12/18/2013 9:58 P.M. ET
'Bronx Bombers' tells Yankees' tale on Broadway
Take a journey back in time at Circle in the Square Theater starting Jan. 10
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- So, how did the Yankees win 27 World Series championships?
Let's just ask them.
Starting Jan. 10, go to the new Broadway play "Bronx Bombers" at Circle in the Square Theater on West 50th Street, right next to the home of perennial hit "Wicked." You will walk into a grand lobby that sets the tone for what is inside, a veritable extension of Great Hall and the museum inside Yankee Stadium, themed by the Yankees, Major League Baseball and Steiner Sports. Then, for two hours you will mingle inside with the legends themselves.
"I think the time is right to show where the Yankees came from," said actor Keith Nobbs, who portrays former infielder and manager Billy Martin. "There's such a history in New York, so in the hometown, telling that story -- especially now, with how the Yanks are doing -- it's a good time to come back home, remember where you came from."
"Bronx Bombers" is produced by Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, the longtime Anheuser-Busch titan of sports sponsorship. It is written and directed by Eric Simonson. That trio found success with "Lombardi," which had a nine-month Broadway run, offering what they believe is ample precedent for a transcendent production that will cater to lifelong Yankees fans or out-of-towners simply taking in a play and mildly keen on the national pastime.
"It is such a treat to tell this story," Kirmser said. "'Bronx Bombers' takes a look at the Yankees and the fact that they are statistically the most successful team with 27 championships, and we asked, 'Why is that?' It's an exciting journey following Yogi and Carmen Berra through the decades from Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter to take a look at that. ... This is about the relationships between these men, this is about how these men step up for each other on the field, and I think we can all relate to that."
"People can relate to their everyday lives," Ponturo added. "You can almost take off the uniform, and the conversations and the pressures and how they balance work and life and just their individual relationships, we all do it every day in the workplace, we all do it in everyday life. That's why we think it really stands up, so even though we have those uniforms on in parts of the play, it really can stand up without the uniforms, because people relate to it in their everyday lives."
The play, which had a trial run off Broadway, follows Yankees legend Berra and his wife Carmen through a century of the team's trials and triumphs, transforming the audience and perhaps rustling a conjured cornstalk or two from "Field of Dreams." The Berras, fittingly, are portrayed by a real-life married couple: Peter Scolari and Tracy Shayne.
The cast also includes Francois Battiste (Reggie Jackson/Elston Howard), Chris Henry Coffey (Joe DiMaggio), Bill Dawes (Mickey Mantle/Thurman Munson), Christopher Jackson (Derek Jeter), John Wernke (Lou Gehrig) and C.J. Wilson (Babe Ruth). Because baseball and theater are interwoven here, it is worth noting that this is the C.J. Wilson who just portrayed Herr Zeller on "Sound of Music Live" and not the C.J. Wilson who pitches for the Angels.
"I think people will be surprised," Dawes said. "I think people who aren't into baseball are going to come and see it and love it. I think families will love it, couples will love it. It's about friendship and teamwork and what it takes to be great, and what it takes to make the people around you great. Anyone can relate to it. If you don't know baseball, you'll learn a lot. And if you do know baseball, you'll get a kick out of seeing all those legends in action."
During a media event on Wednesday at The Palm Restaurant near the production's upcoming home, each of the actors spoke thoughtfully about the inherent challenges of portraying icons. It has required exhausting -- and educational -- personal research in each case. In some cases there is an uncanny resemblance, too -- most notably with Battiste, who really does have the face of Reggie. Any chance he will meet up with No. 44 himself?
"I'm not going to ask him for advice," Battiste said. "I hope he does come and see it. I've done extensive research, as best I can, and at the end of the day I'm not Reggie, I can never be Reggie, but I will do my best to bring his story and his point of view to light through the amazing script that Eric has written. ... It's going to be a kaleidoscope of emotion."
Ruth and Gehrig will be there again, side by side, as they were in the lineup of the original Bronx Bombers, Nos. 3 and 4, arguably the greatest tandem in sports history.
"It's terrifying and inspiring," Wilson, who grew up with football in Alabama, said of playing The Bambino. "He just believed in himself, and that's very inspiring -- his attitude toward baseball, 'I swing big with everything I've got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.' That's extremely inspiring, so it's both."
Wilson said his research of Ruth included YouTube videos.
"What's really hit me is how his energy was off the charts, how he just had this really strong presence," Wilson said. "He has a cameo in a Harold Lloyd film [Speedy, 1928] for like two minutes. Harold Lloyd drives him to Yankee Stadium. And it's silent, but it's fantastic. He's got so much energy."
Shayne and Scolari spent an evening with the Berras at Yogi's museum at Montclair State University, and they bonded.
"The first thing she said to me was, 'Oh, my! You're me 50 years ago!'" Shayne said.
"I don't want to be presumptuous, but their relationship, they have been together many more years than we have, but there are similarities there," Shayne added. "I am very much at my husband's side. I always have been and feel very supportive of him. I think I can learn some things from Carmen. I'm afraid he's going to trip and fall. Maybe it'll help make me a better partner."
The play has two ambitious elements. One is a compelling story about the 1978 Yankees of Bronx Zoo fame and their "family in crisis," as Scolari described it, with Reggie vs. Billy at the center. The other is a magical joining in one evening of all those legends.
"We plan to give you an evening in the theater that cannot be compared to anything you've ever seen before," Scolari said. "If we don't tell a story doing it, then it's Beatlemania, and that's not what we're about."
"The story is about being on a team," Shayne said. "What is it like for an individual to be on a team, and what happens to an individual as life evolves, and as the team goes through many things -- as the Yankees have and all teams have? There is a correlation there between the drama of sports and the drama of theater. I think that one does not necessarily have to be a sports fan or even a baseball fan to really be affected by the story, although it's wonderful if one does have a knowledge of baseball."
Will Jeter stop by the Circle in the Square one day and see how Jackson handled his part? Will this become the biggest baseball show ever to hit the Great White Way? Only time will tell. Simonson said he can't wait to see the convergence of interests.
"I just love reaching out to a different sector of the population to come and see theater," the playwright said. "I grew up both as a sports fan and as a theater fan. So this is kind of like bliss for me. Whenever I can get somebody who has never been to the theater before and see what that experience is like, it's just a win."