Bringing the Bronx Bombers to Broadway

Fran Kirmser.
Fran Kirmser.

Shortly before Bronx Bombers opened on Broadway this week, one of forces behind the show, co-producer Fran Kirmser, said, “The previews are very exciting; about half the audience are theatergoers, the other half sports fans. It is interesting to see how they react and interact; we learn so much. It is especially exciting to see families coming in together; everyone can relate something, some of the changes people go through in it.”

She sees similarities between sports and theater fans, observing, “Both groups are passionate about supporting their interests and attending their events… there is a shared quality of not knowing what is going to happen; while there are rules in a sport and a script in a theater, the audience doesn’t know how things will play out.”

Written and directed by Eric Simonson, Bronx Bombers uses Yogi and Carmen Berra to touch on 100 years of Yankee history, exploring how the Yankees have remained statistically the most successful baseball team over multiple generations. Joining Ms. Kirmser and producing partner Tony Ponturo as special producing partners are the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball, marking these organizations’ first foray on Broadway.

“Yogi shook hands with Babe Ruth and coached Derek Jeter and touched everyone in-between; it is the story of the club through their eyes, how family comes through for each other, works together,” said Ms. Kirmser, who grew up in Wilton and graduated from Wilton High School. “I got to spend some time with Yogi and Carmen; it was a gift, a wonderful experience. They are so cute together; to this day they are still in love with each other. The Berras are portrayed by Peter Scolari and Tracy Shayne — Peter is wonderful in the role, a treat — and because Peter and Tracy are married in real life, they have that same chemistry.”

Bronx Bombers opens with a crisis; a player is pulled from the lineup for not working hard enough. “The play is about relationships, and explores the theme of teamwork, coming through for someone else… it is different than so much entertainment today where so much emphasis is on individuals, but the show is also a lot of fun, it has a lot of humor,” she said. “It is appropriate for ages 8-9 and above and a great way for a kid to explore the theater.”

While it can be intimidating to portray people considered icons, Ms. Kirmser notes it is also very challenging, and “the greatest actors love a challenge.” She adds, “They are not doing imitations, but capturing the essence of the people they portray — and this ensemble does it brilliantly.

“All of the characters were well researched,” she continued, “but so many of the people associated with the Yankees were such colorful characters, some of their actions so outrageous, that they make wonderful characters on the stage; they hold you.”

In addition to Mr. Scolari and Ms. Shayne, the cast also features Francois Battiste (Reggie Jackson), Chris Henry Coffey (Joe DiMaggio), Bill Dawes (Mickey Mantle), Christopher Jackson (Derek Jeter), Keith Nobbs (Billy Martin), John Wernke (Lou Gehrig) and C.J. Wilson (Babe Ruth).

Bronx Bombers is the third Broadway play in a sports series Ms. Kirmser started mapping out after the financial crash in 2008. “There was so much negative news, I started looking for stories of inspiration, with themes of drive, persistence, success, something that we needed to grab hold of,” so she conceived and commissioned the series.

The first play was Lombardi in 2010, with emphasis on great leadership, showing Vince Lombardi’ inspiration, passion and ability to drive people to achieve what they never thought possible; next came Magic/Bird in 2012, demonstrating the healthy competition and great respect amid the fierce rivalry of Basketball Hall of Famers Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, two men who could not have been more different, but who became great friends.

Growing up, Fran Kirmser was a dancer rather than into sports, but one of her brothers “played every sport he could, so if I wasn’t in a dance studio, I was probably on a sideline somewhere.” And her mother, “an Italian from the Bronx,” was a huge Yankee fan, so she was very much aware of the team and its machinations from an early age.

She started out dancing ballet, and later took up modern and jazz dance as well. “But even when I was a dancer, I was always curious about the business side of productions; who decides what is performed, how are those decisions made? How do you raise money or get the press to show up?”

When a crushed bone in her foot ended her dancing career, Ms. Kirmser “talked my way into an entry level position at Lincoln Theater. I attached myself to the facility — I should have had a sleeping bag and stayed there for all the time I spent in the three theaters,” she said with a laugh. “I learned everything I could about how theaters operate.

“A lot of choreographers and dancers I knew through the years found out that I now ‘on the other side,’ and asked if I would help them; I got hired to do various projects and incorporated as Fran Kirmser Productions in 1997, which is still in operation, then later teamed up with Tony [Ponturo]; at its height I was involved with 206 arts projects across the county, doing press campaigns, fundraisers, etc. I decided to become a consultant rather than a service provider and began producing rather than organizing.”

Ms. Kirmser co-founded Manhattan Theatre Source in 1999, a theater collective in the West Village, where she served as producing artistic director. “Four of us started cranking out material, and with others I started to produce, first for theaters that held 20 to 60, then up to 200, and it kept going.”

Hair was a show I always wanted to produce — I was one of one of many — and we were trying to raise financing during the financial crash … it was fascinating to realize how relevant many of the themes in the show are to today.” Hair won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical in 2009. She also among the producers of August Wilson’s Radio Golf, which received four Tony nominations, including one for Best Play, and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play, and one of the producers who won the Best Revival of a Play Tony in 2013 for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In another career evolution, it was announced in December that Legendary Pictures will be making a movie about Vince Lombardi, which she and Tony Ponturo will executive produce. “We’re really looking forward to doing this,” she said.

Bronx Bombers is at Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Tickets are available at the box office, or by calling 212-239-6200.