Simonson has found niche with sports plays

Milwaukee native Eric Simonson has created quite a niche for himself among American playwrights. He is “the sports guy.”

“When you’ve written ‘Lombardi’ and  ‘Magic/Bird,’ you’re kind of the go-to-guy for sports projects,” Simonson said this week in a telephone interview from his home in California.

After “Lombardi” completed seven-month run on Broadway last year, the show’s producers decided to commission a play on the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Simonson was hired to write the script. The “Lombardi” director and several other key behind-the-scenes contributors were also brought into the production.

“We got the team together again, and we all thought it was a great idea,” Simonson said. “The story is out there, and my preliminary proposal was that Lombardi felt very much like a football game. You had long stretches where scenes took place and some sort of change happened and then the game started. I said, ‘What if we make this like a basketball game?’ — quick, short scenes, back and forth, see-sawing dramatically from one character to another.

“Conceptually and visually, it was going to be very different. This should have a lot of media in it because you can’t really tell the story of these guys without going through some of the key games, and I thought that would be a very exciting, forward-thinking way of presenting the story.”

Simonson’s play begins when the two main characters meet in the 1979 NCAA championship game and ends with the “Dream Team” of the 1992 Olympics. He wrote the heroes as mythical figures, “modern day sports gods” who reached for the heavens with great hubris — which turned out to be their tragic flaw.

“Magic Johnson, he had a kind of a lust for life that eventually ended up with him being HIV-positive,” Simonson said.  “Larry was sort of insistent that physically he wasn’t going to deteriorate with age. In the summertime, he would take on these awesome chores that had nothing to do with basketball against the wishes of all of his doctors, feeling he was invincible, and he wasn’t.

“Both of these guys thought they were invincible, but they were actually mortal.”

Johnson and Bird consulted with Simonson on the story, and the NBA itself was a “special producing partner” for the show.

“We have all kinds of sports organizations coming to us now saying, ‘What about us? When is it going to be our turn?’ ” Simonson said.

The show previewed at Broadway’s Longacre Theater on March 21 and officially opened on April 11. But “Magic/Bird” did not have the theatrical staying power of “Lombardi” and closed May 13 after 23 previews and 38 performances.

“The early performances were great,” Simonson said. “Standing ovations, cheers at the curtain call, just very similar to Lombardi and the big buzz afterward, which was ‘Which did you like better? “Lombardi” or “Magic/Bird”? ‘ 

“For some reason — I don’t know if there’s a difference between a football crowd and a basketball crowd — there were some different things about this production. With ‘Lombardi’, we knew where we were going to be six months out. Producers got a chance to schedule a lot of groups and push ticket sales a long time in advance. With this show, we were going for one of the better theaters on Broadway even though we had it just two months beforehand, which put us behind the 8-ball.”

“Magic/Bird” received mostly positive reviews from traditional theater media and nontraditional stage reporters like ESPN and Marv Albert. (Huffington Post called it “The ‘Rocky’ of the theater.”)

Simonson said one of the major challenges was finding two tall actors to play the lead roles. Kevin Daniels, who portrayed Magic Johnson, and Tug Coker (Larry Bird) had both the height and the talent to fit the bill, but neither has great name recognition, which is sometimes necessary to attract audiences for the long-term.

Unlike “Lombardi,” which starred Dan Lauria (“The Wonder Years”) and Judith Light (“Who’s the Boss?”), “Magic/Bird” had only Peter Scolari (“Newhart” and “Bosom Buddies”) — who, with the help of a great makeup department, played Red Auerbach, Pat Riley and Jerry Buss.

“One of the things that was really brave about the production was that the producers said from the get-go they didn’t care if they had stars in the play or not,” Simonson said. “We didn’t really have that Phillip Seymour Hoffman headlining our play.”

Simonson and the producers are pleased with the fact that despite its short run, the play attracted a large audience of people who wouldn’t normally go to the theater. And though the final buzzer for “Magic/Bird” has sounded on Broadway, the two sports legends could find a home on stage elsewhere in the future.

“I think this could play in Boston, in Los Angeles, in Detroit, Indianapolis and maybe some other cities, too,” Simonson said. “I think it could do really well on a short tour, in certain cities, for half a week or a week at a time, but that requires another effort to raise money for that. This is commercial theater. It’s not easy to do. On the other hand, there seem to be a number of people willing to invest in theater these days.”

Simonson, who is pleased “Lombardi” will be performed by Door County’s Peninsula Players September 5 through October 14, is working on multiple non-sports projects these days but also on a screenplay for “Wonder Crew,” an independent film about the 1920 U.S. Olympic rowing team. Just what you’d expect from “the sports guy.”

“Sports is the backdrop,” Simonson said. “If it’s a good story, it’s worth writing.”