He’s Got Game: Once Again, Eric Simonson Is Bringing Sports to the Stage

This time, it’s ‘batter up’ on Broadway

'Bronx Bombers.' (Photo by James Leynse)
‘Bronx Bombers.’ (Photo by James Leynse)

It’s best that this doesn’t get back to the boys in the bleachers, but Eric Simonson got a Tony nomination his first time at bat on Broadway 20 years ago, directing a play called The Song of Jacob Zulu, and now he helms, with some regularity, real operas.

It’s best because, among sports nuts, Mr. Simonson is known for his jock plots. With the blessing and backing of the National Football League (2010’s Lombardi), the National Basketball Association (2012’s Magic/Bird) and now Major League Baseball (this year’s Bronx Bombers, bowing Feb. 6 at the Circle in the Square), won by savvy Broadway producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, Mr. Simonson is turning professional athletics into a viable, rewarding Main Stem art by awakening that sleeping giant—the male sports fan—to the possibilities of theater.

The producers came up with the concept for Bronx Bombers, which Mr. Simonson dutifully executed. His play on the legendary Green Bay Packers coach came from David Maraniss’ tome, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, but he fashioned an original play from the facts of the hands-across-the-basketball-court relationship of the L.A. Lakers’ Magic Johnson and the Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird.

“We’re not just doing a play—writing a new play, putting it on stage. This is part of a longer mission to do a series of sports-themed plays,” Mr. Simonson emphasized in a recent interview.

“We really want to get an underserved audience into the Broadway houses, and we’ve succeeded in doing that in the other plays we’ve done.” (Lombardi, with 244 performances, was the longest-running straight play of its season.) “There’s an audience out there. If you give them something they are really concerned about and really interested in, they will make their way to a Broadway theater to see a play.”

So far, Ms. Kirmser has been pleased with the results. “We started off with Lombardi, which was about great leadership at a time when we’re all looking for inspirational stories after the crash of 2008,” she said. “Then, Magic/Bird looked at competition and friendship, and now, with Bronx Bombers, we explore what makes a great team. Why is this team called the Yankees—with 27 championships, more than anybody else—the great team that they are?”

Capitalized at $3 million—10 percent higher than the two preceding ventures—Bronx Bombers marks the first Broadway partnering of the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball.

Mr. Simonson, who is taking over the direction of the series from Thomas Kail, never intended Bronx Bombers to be a warts-and-all documentary. The play begins with that big bombast from the summer of ’77 when short-fused manager Billy Martin benches his star right fielder, Reggie Jackson, triggering a famous dugout fallout. Comes the dawn, when the play gets going, cooler heads attempt to prevail, as catcher-turned-coach Yogi Berra and team captain Thurman Munson try to talk the warring duo into some semblance of sportsmanship.

In Act Two, Mr. Berra, fearing George Steinbrenner will shoehorn him into Mr. Martin’s job, nods off into a fantasy where he and wife Carmen host a dinner for Yankee greats, present, past and passed: Elston Howard, Lou Gehrig, Derek Jeter, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.

Bill Dawes is among those double-cast: “I just thought, ‘Wow! Mickey Mantle! That’s the dream role, the Achilles of the New York Yankees, a beautiful, tragic figure. Thurman Munson seemed just a grumpy guy, but the more I researched and the way he’s written, I fell in love with him. He met his wife when he was 10 and just said, ‘I’m going to marry you some day.’ In high school, he said, ‘I’m going to play Major League Baseball.’ He just knew.”

C.J. Wilson gets to have a go at Babe Ruth. “He was a hero to me,” Mr. Wilson said. “He looked at things half-full. He just had such a strong belief in himself. One time, they were playing the White Sox and went into extra innings. The travel secretary was freaking out, because he was afraid they’d miss their train. It was the 14th inning, and Babe Ruth was on deck. He said, ‘What’s wrong?’ The guy said, ‘We’re going to miss the train.’ Babe said, ‘Oh, is that all? Watch.’ Boom! Home run! Game over! Stuff like that.”

Lou Gehrig may have considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of this Earth,” but he was also the most tight-lipped, according to John Wernke, who plays him here. “This piece is more about his presence,” he said. “You’re seeing him with the other players, and, if anything, he is a silent leader. Every one of them honors him with their understanding of who he is. Whereas Babe is bombastic and boisterous, Lou is reserved, quiet, shy.”

He had a lot to crow about, too. “Lou Gehrig was the first guy on the Wheaties box. He was the first guy to have his number retired. He was the first player to ever wear the number 4. For the longest time, he had the record for consecutive games played. Last year, Alex Rodriguez just broke his record for most grand slams in a lifetime.”

Joe DiMaggio was another parsimonious Yank. “He was a man of few words,” said his impersonator, Chris Henry Coffey. “I think that’s why he and Marilyn Monroe bonded. They lived with a tornado around them, but inside they were complicated.”

Christopher Jackson is portraying a living star. “It’s not legend,” he said of his role as Derek Jeter. “It’s something that’s happening every single day, and it’s things he’s known for—hard work, being accessible, just putting his shoes on like everybody else and going to work. Those are the qualities that make every great Yankee we love. That’s pretty consistent.”

In the opening scene, Francois Battiste, as Reggie Jackson, struts out like an indignant peacock, angrily circling an almost frothing Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs).

Their head-butting, in Mr. Battiste’s view, was the result of some imagined malingering. “Billy Martin thought Reggie was loafing in the outfield and could have thrown somebody out at second base if he’d hustled. Reggie felt, ‘I had a bad break on the ball. I wasn’t loafing. How dare you take me out of the game in the middle of an inning! I’m your man! I’m the big millionaire guy!’ It was those two schools of thought, so Eric wrote a scene where they get to say things that had been brewing.”

Mr. Battiste’s second-act character is in a quieter key: “Elston Howard was the very first black Yankee. He joined the Yankees in 1955. The Yankees took eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. They had a general manager, George Weist, who was not excited about the idea and said some very choice things.”

Mr. Nobbs, who played a sports reporter in Lombardi, makes a scrappy Billy Martin in Bronx Bombers. “He learned from his mom you get the first punch in quick and fast—and that, a lot of times, was why he was fired,” Mr. Nobbs said. “Once, he was fired by Steinbrenner the day after punching a marshmallow salesman. He couldn’t control it. He reminds me of Lombardi in Lombardi. There was something in him he couldn’t stop being.”

Since the play’s Broadway tryout last fall at the Duke on 42nd, there have been changes in the starting lineup. The Berras are now played by the Scolaris (Peter Scolari and his wife since June, Tracy Shayne). When the four met—actors and real-life Berras—they got on famously. “It was a moving, personal experience,” said Mr. Scolari. “I suspected it might be, but my expectations were exceeded by the experience of getting to look into his eyes and realize he was looking back. He was looking right into my soul.”

He’s Got Game: Once Again, Eric Simonson Is Bringing Sports to the Stage