Lombardi: The man, the myth, the Broadway play

In the history of real-life people whose lives have been turned into Broadway plays, it’s safe to say none has more NFL victories than Vince Lombardi. Not even close. That is, until someone decides to make “Shula: The Musical.”

Judith Light and Dan Lauria as Marie and Vince Lombardi. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“LOMBARDI,” based on the best-selling book, “When Pride Still Mattered,” by Dave Maraniss, celebrated opening night Thursday at Broadway’s Circle in the Square theatre. There were plenty of Packers fans on hand for the event, along with many NFL dignitaries – commissioner Roger Goodell, Packers president Mark Murphy, Giants president John Mara, NBC Sports’ Bob Costas among them. (There also were some notable non-sports luminaries in attendance, such as Jack Klugman, Charles Durning and Tyne Daly — this was, after all, a big-time Broadway premiere.)

Dan Lauria was a convincing Lombardi. His experience as the gruff dad in TV’s The Wonder Years might actually have helped him here. Like that character, Lombardi was tough and yet had a layer of compassion. It would be impossible for a 90-minute play to capture the complexities of the man – and it certainly couldn’t bring to life all the details that were chronicled in Maraniss’ excellent biography. But it can, and does, perpetuate Lombardi’s larger-than-life aura.

The backdrop for the play is the 1965 season, with a young New York sportswriter visiting Green Bay to follow Lombardi for a magazine article. There’s a scene in which Lauria’s Lombardi is talking to the writer (played by Keith Nobbs) about myth-making. It might have been a nod to the Maraniss book. Fact of the matter is, Lombardi became a mythical figure some 30 years before the book was written.

There are several reminders throughout the play that this is a football story — ”Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” … “Run to daylight!” … “Grab! Grab! Grab!” — but it’s the relationship between Lombardi and his wife Marie (played by Judith Light) and his players that makes LOMBARDI a play anyone can appreciate. With both Marie and his players, Lombardi is tough yet has an obvious soft spot.

Lombardi’s particular affection for his hard-partying star halfback, Paul Hornung, a subject that’s examined at great length in the book, is at least alluded to here. Lombardi is much tougher on the other two Packer greats portrayed in the play – Hall of Fame fullback Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan) and linebacker Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley) – yet the respect and affection still comes through.

Robinson and Taylor – the real ones — were in the audience Thursday night, which must have been surreal for both them and the actors playing them. At one point, Lauria turned and looked at Robinson in the crowd. “It was scary when he looked at me,” said the three-time Pro Bowler. “I got chills and felt like I was back in Green Bay again.”

Another legendary Packer from the Lombardi era, guard Jerry Kramer, was seen crying during the final monologue.

At the very least, LOMBARDI presents a great opportunity for female theater-goers to get their husbands to see a Broadway play. But it’s more than that.

Lombardi’s obsessive drive to succeed took him from the bright lights of New York to the “small municipality” of Green Bay, Wisconsin. What Lombardi accomplished there in just nine seasons was enough to immortalize him. LOMBARDI proves that his story is worthy of Broadway.

— Craig Ellenport

Note: For more info on the play, check out Lombardibroadway.com. On Nov. 9, there will be a special performance of “LOMBARDI” hosted by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Hall of Famer Howie Long. The event honors the Player Care Foundation, which provides support to retired players in need. For ticket information, click here.

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