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Do You Believe in Magic (And Bird) On Broadway?

When Magic Johnson first heard that some producers wanted to make a play about his relationship and rivalry with Larry Bird, he thought they were crazy. Bird was just as skeptical.

JUNE 1985: Earvin Magic Johnson #32 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes up to shoot over Larry Bird #33 of the Boston Celtics during the 1985 NBA Basketball Finals at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
Photo: Focus On Sport | Getty Images
JUNE 1985: Earvin Magic Johnson #32 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes up to shoot over Larry Bird #33 of the Boston Celtics during the 1985 NBA Basketball Finals at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.

“I said ‘Larry, they want to do this play,’ and there was silence on the phone. He said, ‘What?’ But he warmed up to it and when Fran and Tony talked to him, he was really impressed with them. We decided, let's do it and it has been great.”

Fran and Tony are Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, who also responsible for surprising Broadway with Lombardi, a play about Packers coach Vince Lombardi which defied odds to become the longest running play on Broadway in the 2010-11 season.

How have they translated sports plays into a viable business?

By bringing a different demographic into the plush seats.

“The usual theater goer is female and 35 to 65 years old, that go with their gal friends to the theater,” Kirmser said. “That's the typical consumer. What's happening with this, is they're all grabbing their husbands and their boyfriends and saying, ‘Come on, you gotta come and see this.’ The content of the show is drawing all the sports fans, all of us that remember watching them play.”

“Now we’re seeing fathers bringing their sons,” Johnson said. “Their dads are saying, ‘Come here, let me show you my idols. Here they are up on stage.”

After only sellouts in previews the show opened Wednesday night to mixed reviews. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called it an “uninspired trek,” while Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post gave the show three stars, calling it “The Odd Couple with hoops.”

Everyone involved with the play knew that the show wouldn’t be successful if the actors didn’t perfectly nail Magic and Larry. Tug Coker, who plays Bird, practiced his shooting motion until it was exactly like Larry Legend. Kevin Daniels, who plays Magic, had to get down that smile.

One of the key scenes in the play, written by Academy Award winner Eric Simonson, is when Bird’s mother invites Magic over Bird’s house for lunch after they shot a Converse commercial in Bird’s hometown of French Lick, Indiana.

“That piece and that part of the play meant so much and it still means so much because if I didn't go to Larry’s home to shoot that (Converse) commercial and if I don't go to the house to have lunch, I don’t think we'd be sitting doing this play today.”

If the show has one thing going for it, it’s that there’s not going to be much sticker shock from the Broadway prices, which range from about $40 to $200 for the show. That’s because so many fans are used to paying top dollar for sporting events and businessmen who come can compare it to the expensed meal.

Said producer Tony Ponturo: “Coming from the corporate world, how many steak dinners and golf events can you do?

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com