Just as the 2010 football season moves into full swing, Broadway salutes a gridiron legend with an entertaining 90-minute drama called Lombardi. But since a theatrical presentation of an iconic figure can go in all sorts of directions, it is worth asking, as those Blackglama fur ads asked a few decades back, What becomes a legend most? The portrayal could be dark and disturbing, like the depiction of the artist Mark Rothko in “Red,” which won last season’s Tony Award for Best Drama. Or it could be joyful, like those in some of last season’s prize-winning musicals (like “Memphis,” “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Fela!”), which were celebrations of outstanding figures in the world of music, from Elvis Presley to the Afrobeat singer and political activist Fela Kuti.
Vince Lombardi has become a legend not only in football, but also in the wider culture of 20th-century America. He first gained attention in 1937 as one of the “Seven Blocks of Granite” of the Fordham University team’s offensive line. Soon after graduation (magna cum laude), he embarked on a coaching career that reached its climax in an eight-year run in Wisconsin from 1959 to 1967, leading the Green Bay Packers to five league championships, including two Super Bowl victories. Shortly after his death in 1970, the championship trophy was given his name as an annual reminder of his achievements.
The overall tone of admiration that permeates this play should come as no surprise; the show’s producers include “The Friends of Lombardi” and the National Football League. The show is inspired by the 1999 biography of Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, written by the Pulitzer prize-winning author David Maraniss. But a 90-minute drama cannot offer much of the more detailed and revealing picture found in Maraniss’s 500-plus pages.
“Lombardi” portrays a gruff and passionate man who, despite his daily Mass attendance, was no saint. His anger could be fierce, his demands on players relentless, his relationship with his wife and two sons problematic and his devotion to the job all-consuming. In this version of the story, however, these and other failings seem almost forgivable in light of the man’s triumphs and—win or lose—devotion to the game. As his wife, Marie, remarks at one point, Lombardi was passionate about three things: “God, his family, and the Green Bay Packers—not necessarily in that order.”
Based on a real incident described in Maraniss’s book, the action of the play is set in 1965, when the Packers are coming to the end of the season and preparing for a pivotal game against San Francisco. Look magazine has sent a fresh-faced reporter named Michael McCormick to write a piece on Lombardi to balance the harsh treatment given the coach in another magazine. Warned that he would not get much information out of Lombardi, McCormick interviews Marie, who is more than willing to talk to him, especially after a couple of martinis. The players he tries to interview—Paul Hornung, Dave Robinson and Jim Taylor—are hostile and suspicious until McCormick overwhelms them with his encyclopedic store of football statistics, especially about their own careers.
The narrative arc, built around whether McCormick will manage to file his story on time, may be a useful device to confine the action to a single week, supplemented by flashbacks. But it seems trivial compared with the larger struggles Lombardi and his team are facing. The story line is almost lost in the collection of incidents in the drama and fails to generate much suspense.
The play is constructed of some 15 scenes, alternating between the Lombardi living room, the practice field and the locker room. Played in the round, with the seating resembling a small football stadium, the production allows Lombardi to speak—or, more often, shout—at the audience as if it were his team. Each scene typically concludes with an exit line, which almost always evokes applause from the audience, turning it into a cheering section throughout the play.
There is much to cheer about. Marie’s sardonic comments about her husband and her own situation are crowd-pleasers. And Lombardi is a font of quotable remarks. One of his best comes as he recalls the N.F.L. championship loss to the Eagles in 1960: “We didn’t lose; we just ran out of time!” Marie’s wry observations, however, do not completely mask her utter lack of interest in the game, the monotony of the season’s weekly routine and her dislike of Green Bay in comparison with New York and New Jersey, where her days were happier. While Lombardi’s grumbling and tantrums are often played for laughs, the audience glimpses a darker side of his personality. Once, he slips and calls McCormick “Vincent,” suggesting a paternal fondness that Lombardi does not feel for his own son, Vincent Jr. When the coach rails against the shenanigans of his star player Paul Hornung, one character suggests that Lombardi secretly wishes he could be as free-spirited and fun-loving. There is even an early indication of the colon cancer that will claim Lombardi at 57.
The Lombardi philosophy reveals his religious and educational roots. In a confrontation with Jim Taylor, he barks that he doesn’t need any more trouble from him, “I had four years of pain at Fordham.” He claims that his belief in “freedom through discipline” and adherence to “a strict schedule” are bits of wisdom he picked up from his Jesuit professors. In a speech to the team, he quotes from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians about “running to win.”
The acting is uniformly excellent. Dan Lauria assumes the Lombardi persona with the familiar bull-dog grimace, bent shoulders and high-volume (maybe too high, too often) speech. Judith Light’s dry New Jersey working-class patois and sarcasm bring Marie to delightful life, while the smart-aleck, New York attitude of the up-and-coming Keith Nobbs captures the energy of every sports fanatic-turned-journalist who has ever made it big in the business. It is a tribute to the cast that at curtain call it comes as a bit of a surprise that there are only six performers. The world of the play seems more fully populated. While “Lombardi” may not make it into the theatrical Hall of Fame, it does make for a pleasant return to a legendary time in American sport presided over by the man whom the young sportswriter, near the end of the play, describes as a “perfectly imperfect man.”
A more original, sophisticated and riotously comic look at another grand American figure, the seventh president of the United States, has opened this season. The rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was a smash hit Off-Broadway at the Public Theater last season and is likely to enjoy similar success in its Broadway transfer. With anachronistic dialogue and situations, Jackson is portrayed as a rock star, sexy and rebellious, winning the presidency in 1828 on a wave of populist fervor, a rejection of the “elite Easterners” like John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren and others, who are portrayed as hilariously foppish, effete and self-absorbed.
The show’s charismatic young star, Benjamin Walker, dominates every scene, employing what might be called the “dude comedy” style of Keanu Reeves’s dopey characters in his early films and everything that Ashton Kutcher does. Jackson swaggers and swears, boasts and seduces to the emo-rock music of the inventive Michael Friedman. And the clever lyrics of the songs are clearly articulated and accessible (unlike almost every rock musical from “Tommy” to “American Idiot”).
Much is made of Jackson’s backwoods boyhood and stirring military victories, but most is made of what can only be called his mistreatment of Native Americans, whom he either slaughtered or forcibly moved by the hundreds of thousands onto barren reservations. Many of President Jackson’s decisions are painted as a cautionary tale to those who want “someone just like us” running the country today.
One suspects that this is not the most accurate portrayal of either the man or the politics of his era, but it is fun in its mix of history lessons and commentary on our current political mood. And it provokes a desire to head to the library (or flip on one’s Kindle) to find out more about this legendary president.
“Lombardi,” by contrast, doesn’t inspire the same curiosity about its hero’s actual life. But Maraniss’s book is on sale in the lobby, just in case.