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.'
It's interesting because I recently interviewed Mary Bridget Davies, who is currently portraying Janis Joplin on Broadway, and she expressed a very similar sentiment, that it was so gratifying to meet people who were at a Joplin concert or who had a very specific memory of her as an artist, and they thanked her for evoking that memory.
Exactly. And yes, there's a burden attached to that but at the same time, that's a great challenge as an actor and of course it's such a wonderful opportunity from an acting standpoint to dive into a challenge like that.
You originated this role in the show's off-Broadway production. Have there been many changes made since making the transfer to Broadway?
Yes, I actually started with a workshop in the mountains of Colorado at the Perry Mansfield Festival this past summer, we workshopped the play for a week and from there it carried over to a reading and then the off-Broadway run at the Duke. And the play had been evolving from day one, and certainly the off-Broadway run gave Eric a great opportunity to see it on stage, see what works and what doesn't, see what the audience is responding to, so yes, it's definitely changed for the better in a lot of ways.
And I would say also that just having the space that we are in [Circle in the Square Theater] is a huge bonus because it just feels like a stadium. So I think a lot of the audience doesn't feel so much like they're in a theater space, that they're not necessarily comfortable being in, so that's a great demographic for us as well, baseball fans who are not necessarily going to theater all the time. In that way, just the space itself is just really, really great for that play. I think a lot of people just feel like they are walking into a stadium rather than a theater.
In terms of the structure of the play, the story itself now has a nice arc, as I was saying before, Tracy and Peter really anchor it in the way that they do, it just really ties it all together. The writer and the producers have been working hard, and Major League Baseball is involved and the Yankees are involved, so everyone has had a hand in the process of making it what it is today.
I understand your fiancé is going to be starring in Broadway's Rocky which also opens in February.
Yes, we are really just so fortunate. She's in tech rehearsal for Rocky right now, she's playing a character 'Gloria' who is Adrien's best friend, so she's playing one of the leads so it's a great opportunity for her and for us, the idea of being able to go to work together and come home together and be working half a block away from each other on Broadway.
It's funny that you are both starring in sports-themed productions. Is there any friendly competition between the two of you?
(laughing) You know it's a funny thing because we didn't even put that together until somebody else mentioned it, and we were like, 'Oh my God, that's such a great storyline.' It's just so funny that we're both in these sports plays a half a block away from each other, but no, there's no competition necessarily but it's fun for her to come over and hang out with the baseball guys and the other night, I went over to hang out with a bunch of the Rocky people so there's lot of cross pollination that I feel is going to happen in the next year or so.
After I saw Bronx Bombers, I started thinking about fifty years from now. Do you think in 2064 a play could be written about today's New York Yankees or are these iconic sports figures in the show from an era that we will never see again?
That's interesting. Well my two cents on that is that it's always typical that the Yankees are in transition, they are right now, but the conversation within the play is a timeless conversation about what makes a team, and you bring large egos and big money and huge stakes into a room and into the sports arena and that doesn't necessarily create championships, but something else does. And I think that mystique that has carried through with the Yankees for the last hundred years will definitely carry though to the next hundred years. I really do believe that. I think there is something magical about that team, being in New York and wearing the pin stripes and the history behind it, I don't think it's going anywhere, I really don't.
I certainly hope you are right!
It's a tricky time for baseball but there's always going to be fans out there rooting for them and I'm optimistic about the sport and about the Yankees.
What has your experience been like making your Broadway debut in Bronx Bombers?
It's fantastic. It's obviously one of those pinnacles that you sort of see in the distance and hope that someday you'll have the opportunity to do. I've been kicking around New York and jumping around film and TV and commercials and voiceovers so I've had a very diverse career but there's always that desire to be part of the Broadway club and it's really such a great thing to feel so welcomed into it.
We had our first preview a couple of weeks ago, I'm the only one in the cast with a Broadway debut, and the guys took me out and we had a toast and it was just great. They're a really supportive bunch and there's a great dynamic among us all, so it wasn't stressful. I did sort of take the moment in on my first preview and acknowledged that, but for the most part, I'm just so happy to be a part of the process with such a great group of people, I'm just so thrilled. And of course, being able to do it side by side with my fiancé that's such a bonus to the whole package!
About Chris Henry Coffey:
His most recent film and TV credits include The Little Tin Man (2013) and Epilogue (which premiered at Tribeca FF 2013). Also Neil LaBute's BFF and David Schwimmer's feature Trust. He has had recurring roles on "Law & Order: CI", guest-stars on "The Good Wife", "Cupid", and "Law & Order". Coffey is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama.
For tickets and more information on BRONX BOMBERS please visit: http://www.bronxbombersplay.com/
Photo credit: James Leynse
Photo credit: Joan Marcus