The subjects of operas are usually tragic lovers or epic heroes– people with over-the-top expectations and desires. They’re people who win big, and sometimes fail bigger. People like Orpheus and Eurydice. Like Madame Butterfly and Don Juan. Like Bum Phillips and Earl Campbell.
Whether you’re a football fan or not, you’ve got to admit that football is one of the most high-stakes, grandiose narratives in American history. Like the backdrop for some mythic battle, it’s got heated rivalries, crucial strategies, and larger-than-life characters who embody the game’s heart and energy. People like Bum, coach of the Houston Oilers from 1975-1980. Need more convincing that football is basically opera?
Now, I think I can safely say among friends that I didn’t know who Bum Phillips was before receiving information about the opera. And no matter how many times my brother explains it to me, I only have a weak knowledge of how a football game actually works. In the case of Bum Phillips the opera, the former hindered my comprehension more than the latter. I suspect that creator Luke Leonard expected NYC theater audiences to come into the show with little to no experience with football. While there are some excellently choreographed scenes of football plays, they’re pretty watered down. Besides, commentary from operatic ABC sportcasters and the nifty scoreboard hanging above the stage is more than enough to help understand the game.
On the other hand, I think audience was expected to come in with a working knowledge of Bum Phillips’ career and life because not much is really revealed. We get a short, insubstantial glimpse into Bum’s birth in Texas and his deployment to the war, skip a decade or two until he gets hired by the NFL, and hardly get any mention of his marriage and family. Personal information is sparse, and his career accomplishments are only mentioned in a rather roundabout way.
Informative biopic this is not. I’m still not clear on what Bum Phillips’ specific contributions to the NFL actually were and why his legacy is important. I would have liked to see more of both his successes and his failures. But what I can tell you about Bum just from watching this opera, however, is that he was certainly a figure for the American people. He was successful as a coach not because he was ruthless or power-hungry. Rather, he treated his players like a family and dedicated himself to the game with hard work, passion, and modesty. And while he never did win the Super Bowl ring that he longs for in the opera’s opening, his happiness was achieved through his selfless love of the game.
This may all seem like a idealized portrait, and I feel the opera could have risked humanizing Bum a little more in making a more realistic character. But Bum’s energy and hopeful nature is infectious, especially as it is embodied by Gary Ramsey. Ramsey’s charisma, talent, and range pay tribute to Bum while also making him feel like a fully realized character. The music, from Peter Stopschinski also shines. It can re-create the halting, exciting, rhythm of a football game, as well as the domestic despair of a mother whose son is sent to war.
Bum Phillips plays through March 30 at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre. Tickets here.
There’s also going to be a livestream of Sunday’s show sponsored by HowlRound Theatre Commons. More info here.