Had this one been in the pile of bad plays through which Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom sifted for their surefire money-loser in “The Producers,” they might never have read down to “Springtime for Hitler.” Conceiving, writing and scoring a story based on one of the NBA’s most acrimonious and regrettable episodes, and producing it as “The Lockout: A Musical,” seems about as ill-advised as bottling and marketing Shaq’s perspiration as Eau de O’Neal at fragrance counters everywhere.
The NBA lockout that delayed the start of the 2011-12 season until Christmas wasn’t much fun for anyone. Big basketball vs. big labor, it featured seemingly endless rounds of wrangling and posturing in Manhattan hotel ballrooms, various shades of purple rhetoric, the loss of 240 regular season games and discarded pizza boxes emptied by sportswriters, courtesy of sportswriters in other cities, who found solidarity through bad takeout food.
Lord Lloyd Webber himself, had he stumbled into a grim session between David Stern, Billy Hunter, Derek Fisher and the rest, wouldn’t have sniffed the inspiration for a musical comedy. So what were Ben Fort and Jason Gallagher thinking when they veered into hoops labor strife with a story they already had been writing?
“We always wanted to something sports-related,” said Gallagher, who teams with Fort in the Chicago production company Six Hours Short and also operates the NBA humor site Ballerball.com. “Originally the story was going to be based around free agency – we were observing LeBron James’ ‘decision,’ which was absurd, and some of the even more absurd contracts that went to other players that summer. Then [one year later] the lockout happened.”
That became the backdrop of what Fort and Gallagher describe as “the budding bromance of an owner and player who find themselves on opposite sides of a bitter labor dispute.” In story and song, they tell the tale of Phil Goodman, owner of the fictional NBA Wichita Water, and a zero-time All-Star player named Macon Jones. James’ name actually gets mentioned in the show, Gallagher said, but the other characters are all originals or composites based on various NBA archetypes.
There is, for instance, a Joe Johnson-like character, as in a grossly overpaid good-but-not-great star. There’s an aging, grizzled vet and players association stalwart loosely based on Fisher and a female team executive who exhibits traits of Houston GM Daryl Morey. Because the Illum character – whose tale took over from Jones’ as the primary focus as the play was crafted — is written as a “really lovable” team owner, Fort and Gallagher obviously had to concoct that guy from scratch (kidding!).
“The other 29 are talked of as Prince-of-Darkness type owners, but we wanted our lead to be this dim-witted but good-hearted guy,” Gallagher said. “We try to show the backlash when someone signs a deal that everyone hates. But we said, what if these are really good people doing it? We wanted to humanize it.”
Gallagher said that the first act, thus, is mostly about free agency. The second act plunges the characters into the lockout, giving it what the co-writer said is a “ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ flavor. The player and the team owner really like each other but they can’t even talk to each other because of the lockout.”
There is a Commissioner character who also has villainous overtones, but he deftly is not named Stern. And Gallagher said the NBA has checked in on the production, apparently signing off enough that deputy commissioner Adam Silver joked that he’s fine with it as long as he’s played “by Denzel.”
A 12-song, original cast recording already is available for download. Directed by Joe Giovanetti, “The Lockout: A Musical” will have its world premiere Aug. 23 at the American Theater Company in Chicago and run through Sept. 15. Ticket prices and more information is available at the Web site. And rest assured that HTB will have a critic in the balcony to report back on this pebble-grained production, which might find its spot among other great basketball-themed stage presentations, such as “Twelve Angry Men,” “Waiting for D.Rose” and “A Streetcar Named World Peace.”