us in each other's lives, but I'm glad He did. You're a blessing, man."
That compelled the tight-lipped and reticent Bird to speak. He recalled that faithful day in 1977 when he was about to get on the bus and first laid eyes on Earvin, toting a boom box on his shoulder and jive-dancing in his direction. "I thought, 'Well, here we go,'" he signed heavily. "I'd never know that 32, 33 years later, we'd be standing on a Broadway stage, laughing about this."
His tone turned serious. "Our competition was real. Our friendship's real. I would say early on, really because of me, the way that I went about my business was: I didn't want anyone to ever feel I had a weakness. I always felt that guys who went out to eat, guys who hung around together in the summer — they never had that drive and that passion to really beat their opponent as much as I did — so I was always the one who was standoffish. That was just the way I was, but later on when you get older and you mature a lot more, you have to acknowledge people, and this is a dear friend of mine. I love his family, his wife. We've all been through a lot of things in our life, but being up like this on stage in New York City — I think it's very special. I wish we could go back and compete again — not on the same team. It's been an honor and a privilege to play in our league — we have a great league with a lot of great young talent. We were very fortunate to play on the teams that were really stacked with Hall of Fame players, so don't feel sorry for us. We've been blessed."
The relationship that reluctantly evolves between the gregarious Magic Johnson and the parsimonious Larry Bird was not easily arrived at in the first place and not easily re-created in the second. "We rehearsed it quite a bit because we realized that that was going to be the heart of the story — of how these men turned. What was the turning point in their relationship? So finally we found out what we could do to capture these two giants in a room. If you were a fly on the wall, what would that be? It's been great. Every day we go out, we try to explore and find something new.
"Thomas, our director, has done an amazing job of catching this beautiful piece that's more than a show about two athletes or a show about sports. There's this element in it you can't describe to someone till they see the show. They're, like, 'Oh, it's about so much more than that.' It's been really wonderful to be a part of that."
Two startling things about Coker: Unlike Bird, he's not a blond, and he talks fast — in whole sentences. "Part of the thing about Larry is he focuses all of his energies inward so he really internalizes things," the actor noted. "You have to play with a lot of focus and a lot of concentration because there's so much listening on stage. That was a really good challenge for me to be there. You see other people getting laughs, being funny and gregarious and outgoing — and you know, for Larry to work, you have to go the other way because he focuses and internalizes like a laser.
"It's the first time that I've ever worn a wig in a show — Chuck LaPointe did them, he's amazing — I have two wigs in the show, and it was fun. There were a lot of fast quick-changes with the wigs so it was really a treat to learn how to do that."
Deirdre O'Connell, the brilliant Off-Broadway actress (Circle Mirror Transformation for one), was last seen on Broadway in the 1986 Lincoln Center production of The Front Page where, as Mollie Molloy, she leaps out of a window and was never seen on Broadway again — until now when she surfaces to field all the female roles in Magic/Bird. This chore also requires two wigs, she said: "At one point I switch wigs in 30 seconds, then I switch back again in 30 seconds in the next scene so I need two wigs. You can't do that with real hair."
The move "uptown" agrees with her. "Broadway feels great. Somebody said to me that one of the things about Broadway is that the people who go to Broadway shows really want to be there and they really want it to be a great time because they paid a lot of money to sit there. There really is a quality of audiences that are so excited to be there and so want this thing to be as fulfilling as they were hoping it was. It's a great vibe in the room. It's very similar to being Off-Broadway in most ways."
One of her roles is in the elusive "turning point" of the play — as Bird's mom, who wins Magic over in one massive, motherly sweep. "It's a sweet, beautiful scene, and it's very funny to have those three people in a room together."
Even funnier are the tavern scenes she shares with Francois Battiste and Peter Scolari, who play rival Magic/Birds on a fan level. "That's the whole Irish side of my family," insisted Scolari. "Sure, I have a relative who sat in those bars 30-40 years ago. Those New England accents I've heard since I was a little boy, so to be able to bring that — not just the regional dialect but the personal music — the culture of those personalities who obsess about sports the way we might obsess about theatre. That's rich — rich and vibrant stuff."
All told, he said, "I play four and a half characters. I play very briefly, for a page or two, Larry Bird's sports agent who was an attorney and then became Agent to the Stars eventually — Bob Woolf. but really I play four characters, and I fool around with Bob Woolf for a fifth character for a page. I play Pat Riley. Have you seen Coach Riley tonight? I'm only a couple of feet shorter than he is. What can you do? I mean, walk tall? I gotta tell ya, this is a fun ride because there is no time in the course of the play to feel out how it's going with this character because you're playing someone else. Then I come offstage and I'm changing and I'm going to play somebody else. It's very challenging and every exciting. Boy, talk about keeping you on your feet! I haven't needed a cup of coffee since I started this thing."
Battiste's big bit is a high-pitched Bryant Gumble. So far, he hasn't heard directly from the TV icon. "We've got somebody trying to hook something up. I haven't heard anything from him yet, but his wife is on the board of one of the companies who came to see it, and she loved it."
Rating their share of glad hands were Magic's wife, Cookie, and son, CJ, the son sporting a beautiful diamond-encrusted Chanel logo pin in place of a neck tie.
Andrew D. Bernstein, who took the iconic photo of the real Larry Bird and Magic Johnson that adorns the show's Playbill cover, posed with the sister who lights up his life, actress/singer Didi Conn Producer-actress Tamara Tunie, with her husband, cabaret crooner Gregory Generet, was the picture of post-show contentment: "Eric [Simonson] took something that is kind of epic and condensed it into something theatrical and beautiful. I think it was very amazing, very exciting. I'm very proud to be aboard."
Dule Hill and Tracie Thoms, late of Stick Fly, were in attendance — she just barely: "I'm back from L.A. where I worked on a pilot. I loved it tonight. I'm friends with Kevin Daniels and Francois Battiste. I'm so proud of them. We went to school together at Juilliard. Francois was in the last Off-Broadway play I did, Ten Things To Do Before I Die, and my first play in New York was Up Against the Wind, and Kevin was in that. We're all a very tight-knit family at Juilliard, and we're all very excited to see the success of each other. I'm so happy to be here and support them and cheer them on. I just got off the plane from L.A. last night, so I'm stupefied, but there's no place I'd rather be than here to support them. I got no choice. My friends are on Broadway. I'm on a plane. That's it."
The lone member of the Lombardi support team was its inquiring reporter, Keith Nobbs, who has recently been upgraded to clerk for a new HBO movie. "It's called 'Mohammed Ali's Greatest Fight,' about the moment Mohammed Ali was drafted for the Vietnam War and he claimed status as a conscientious objector, and then the whole thing went to the Supreme Court. It's Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella, Harris Yulin, Bob Balaban and Ed Begley Jr. It's all about the inner workings of the 1971 Supreme Court."
Jeffrey Donovan, now in his sixth season of "Burn Notice," was a surprise guest. "I'm trying to get back into theatre, and this is my first step," he explained. I'm actually a producer on this. Tamara Tunie is a good friend of mine, and she called me and said I had a unique opportunity and she'd like to talk to me about it. She said, 'It's a play about Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.' I said, 'I'm in.'"
Sure enough, his Playbill bio ends with: "This is Mr. Donovan's first time as a Broadway producer. He is terrified."
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