BWW Interviews: Debut of the Month - BRONX BOMBERS Chris Henry Coffey
Chris Henry Coffey is making his Broadway debut as legendary Yankee Joe DiMaggio, in the new American play Bronx Bombers. The show celebrates and explores the timeless legacy of baseball's most iconic team, and takes a fascinating look at how and why the Yankees have remained so undeniably great, and so powerfully inspirational.
Today the talented actor speaks exclusively to BWW about making his Broadway debut as the legendary sports hero.
I have to start by telling you that I am not a sports fan, let alone a Yankee fan, and yet I truly enjoyed this show, and I think that's a great testament to the cast and creative team.
That's really great to hear. And you're absolutely right, it is a great testament to the show and it feels so gratifying when you hear people talk about not being a sports fan but still appreciating the story and gravitating towards the characters and seeing that human dynamic which obviously is the writer's goal. I know when I saw 'Lombardi,' it was a similar sense. I was initially skeptical about it but then I just fell in love with the characters and the drama of the two main characters in a similar way to the way Peter [Scolari) and Tracy [Shayne] are with Carmen and Yogi Berra. They just anchor the show.
Did you consider yourself a Yankee fan prior to your casting?
Well, I grew up in the Mid-west, in Wisconsin, so I wasn't a Yankee fan necessarily. They were kind of this long, far off beacon that felt untouchable when I was a kid. But since I moved to New York I've been to many Yankee games and have always enjoyed watching the game of baseball and have really fallen in love with the history of baseball, doing this play, through all the research, not only on Joe DiMaggio himself, but just getting the context of the world that he grew up in and who his idols were during the different eras of baseball. I found it a really fascinating project to be involved with because I have the luxury of steeping myself in the history of baseball, starting with Ken Burns and his documentary years ago about baseball, I think it was a 22-hour documentary. So that right there can fill weeks of time.
So there was certainly no shortage of material out there to help you prepare for the role.
Yes, and no shortage of biographies on DiMaggio and lots of videos but also there's a lot of people out there who knew him and could give me a little insight into his personality in a way that was really a first-hand perspective, which I really appreciated as well. He was a complicated guy, he lived his life the same way he played baseball, with a very high standard, and carried himself with such dignity and everyone had a huge respect for him as a person and as a ball player. But he was also a man of few words and I think he was a bit of a loner, he didn't have a lot of close friends around him. And when you look into the Marilyn Monroe era, you can kind of understand why those two gravitated towards each other, probably both understood the sense of loneliness within this tornado surrounding them.
The play depicts a great deal of tension between DiMaggio and fellow Yankee Micky Mantle. Was that an accurate account of their relationship?
Well, there's some dramatic license attached to that storyline, but there are a lot of press photos that show them together and it really was a sort of passing of the torch between DiMaggio and Mantle, but they were not known to be close when they were off camera or outside the public eye. There's definitely literature out there that shows that there was contention while they were playing together. And the main storyline in the play, which tackles an injury that happened to Micky Mantle in his rookie year, the year that Joe DiMaggio was retiring, is documented as well and there's some controversy around that. So I think [playwright] Eric Simonson did a great job of mining that controversy and extending it to a larger context.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility portraying such an iconic sports figure who is so well known and revered?
Yes, I definitely feel that. I certainly feel a huge responsibility to get his essence right, at least my interpretation of what that is. And it's a real honor to step into somebody's shoes at the level of somebody like Joe DiMaggio who, for a lot of people, is still very fresh in their memories and there are a lot of people out there who knew him personally so, yes I certainly feel a great responsibility to get the essence of him across. And I'm glad to say that the response has been good. Overwhelmingly, a lot of people come up to me after the show and mention DiMaggio and say, 'I knew him back in California or New York or Florida or Brooklyn', and they are really able to identify with the character through me so that's always a great feeling, to be able to say, 'ah, I really gave someone a window into their past and their relationship to that character.'