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 April 20 , 2012

Magic/Bird: A Banner Day at the Theater

Something greatly interested me about Eric Simonson’s Magic/Bird – although it wasn’t the play itself.

The idea of two basketball players who flirt with friendship off the court -- but are afraid that too much emotional involvement might hurt their game – struck me as a pretty obvious premise for drama. Yes, Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics must eventually show their feelings. But didn’t we know all along that they would?

(An aside: ever wonder why a team from Los Angeles would be called “the Lakers”? Are there really that many lakes to speak about in the City of Angels? No; the Lakers were originally located in Minneapolis in the state of Minnesota, known as “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Despite going west in 1960 and leaving all those lakes behind, the team retained its nickname. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)

The only nice surprise was that Larry’s mother Dinah kvells over Johnson when he comes over to dinner and seems to think that he’s a better player than her son. That rankles Bird quite a bit.

But there’s so much more I want to know. Why are we never told how and when Johnson got his sobriquet? For a while, everyone’s calling him Earvin, and then suddenly he’s Magic.

Bird wore Number 33 on his jersey, while Johnson wore 32. I’d assume that a playwright would make something out of that metaphor.

There is drama when the basketball players prepare to shoot. Bird pivots, turns, sets up – and I’m worrying how bad he’ll look if he doesn’t make the shot. But then it’s “Let’s go to the videotape” as footage of Bird making a basket takes over. It’s the best possible solution; to have actors Tug Coker (Bird) and Kevin Daniels (Magic) miss by a mile would be humiliating.

So what interested me the most about Magic/Bird? Why, the championship banners that hang from the ceiling at the Longacre. Thus far, the Boston Celtics – for whom Bird played – have won 17 National Basketball Association championships. Johnson’s team, the Los Angeles Lakers, has captured a “mere” eight. Now 25 facsimiles hang from the rafters.

Suddenly I thought, hmmm, maybe Broadway theaters should routinely sport championship banners for all the Tony-winning plays and musicals that they’ve hosted.

That sent me to to see what theaters would have the most banners adorning the upper reaches. Of course, many Tony-winner have moved during their runs, and perhaps we should give a banner to every theater in which they played. But I say the banner should be reserved for the house in which the Tony-winner began its road to glory.

Some would have none at all: The American Airlines, Circle in the Square, Studio 54, Foxwoods and the Biltmore/Friedman have never played host to a Tony-winning play or musical. To be fair, the first three mostly host revivals, and I’m not counting Best Revival Tony-winners in my survey – just new works.

The Foxwoods can be excused because it hasn’t been around too long (and don’t look for it to reverse its fortunes this year). But as for the Friedman, none of the 61 tenants that it’s had since the Tonys began has ever won the prize. Perhaps Venus in Fur or The Columnist can soon break the unlucky streak.

Five theaters avoid shutouts thanks to one lone entry: The Lion King for the New Amsterdam; Thoroughly Modern Millie for the Marquis; The River Niger for the Atkinson; The Cocktail Party for the Miller’s (now the Sondheim); Sunset Boulevard for Minskoff; Sweeney Todd for the Uris (now the Gershwin) and My Fair Lady for the Hellinger. As for the last-named, we can only hope that the day will come when it can start adding to the total again.

Some theaters that hosted Tony-winning plays and musicals wouldn’t be able to sport banners because they’ve been razed: the ANTA-Washington Square (Man of La Mancha); Century (Kiss Me, Kate); Criterion (Side Man); Helen Hayes (Long Day’s Journey Into Night); Morosco (Death of a Salesman; The Shadow Box; Da); Playhouse (The Miracle Worker) and the Ziegfeld (Kismet).

Some might also question my listing the Hayes on the razed list. But the theater that’s alive and well on 44th Street is a different one, once known as the Little (which would fly a Torch Song Trilogy banner). Today’s Hayes would also get a banner for The Last Night of Ballyhoo.

Two, too, for the Broadway (Evita and Les Miserables), the Music Box (The Homecoming and Sleuth) and the three theaters that begin with the letter “L”: the Longacre (Children of a Lesser God and Ain’t Misbehavin’); the Lunt-Fontanne (The Sound of Music and Titanic) and the Lyceum (Borstal Boy and I Am My Own Wife). That theatre on 41st Street has also had two: one as the Rose (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and one as the Nederlander (Rent).

Three for the Barrymore (The Desperate Hours; The Fourposter and Travesties), Beaumont (Contact; War Horse and The Coast of Utopia), Booth (That Championship Season; The Elephant Man and I’m Not Rappaport) Cort (Sunrise at Campobello; The Diary of Anne Frank and The Grapes of Wrath), Palace (Applause; La Cage aux Folles and The Will Rogers Follies) and Majestic (South Pacific; The Wiz and The Phantom of the Opera). Notice how having a long-runner for a quarter of a century limits the number of banners you can hang from your ceiling.

Four for the Royale (The Subject Was Roses; Copenhagen; Art and God of Carnage) and O’Neill, which had to endure more than six dozen losers before getting banners for Big River, M. Butterfly, Spring Awakening and The Book of Mormon. That theater on the north side of 52nd Street has also had four -- as the ANTA (J.B. and A Man for All Seasons); Virginia (City of Angels) and Wilson (Jersey Boys).

Five for the Golden (Sticks and Bones; Avenue Q; Red; Master Class and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?), Imperial (Fiddler on the Roof; Drood; Jerome Robbins’ Broadway; August: Osage County and Billy Elliot), Shubert (A Little Night Music; A Chorus Line; Crazy for You; Monty Python’s Spamalot and Memphis) and Kerr (Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; Angels in America: Perestroika;
Love! Valour! Compassion!; Proof; Take Me Out
and Doubt). Notice, too, that the Kerr has had this quintet in fewer than 18 years, easily the best ratio of shows-to-years.

Six for the Beck (The Rose Tattoo; The Crucible; The Teahouse of the August Moon; Bye Bye Birdie; Marat/Sade and Hallelujah, Baby!), Broadhurst (Fiorello!; Cabaret; Kiss of the Spider Woman; Fosse; Amadeus and The History Boys), The Plymouth (The Real Thing, Nicholas Nickleby; Equus; The Heidi Chronicles; Dancing at Lughnasa and Passion).

The St. James has had seven: The King and I; The Pajama Game; Becket; Luther; Hello, Dolly!; Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Producers. Note that the St. James would be the only theater to have Best Play and Best Musical banners from the same season: 1963-1964, for Luther and Hello, Dolly!

Eight for the 52nd Street house first known as the Alvin (Mister Roberts; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; The Great White Hope; A Funny Thing Happened; Company and Annie) and then the Neil Simon (Biloxi Blues and Hairspray).

And the winner is … ten for the house on 46th Street first known by its street name (Guys and Dolls; Damn Yankees; Redhead; How to Succeed; Nine; 1776; Raisin; Fences) and later the Rodgers (Lost in Yonkers and In the Heights).

Oh, I almost forgot the Winter Garden, which has three: Wonderful Town; 42nd Street and Cats. But don’t you think it should have four and the St. James one fewer?            — Peter Filichia


You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at His newest book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, is now available through Applause Books and at

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