by Kyle Stack / @KyleStack
More than 30 years after they began their rivalry in Salt Lake City, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird have landed on Broadway. Only it’s not actually them; just actors portraying them in a new play, Magic/Bird, produced by Kirmser Ponturo Group, which holds its first performance in New York City March 21. The official opening night takes place April 11.
Sports and Broadway might seem like an odd pairing, but Kirmser Ponturo Group, led by producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, has experience in the category. The group was behind Lombardi, the story of former Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, which ran from September 23, 2010 through May 22, 2011 on Broadway. Lombardi was critically acclaimed and Kirmser and Ponturo hope to recapture the magic of telling a another sports story—this time between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics greats—via a medium wholly unfamiliar to sports fans.
“We believe these sports stories create a great lesson for the theatergoer,” Ponturo said during a phone interview he and Kirmser conducted with SLAMonline in February. “Both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were very dedicated; they practiced relentlessly. Even though they had these amazing God-given talents, they didn’t take it for granted.”
Sports fans unaccustomed to the theatrical scene might be in for a jolt. Magic/Bird runs 90 minutes—without an intermission. Perhaps more startling to the uninitiated is that the cast is set at six. Kevin Daniels plays Johnson, Tug Coker reprises Bird and four other actors represent three characters apiece. (NBA purists will likely pay special attention to Peter Scolari, who plays ex-Celtics head coach/executive Red Auerbach, Lakers owner Jerry Buss and ex-Lakers head coach Pat Riley.)
Kirmser said that plays’ short scenes creates a faster pace than most other shows provide.
“It literally feels like basketball,” Kirmser said. “It moves along at an extremely fast pace. The film footage is pivotal. There’s a lot of it; it moves very quickly. It feels like watching ESPN. It’s much more of a major element than it was in Lombardi. We think that’s really exciting.”
The rivalry between Johnson and Bird is obviously the play’s focus. The two players first met on the court in the 1979 NCAA Men’s Basketball national championship game. Johnson’s Michigan State defeated Bird’s Indiana State, 75-64, in Salt Lake City. Johnson and Bird would go on to win eight combined NBA titles – Johnson had five with the Lakers, Bird three for the Celtics – with them meeting in the Finals in 1984, ’85 and ’87. They more or less finished their pro careers together on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, which ran the table in Barcelona to capture the gold medal. (Johnson came out of retirement during the 1995-96 season to play 32 games for the Lakers.)
According to Kirmser and Ponturo, the challenge in finding actors was to properly represent Johnson and Bird’s height. Both players were listed at 6-9. Daniels and Coker are 6-5; while the heights obviously don’t match, it’s their height in relation to each other and to their much shorter fellow actors on stage that creates an appropriate scale. Their personalities also match that the of the Hall of Famers they cover.
“Kevin has this brilliance and this smile that’s big and carries himself in a way that Magic does and did at that time,” Ponturo said. “The same with Tug Coker. He sort of had that quiet delivery but also picked up that sense of humor. Larry Bird has a very good sense of humor.”
How the actors not only look like their real-life characters, but portray their personalities and the triumph and conflict each went through, is what will tell the story. The sports background is something that Kirmser feels is relatable to many audiences—not just sports fans.
“We are taking a look at the country and the world around us and how difficult it’s been since 2008,” Kirmser said. “How people are just trying to get by. We felt passionately that sports stories are inspirational, and we felt that it’s important to put that out there right now.”
Magic/Bird will run at the Longacre Theatre in New York City beginning March 21 with an official opening night of April 11. Tickets can be purchased at magicbirdbroadway.com.