AP Drama Writer
NEW YORK (AP) -- One night in late 2010, theater producer Fran Kirmser found herself in a Broadway theater beside an unusual guest -- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
It was the opening night of "Lombardi," a play about football icon Vince Lombardi that offered to take New York theatergoers to an unexpected place: the world of professional sports.
"God, this better work out," Kirmser recalls thinking quietly.
At risk was more than a show starring Dan Lauria and Judith Light: "Lombardi" was also the first work in a series of sports-related plays planned by Kirmser and her producing partner Tony Ponturo.
"We saw that there were so many great stories in sports," said Ponturo in an interview at the Kirmser Ponturo Group's offices in Rockefeller Center. "Like any content, if you have a good story and you put the work together, there will be people interested in it."
"Lombardi" turned into a modest hit, but the next play in the series -- 2012's "Magic/Bird," about the friendship between basketball legends Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird -- didn't do as well, closing after only 37 shows.
Kirmser and Ponturo have learned from each project. They have returned with their third offering: a look at the New York Yankees called "Bronx Bombers" by Eric Simonson, who wrote the other two plays.
Theatergoers can see Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra, Lou Gehrig, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, Thurman Munson, Billy Martin, Joe DiMaggio and Derek Jeter come to life onstage. Yankee fans are likely to make their views on the show known, something the producers anticipate.
"This being New York and it about the New York Yankees, it's a risk," says Kirmser, with a laugh. "But we wanted to get that honest New Yorker reaction, which you definitely get whether you're at the theater or a ball game."
Kirmser and Ponturo's thirst to combine sports and theater makes sense when you look at their backgrounds: He spent decades building the sports and entertainment brand at Anheuser-Busch. Kirmser, a former dancer, has produced dozens of stage works, including August Wilson's "Radio Golf." Together, they've won three Tony Awards.
They are the producers to watch as they seek to attract a new audience during a time when attendance numbers have flattened on Broadway. "We do have to do something about that. We need the consumer base to grow in this industry," says Kirmser.
They say the idea of putting sports stories onstage came to them in the depths of the 2008 global financial crisis. "We were looking at exploring themes of leadership, competition, team," says Kirmser. "When you look at those themes, what is that? That's very much embedded in sports. That's how we came to it and then mapped it out from there."
While successful plays on Broadway have involved some element of sport, from "Damn Yankees" to "Take Me Out," ''Golden Boy" and the upcoming "Rocky," few producers have embraced the fusion of sports and drama with such vigor. They've also pioneered cross-promotional partnerships with the various leagues -- the NFL, NBA and MLB -- and managed to tell stories about icons that you can't find on ESPN.
"You want to spend that two hours with this story ... learning something different and taking you down a path and a story line that you didn't even know or think of," Ponturo says.
While they decline to say how many plays are in the pipeline or what sports might be next, they hint they're in the middle of their planned series. They also decline to reveal how their shows have done financially out of respect to their investors.
They do reveal that they learned two big lessons from the "Magic/Bird" stumble that will guide them with "Bronx Bombers." First, opening cold on Broadway as it did is a dangerous proposition with a new work.
"If we had had a chance to really live with it a little while longer and do different incarnations of it, it would have made that particular piece stronger," says Kirmser.
That's why "Bronx Bombers" debuted off-Broadway this month at an intimate 200-seat theater, produced by Primary Stages, giving Kirmser and Ponturo a chance to work on the piece before they decide on a future life, perhaps on Broadway.
The second lesson was to always remember to think local. While Vince Lombardi was a legend with deep New York-area roots, Ponturo and Kirmser realized that "Magic/Bird" -- about two b-balling greats from Los Angeles and Boston -- had no natural base in New York.
"There wasn't a local anchor," says Kirmser. "We weren't thinking too much about these things, to be honest. We were thinking about telling these stories. But it was an interesting discovery."
With the Yankees this time, that shouldn't be a problem.
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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