Posted Apr 5 2012 1:28PM
NEW YORK -- Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are two of the most important players in NBA history, and two of the best known. HBO produced a terrific documentary, "Magic & Bird, A Courtship of Rivals," chronicling their rise to stardom, their battles on the floor, and their friendship off it.
"When the Game Was Ours," a book Bird and Johnson wrote with Jackie MacMullen, brings even further detail to their stories. And last month, ESPN televised "The Announcement," another documentary focusing on Magic and his life with HIV.
So when news broke that the story of Bird and Johnson was going to be told in a Broadway play called "Magic/Bird," which opens April 11 at the Longacre Theater, there were going to be some questions.
Most importantly: What is a 90-minute play going to tell fans that they don't already know?
"I had the same thought when I got the offer," says Kevin Daniels, who plays Magic, "because the first thing I did was watch the documentary. I was like, 'Well, what do I need to learn now?'
"And I tell you, they're different mediums and there's something you garner from watching these men experience these things in front of you live. And also, a lot of the stories you hear about in the documentary, you actually get to see imagined in here. So they're kind of like companion pieces. They're different. You can watch both of them and be thoroughly fulfilled."
"I think it's about getting a little deeper perspective on what their relationship really was and how their friendship really bonded," adds producer Tony Ponturo, "but never taking away the competitiveness that drove each other to even be better.
"The theater gets dark and, for 90 minutes, you transport yourself, without any distraction, into a different place. So one of the things we like to say is 'Relive the rivalry live.' Go into that time here in the theater and experience that 20 year span."
Ponturo is part of the team that also produced "Lombardi," the play that had a successful Broadway run from 2010 to 2011. And when fellow producer Fran Kirmser conceived the idea of "Magic/Bird," they brought Johnson to see the show about the legendary football coach.
That trip sold Johnson on the idea of putting his own story on the stage, and he convinced Bird that it would work out. Both have advised the actors playing them, Johnson sat in on a rehearsal, and both will be in New York for the show's opening.
Bird and Johnson also have advised playwright Eric Simonson, but a lot of the dialogue comes from Simonson's mind, rather than Bird and Johnson's memories.
The most critical point in the relationship was Johnson's trip to French Lick, Ind., in 1985 to film a Converse commercial. It was the day Johnson met Bird's mother and when Bird met "Earvin," Magic's more personable side.
Appropriately, it's the longest scene in the play. But the details are a little sketchy, so it was up to Simonson to recreate the moment.
"They don't remember all the dialogue or what they necessarily ate that day," Ponturo says. "They understand that that was a unique situation that brought them together. So we sort of create you having a seat at that table with Georgia Bird, Larry and Earvin. And for 15 minutes, go into that time and see how that whole thing happened."
It's difficult for an actor to replicate basketball talent on the stage. So director Thomas Kail uses footage to show basketball action, while the actors focus on the off-court interaction.
Kail also uses footage from Johnson's retirement announcement in 1991, which Daniels will recreate from another angle.
"Those iconic, indelible moments that are in our memory, you can't take those away," Daniels says. "I think what Tommy and Eric have done brilliantly with this is they've added to those memories, and they're showing them to you from a different perspective, so you can come back with a new appreciation for it."
Daniels and Tug Coker, who plays Bird, have to have to show some basketball skills in portraying the roles of legends, of course. Both are 6-foot-5, and Coker played a year at William & Mary. He's actually a Celtics fan, and traveled to French Lick immediately upon hearing he earned the role of Bird.
In addition to portraying one of the best basketball players to ever live, there's a challenge of playing someone who's still alive and very much in the public eye. Theater goers, especially basketball fans, are going to be pretty discerning about how Bird and Johnson are portrayed.
"When I initially got the job, I was scared of that, because you can't compete with people's memories," Coker says. "And then I just quickly realized that I'm going to go out there and do the best that I can and make the choices that I think are appropriate for the play.
"On some level, it's like playing any other character."
Daniels says that, after a rehearsal, Johnson's son E.J. complimented him on how much he walked, talked and acted like his dad. But Daniels knows he has to do more than just mimic Magic.
"I'm not an impressionist or trying to do impersonations," he says. "You take the information you know about him, you process it in your filter, and if you tell a good story, then people will go with you.
"I do my job, then you can accept what we show you as storytellers. And you're like, 'Oh, this is my Magic Johnson for an hour and a half.'"
In the end, "Magic/Bird" takes us beyond learning anything more about these sports icons. The show is about the experience. And no matter how much you already know about their story, who wouldn't want to spend another hour and a half with Magic and Larry?
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