On the Phone With Fran Kirmser

On the Phone With Fran Kirmser

Producer Fran Kirmser steps up to home plate when her latest Broadway production, Bronx Bombers, begins previews on Jan. 10 for a Feb. 6 opening night at the Circle in the Square Theatre. The play by Eric Simonson celebrates a century of New York Yankees greatness, with a cast of characters second to none. Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, Derek Jeter—generations of the Yankees family are onstage. Sports on Broadway? It’s a home run, says Kirmser in the following interview.

FL: Congratulations on Bronx Bombers moving to Broadway. This is your third sports-themed play [Editor’s note: the others are Lombardi, 2010, about football coach Vince Lombardi, and Magic/Bird, 2012, about basketball rivals Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird]. Why sports?

FK: Sports and the theater have so much in common. Sports create great human drama, and the characters in sports are so much like those in show business. They’re passionate. They’re colorful. Take Vince Lombardi. There was a man who got people to do things that they didn’t think they could do. What’s more breathtaking than that? And he wasn’t perfect. He was human. So, all of that makes for great drama. Both sports and theater are a form of entertainment, too, where anything can happen. In a game, there are rules; and, of course, in a play, there’s a script. But you never know what’s going to happen. It’s live. Also, coming off the financial crash, this series of plays gave us the opportunity to take a look at the important themes of leadership, competition and rivalry, and team spirit in a provocative, humorous and deep way. I grew up in an Italian-American family, so Lombardi was huge. He was one of our successes. I felt very passionately about telling his story and having those speeches up at a time that was so difficult for all of us.

FL: Eric Simonson has written all three. Obviously, the collaboration has been a success.

FK: We’ve really enjoyed working with Eric. When you work with someone over and over again, you develop a shorthand. Two of the actors who were in Lombardi are in Bronx Bombers. Same thing with Magic/Bird. Two of the actors in Magic/Bird are in Bronx Bombers. It’s a treat to have that ensemble feeling in commercial theater.

FL: I was going to remark upon the ensemble aspect. It’s as if you’re building a company.

FK: We like to think of it that way. You get the best work when you work with people over and over again.

FL: Bronx Bombers has been developed with the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball as special producing partners. A first for those organizations, I believe. What’s that collaboration been like?

FK: It’s been wonderful because, first and foremost, it means the material will be authentic. We have the great luxury of reaching into archives and really understanding what the game was at that time versus what it is today and getting to hear a lot of stories that you wouldn’t otherwise get to take in as you create a work. There are a million books about the team and about baseball in general. But what is really nice is to have access to conversations and materials that are perhaps lesser known but still illuminate the storytelling.

FL: How do you convince a sports fan, who is used to watching sports on TV in the comfort of his own home, to get up and come to the theater? You must be tapping into a new audience base for Broadway.

FK: We need new audiences. Let’s just call theater what it is: It’s the most exciting stuff around. We turn off our phones, we turn off our computers, all of those screens and technology that we have around us all the time, and, for a few hours, we have a human experience with other humans. One of the things that we are so thrilled about with the sports series is we get people who come to the theater for the first time. Men walking in in their team jerseys and looking from side to side: Clearly, they’ve never been to the theater before. And what’s so great is being at Circle in the Square because it feels like a little stadium. It’s magic. Also, having the partnerships with the Yankees and Major League Baseball really gives permission to that sports fan to say, “OK, if they’re involved, I can go there.” This was my producing partner Tony Ponturo’s brilliant idea to bring in these sports leagues and teams so their trademarks could appear on the show’s materials. As soon as a fan sees those trademarks, it’s an invitation and a sign that this is something for him.

FL: Like a seal of approval.

FK: Exactly.

FL: You have a huge cast of characters and personalities in Bronx Bombers: How has all that been woven together? There’s a wealth of material.

FK: The play is really about team, and this particular ball club, which is arguably, definitively really, the most successful ball club ever. Statistically, with 27 World Series championships. And why is that? As we began to explore, one of the ideas that came up was they really function intergenerationally like a family. It’s fascinating to see how these men, from Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter, remain part of the family, how they are on the field and off the field with each other. We see the story through Yogi and Carmen Berra. It’s interesting to juxtapose a real-life family unit with the baseball family. Of course, the magic of theater gets all of us in the same room at the same time. It’s Babe Ruth in the same room at the same time as Derek Jeter. We’re going to theme the lobby with memorabilia just as we did for Lombardi, so audiences are going to get a slice of New York and the history of the team. Every performance is going to feel like an event.

FL: Have the Berras been involved in the show?

FK: Yes. Yogi is the play’s hero, and we follow him trying to hold the team together with Carmen by his side throughout. We’ve worked very closely with them to make sure we’re getting it right. They’ve been wonderful.

FL: You produce sports-related plays, but do sports also play a role in your life?

FK: I was a professional dancer, and there are so many similarities between the two. The training, the discipline, the dedication. Truth be told, I kind of was like the little girl in the Fios commercial, who asks the boys if she can play and they tell her to go away. Sports are a wonderful community builder. You can learn so much through the rules of the game and by relating to others. It’s something that’s always been just under my skin. And just like my passion for the arts, I have a passion for the entertainment side of sports.

>> Bronx Bombers, Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 212.239.6200

John Wernke as Lou Gehrig, Bill Dawes as Mickey Mantle and Chris Henry Coffey as Joe DiMaggio in Bronx Bombers. Photo by James Leynse

CJ Wilson as Babe Ruth in Bronx Bombers. Photo by James Leynse