On Sept. 22, at the Circle in the Square Theatre, the new play Lombardi, based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss and written by Oscar-winner Eric Simonson, will begin previews on its way to its Oct. 21 opening night. The play, a six-person drama that will star Dan Lauria as Vince Lombardi and Judith Light as Marie, will try something that has never really been done on Broadway before: marry the worlds of theater and sports in a production that will leave Broadway fans enthralled and those first timers to the Great White Way inspired.
While there will be many comparisons between sports and theater in the coming months, one that will be critical to the success of the play is that of director Thomas Kail, who essentially plays the role that sports fans know of as coach for the play. The Washington, D.C., area native is certainly no stranger to either sports or theater. He is a lifelong sports fanatic and fantasy football player who grew up following the Washington Redskins and other D.C. area teams and eventually migrated to theater while in college and his formal playing days were over. He has effectively taken his passion and interest in sport and melded it into an already successful directing career, as evidenced by his Tony Award nomination for In The Heights. Lombardi will be another step in Kail's professional growth, one that will marry his two passions on the same stage for the first time. We caught up with him to talk about his role as director, and its similarities to coaching.
PRC: In a recent story in the Wall Street Journal you likened being a director to being a coach. Did you feel that way before you started Lombardi or was that a new thought?
Thomas Kail: I first felt this way when I started working in theater during my junior year of college at Wesleyan University. Getting a chance to dive into Lombardi's life through research has certainly brought more of the connections to light. Coaches and directors are required to find the best team to execute a game plan, only in theater the script is the game plan.
PRC: As a director for a play that is a drama about a sports figure, what is the key message you will try to get across to an audience that could be mixed between theatre regulars and first time sports fans?
Thomas Kail: I hope the play allows them to witness some of the persistence and dedication to excellence that was such a significant part of Coach Lombardi's life. All characters in the play are committed to being the best version of themselves, and that commitment can carry over to any occupation, so hopefully each audience member will find how this relates to them.
PRC: Much has been said in recent years about sports and entertainment mixing; do you think Lombardi as a drama can wed those to worlds together even more, and how so?
Thomas Kail: I hope our play can be part of this emerging landscape. Whether through sports or theater, audiences want to be entertained. There is a reason why people hold on to a ticket from a football game, or a playbill from a show, for years after the event: Both allow us to commemorate a moment in time. I hope the heart of our story, big laughs, and powerful performances in our play will give audiences something to remember for years to come.
PRC: What is the most challenging about directing Lombardi vs. directing In The Heights?
Thomas Kail: Both have their specific challenges, yet use many of the same directing muscles. Part of the challenge with Lombardi is that five of the six characters in the play are real people. It is impossible to try and create a facsimile of those persons, but you do want to capture their essential qualities and tell this story with honesty.
PRC: Do you have any coaches who you admired on the professional or college level growing up?
Thomas Kail: Absolutely. The college coaches I admired growing up were Mike Krzyzewski, John Thompson, Bobby Bowden, Eddie Robinson and Steve Spurrier. On the pro side, I appreciated Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Joe Gibbs and Bill Walsh. Some of these guys are still pacing the sidelines, and I continue to admire their leadership.
PRC: That's a good group. How do you think the late John Wooden would have done as a director?
Thomas Kail: He would have been a terrific director. I see him doing more plays than musicals. He was a consummate leader. Truly one of the best, and a remarkable teacher.
PRC: Can you think of a few directors who would make good football or basketball coaches?
Thomas Kail: I actually see more directors who would be excellent baseball managers: Bartlett Sher, Daniel Sullivan, and Kenny Leon would all be great skippers.
PRC: Have you talked to many coaches about the similar role between coaching and directing, and what has the reaction been?
Thomas Kail: I have had the good fortune to speak with a few, which has been very fun. I think after a few minutes describing what we both do, and are responsible for, they also see our connection very clearly. I think they are pleasantly surprised that someone else understands their job so well.
PRC: What about the mix between athletes and acting talent. What similarities do you see between those elite in their respective professions?
Thomas Kail: To perform at the highest level on stage or on a field, one needs a combination of dedication, discipline, and talent. I have heard from more than a few elite athletes about how much they admire what it takes to perform eight times a week on Broadway or Off-Broadway.
PRC: What has been your greatest challenge with Lombardi so far? And what do you think sports fans will take away from seeing the work?
Thomas Kail: The greatest challenge has been to honestly capture a moment in time of Lombardi's life. Eric Simonson, our playwright, was wise to focus on one week of Coach Lombardi's life. This allows us to spend our energy showing the essence of these characters with authenticity and detail. Hopefully, the show will inspire all of our audience members to further investigate more about who these folks were beyond the timeline of our play.
For all the latest on Lombardi, its cast and crew, check out LombardiBroadway.com.