Dallas — If you want to know why acting and sports don't mix, watch a terrible film from the 1970's called Number One. Charlton Heston stars as the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints. Charlton Heston also throws like a girl. A not-athletic girl. One who is maybe two years old.
I ran into TheaterJones editor Mark Lowry a few weeks ago and, spurred by the Dallas Theater Center’s Rolling World Premiere of Colossal, which closes this weekend, we discussed a couple of sports-themed plays, including Jackie & Me, about Jackie Robinson, at the Dallas Children's Theater the end of this month, in which I play Branch Rickey. But enough about me.
Since I'm one of the few people in town who has a foot in both worlds (30 years sportscasting, calling games for the Cowboys and Oilers, and 35 years acting at almost every theater in town), Mark asked me to offer some thoughts on sports on stage.
Here are some of the better, and not so better, plays and musicals with sports themes, in the order that they came to my mind.
THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON
Jason Miller (Father Damien in The Exorcist) won a Pulitzer and a Tony with his play about the 20th reunion of a Pennsylvania high school basketball team. A searing, taut drama about aging men whose biggest achievement happened when they were 18 years old. The original production made stars of Charles Durning and Paul Sorvino. The play has a Texas connection. Miller wrote the final draft while doing a dinner theater production of The Odd Couple in Fort Worth in the early ‘70s.
Probably the best of them all. Not just because it's full of great songs and comedy, but because it's a retelling of the Faust legend in an incredibly popular form. A brilliant opening number sets the stage for the rest of the show. And by the time the hapless Washington Senators sing "You Gotta Have Heart," you're pretty much hooked.
TAKE ME OUT
About a major leaguer who comes out as gay. It's been done twice locally, at WaterTower and Uptown, and I was the baseball adviser for both productions. I discovered that the toughest thing about a show like this is how difficult it is to make somebody who may be a great dancer, or even a fair athlete, look like a professional athlete. We all have seen so many swings of the bat and so many pitches from the pros that an amateur imitation always looks faulty.
During auditions at WaterTower, when director Terry Martin saw somebody he liked, I would then ask the actor to pick up a bat I had set on a chair. Then I would have them put it back down. After about eight actors, Terry asked me why I was only having them pick the bat up. As if on cue, my daughter Stacey, who was working at the theater, came into the room. I asked her to pick up the bat. She picked it up, took a hitters grip, hefted the bat to find out how it was weighted, and then said, "Yes?" I looked at Terry and said, "Stacey knows how to hit. Most of these guys pick up the bat like its a log and they don't know what to do with it."
The script of this one also has a major weakness. The play is ostensibly about Darren's coming out. But the way it's structured, the show is really about his teammate, Kippy, who is the one who makes everything happen.
The shower scenes speak for themselves.
Never seen it. Only read it. From the reading, it seemed to me to be a rehash of most of the stories and legends about the famous Green Bay Packer coach, Vince Lombardi. It didn't really break any new ground.
Haven't read it or seen it. All I know is, if you put two guys on stage and tell me one is Magic Johnson and the other is Larry Bird, they better look like Magic and Bird, move like Magic and Bird, and play ball like Magic and Bird. This is why the shows which are only tangentially related to their sports, like Championship Season, work better, because the physical requirements of game recreation aren't needed.
THE CHANGING ROOM
British writer David Storey (what a name) wrote this piece about rugby players in their locker room before, at halftime, and after a game. It's much more a character study than sports play and by now is probably very dated, having been written in 1970. This one has much more full frontal than Take Me Out. I remember it as an enthralling piece about the British working class. John Lithgow won his first Tony for the Broadway production.
THE GREAT WHITE HOPE
First of four best actor Tonys for James Earl Jones. This one made him a star. Playing heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who won the title in 1908, and who was Muhammad Ali long before Ali was born. A much younger, thinner Jones was magic in the title role. It's quite likely that teaching an actor to box is one of the easier sports tasks, since you can mime the boxer's moves realistically. The secrets to boxing are in the small, invisible things which make punches so lethal, and which the untrained eye won't be able to detect. I'm surprised this show isn't done more often. It's a great script with some powerhouse roles.
August Wilson. As they say in Pittsburgh, “What else needs said?” James Earl Jones again, the Tony again, this time as embittered Troy Maxson, who was unable to play Major League Baseball because the color barrier wasn't broken while he was at his peak.
A fantastic script, and Troy, at the center, is the equal of Willy Loman or James Tyrone. But the one moment where Jones wields a baseball bat, his body betrays unfamiliarity with it. The power of his acting conceals it, but it's still there.
THE PLAY ABOUT THE COACH
My friend Paden Fallis' excellent one-man show about the final moments of a college basketball game seen through the eyes of the coach, which he performed at WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival in 2009. He worked with college coaches to hone his performance. The physicality is perfect. He always looks up to the same height when talking to his center. He dishes with the refs like crazy. It's a very accurate, funny, tense show. Hoping Paden can take it around more.
As always in sports we leave room for argument. Don’t be shy. Step up to the mic and have your say.
Note from Mark Lowry: Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not much for sportsball, but I agree with Oristano (see, in coach fashion, I'm referring to him by last name) that my favorite sports plays have tended to be character studies, such as Lee Blessing’s Cobb. I can’t believe someone here hasn’t done that play. I was also curious about the musical version of Rocky, because the rhythms of boxing seem right for the musical format. I enjoyed Kristoffer Diaz’s wrestling play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, seen a few seasons back at Dallas Theater Center. And oddly, baseball seems to be the sport with the best works of theater, such as Fences and Damn Yankees (some might argue that's the case with film, too). I loved Take Me Out on Broadway, as well as the WaterTower Theatre and Uptown Players' productions. And to repeat Oristano, the shower scenes speak for themselves.
There was a recent American Theatre story about football plays, as, along with Colossal, X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) and Clutch and have been playing in regional theaters this season. You can read my review of Colossal in the Star-Telegram, here.
And in case you're a fan of football and opera, The Dallas Opera will have the world premiere of Jakie Heggie and Terrence McNally's Great Scott this fall. It's based on an original story by McNally, and is set in a large American city that has a respected but struggling opera company and a thriving professional football team. Hmmm, can anyone relate?
OK, go'head and start with the comments about sports and theater in the comments below.