The average Buffalo theatergoer doesn’t look a lot like the average Buffalo Bills fan.
But over the next 10 days, if MusicalFare Theatre and 710 Main Theatre have their way, those apparently disparate audiences will be much more difficult to tell apart.
“Lombardi,” a one-act play about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi that unfolds in 90 minutes, opens tonight in the 710 Main Theatre. It’s a joint bet by Shea’s Performing Arts Center President Anthony Conte and MusicalFare Theatre Executive Director Randall Kramer that Western New York’s football fanaticism can translate into bigger audiences for local theater.
“To be perfectly honest, we need to get people in that theater, and I think this has the potential to do that,” Kramer said. “To reference another play that’s being done, it’s not ‘Death of a Salesman.’ OK. I don’t want to keep doing theater that we do, or theater that anyone in this town does, for the same people all the time, and for the same limited amount of overall potential audience. We want to expand that audience.”
The original production of “Lombardi” in New York City’s Circle in the Square Theatre in 2011 had measured success in that regard. Producers marketed to sports fans throughout the northeast and drew audiences from sports-obsessed colleges as well as from the ranks of corporations and law firms, according to the New York Times.
Locally, the Buffalo Bills have signed on as a sponsor of the show, and Shea’s, which oversees marketing for 710 Main productions, has directed its advertising efforts at a broader audience.
From Kramer’s perspective, the approach seems to be working. “When I talk to some people who are outside of the theater community, and I tell them what we’re doing, none of them have had resonance like ‘Lombardi.’ The second I mention Lombardi and it’s about football, all of a sudden it’s something that they can relate to,” he said.
The show, by Eric Simonson, was adapted from David Maraniss’ biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.” It tells the story of the lionized coach, played in this production by Matthew Witten, through the lens of a fictional journalist sent to Green Bay to find out what makes Lombardi tick. The play, set in 1965, is interspersed with video footage of games and Lombardi.
“Certainly you see the stereotypical Lombardi that people know – ‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,’ and so on and so forth – but you also get to see him a little bit behind the scenes, you get to see what he did for his players,” Kramer said, referencing a quote by UCLA coach Henry Russell Sanders that is often misattributed to Lombardi. “When it came to civil rights, he was way ahead of the curve there.”
Off the field, Lombardi was known for standing up for the team’s black players, refusing to allow the Packers to patronize establishments in Green Bay or hotels on the road that did not welcome them. Though it is only hinted at in the play, Lombardi has a reputation as an early supporter of gay rights, a shocking notion in 1965.
All of that, said Kramer, adds up to a play that should be all but irresistible to local football and theater fans alike.
“I’m absolutely confident that I can take 600 people who are sports fans or just normal, everyday people, stick them in that audience and they would be entertained by the show,” he said. “I don’t doubt that for a second.”
When: Through Nov. 23
Where: 710 Main Theatre, 710 Main St.
Info: 847-0850, www.sheas.org