Our Vince Lombardi tribute continues as we talk to Eric Simonson, the man who wrote the "Lombardi" play currently getting rave reviews on Broadway. Simonson is a Tony Award-nominated and Academy Award-winning writer and director, but of anything he's done to date through his distinguished career, "Lombardi" may be closest to his heart.
Shutdown Corner: You wrote "Lombardi" based on the David Maraniss book, "When Pride Still Mattered". What motivated you to do so?
Eric Simonson: I grew up in Wisconsin. Lombardi was everywhere; he's a part of the area's history and culture, but there weren't many good biographies about him. When David's book was published, I bought it immediately and gobbled it up. It's a great book and I was inspired. I'm always looking for good subject matter for the theater. This seemed like a no-brainer.
SC: How did the play go from inception to production? Did David bring this to you, or was it the other way around?
ES: I'd worked on anther play about Lombardi for the Madison Repertory Theater in Wisconsin, and that's how i met David. The artistic director of that company, Richard Corley, contacted David first about doing a play based on his book; then Richard asked me to write the play. The play i wrote for them is quite different from the one that's on Broadway now, but this initial project is how David and i started working together.
SC: I've been told of your own Packers obsession. How did that inform your writing?
ES: It helps to care about what you write, and i care deeply about the Packers, and the Packer tradition. There's a kind of mythology that comes from watching and writing about sports. I like thinking that, in a small way, I might be a part of telling the Packer story.
SC: The casting process obviously hinged on finding the right actor to play Lombardi, and you seem to have hit one out of the park (if I may mix my sports metaphors) with Dan Lauria. Please give us some insight into why he was the right choice.
ES: Let's start with the fact that he looks at sounds like the man. i can't think of a person who is physically more right for the role. can you? Add to that, He's a terrific actor and has a huge heart. He cares deeply about new work, his profession and his craft. He's a pretty great Lombardi.
SC: Please tell us about the rest of the cast.
ES: It's a great bunch. Judith Light plays Marie Lombardi, and she's fantastic -- really electric on stage. they're all great,. Thomas Kail is our director, and he took a lot time and a great deal of care putting this cast together, casting people who were both right for their role, and also good with one another. Keith Nobbs plays Michael McCormick, a reporter who comes to live with the Lombardi family while he's doing a feature on Vince. Keith has a great sense of humor -- there's a lot of humor in the play -- and he brings a lot of warmth and clarity to his role. Our three ball players -- Rob Riley, Bill Dawes and Chris Sullivan -- play Dave Robinson, Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor respectively. They've all found some great ways into these three strong personalities in different ways, and they actually look like football players, which was important to me.
SC: You've connected with a lot of people involved in Lombardi's life through this entire process. What are the most remarkable stories?
ES: I loved visiting the Lombardi home in Green Bay. The current tenants there let me see the rec room where Lombardi had all of his post-game parties. It hasn't been touched and it's still the same way it was 50 years ago. You could just feel the ghosts in the room. A few of us had dinner with Sam Huff and Sonny Jurgensen a few weeks ago -- they were both coached by Lombardi when he was at the Redskins (late in his career). They were really incredible guys with great stories, and really brought home to me the impact Lombardi had on people he met and worked with. Jurgensen was coached by Lombardi for all of one season, and he was able to recall a full evening's worth of anecdotes and lessons.
SC: What did you learn about Lombardi that you didn't know before you started this project?
ES: That he was a very complicated individual, a flawed individual who paid a high price for his achievements. I think if people see the play, they will, hopefully, see the humanity in a man who is often only characterized as a stereotype.
SC: Why does Lombardi's name resonate with such clarity decades after his passing? He was a great coach, but we forget about many great coaches. What was it bout him that endures?
ES: That's exactly the question I wanted to answer in writing this play. I think it has something to do with the fact that he so clearly represents, or reflects, American ideals of optimism and self reliance. he also embodies American contradictions like the struggle between the individual and the group.
Mostly, though, he was a perfectionist, and for those of us who appreciate perfection, and the fact that perfection can never really be attained, I think Lombardi's story is, well ... perfect.