BOSTON — “Magic/Bird,” a Broadway play chronicling the rivalry and friendship of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, opens Wednesday night at the Longacre Theatre in New York. The show is written, produced and directed by the same team that staged last year’s surprise success, “Lombardi,” the story of legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.
But this production had some unique challenges.
How do you find an actor to play Bird? First, you look for someone who’s tall. And, not just tall, but the same height as the tall guy you get to play Magic. He has to be someone who can embody Bird’s quiet intensity and dry sense of humor. After that, as “Magic/Bird” producer Tony Ponturo admits, you don’t really have the luxury of worrying if the guy you choose is a bit more handsome than the original.
“We kidded Dinah Bird, Larry’s wife,” Ponturo said. “We sent her a picture and she very much gave the thumbs up.”
In 6-foot-5 Tug Coker, the producers found more than they had dared to hope for.
“He spent a lot of time growing up in Massachusetts, was a big Larry Bird fan, is a basketball junkie,” Ponturo said. “It’s funny, as we watched the rehearsals, he was almost like a 12-year-old who never wanted to put the basketball down and went to bed with the basketball by his side.”
To prepare for the role, Coker shot 100 free throws a day. He went to French Lick, Ind., to talk to some of Bird’s friends, and to Boston to interview the sportswriters who knew Bird best. He talked to No. 33 himself, but Ponturo admits that not a lot came from that conversation.
“I don’t think he should have been surprised that he wasn’t going to get much from Larry, because that’s just sorta how Larry is,” Ponturo said.
ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan chronicled the Bird-Magic rivalry in her book, “When the Game Was Ours,” and served as a consultant on the play. She says Bird’s reticence shouldn’t be misinterpreted as disinterest.
“You know we’ve talked a lot about it and he’s pretty excited,” MacMullan said.
As for the play’s other star, Magic Johnson, MacMullan says there’s no worry about how he’ll react to seeing himself on Broadway.
“Magic Johnson’s been on stage his whole life,” MacMullan said. “To him this is nothing different. He’s a born showman. I think he loves this idea. I’m sure he’ll try to push it forward to something else beyond that. He’s the one who always wants to do these things and has to talk Larry into them.”
“Magic/Bird” gives us other familiar characters, like Celtics icon Red Auerbach, played by Peter Scolari of “Bosom Buddies” fame. Scolari’s Auerbach is familiar, with a dangling cigar and an uneasy relationship with the Celtics’ landlord, the Boston Bruins.
Just six actors play more than a dozen rolls in the production. One minute Scolari embodies Auerbach, the next he’s Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Lakers coach Pat Riley or a fictionalized Celtics fan. The costume changes are made with a mustache here, a bright green Celtics jacket there, all taking place on stage and in full sight of the audience. Found just outside the cast door after a recent preview, Scolari explains how he does it.
“Faith,” Scolari said. “That’s a hard question. It’s the sort of thing that if you think about it, you’re probably working too hard.”
Larry Bird played his entire career in Boston. Magic Johnson did the same in LA. But New Yorkers filled the theater during previews, and afterward many said they’d recommend that their sons and neighbors and co-workers come back after Opening Night.
Palming a plastic-wrapped mug with “Magic” written on one side and “Bird” on the other, Jim Wiseman, of Saddlebrook, N.J., is proof that this story captured fans outside of Boston and LA.
“Larry Bird is just my favorite player ever. He did everything, he did everything, the way basketball is supposed to be played,” Wiseman said. “I’m getting the goosebumps right now just talking about it.”
Fans of Bird, as well as fans of that other guy, will get their chance to relive the rivalry at the Longacre Theatre, which, coincidentally, has a long history with sports. It was also the venue for “No, No, Nanette,” the musical Red Sox owner Harry Frazee staged with proceeds from selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920.