Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Making flesh-and-blood figures into heroes is always a tricky thing. We tend to highlight their virtues and ignore their all too human flaws, only for those flaws to present themselves later on. This can lead to a sense of cognitive dissonance, of feeling like we were never right to revere that person in the first place. But ultimately, our understanding that all people have their own particular flaws, and allowing both the positive and negative sides of a person to coexist, can sometimes lead to a richer, more truthful perception of the heroes we admire, as real human beings who struggled with the same things that we do. SOMETHING IN THE GAME, a new musical currently running as part of Northwestern University’s American Music Theatre Project, seeks to take a more well-rounded look at one particularly enduring hero: Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne.
For the football-illiterate (such as myself), Rockne coached Notre Dame football from 1918-1930, leading the team to several undefeated seasons and essentially turning Notre Dame into a powerhouse in college football. The musical traces Rockne’s (played by Stef Tovar) rise from humble beginnings to Notre Dame player to assistant coach to head coach, as well as his relationships with his oft-neglected wife Bonnie (Dara Cameron) and son Billy (Charlie Herman), and his star player and surrogate son George Gipp (Adrian Aguilar), a gifted athlete who battled his own demons until his tragic early death at age 25. That’s all you really need to know to follow the show, which moves through the high and low points of Rockne’s story, often at a breathless pace.
Despite my own general lack of football knowledge, I was interested to see how SOMETHING IN THE GAME would use its historical perspective to tell a story that in some way reflected the world we find ourselves in today. When so much of recent art has been interested in examining and dissecting the myth of the exceptionalist, masculine-centric idea of the Great Man figure, something to which Rockne has been elevated, would the show give us a probing look at the man behind the myth, or a dismantling of the American masculine ideal? Unfortunately, SOMETHING IN THE GAME doesn’t seem interested in exploring these kinds of questions, instead giving us a more traditional hero’s story.
Perhaps it’s unfair to hold a show accountable for not diving into things it had no intention of diving into, but I can’t help but think that SOMETHING IN THE GAME missed an opportunity to say something real and probing about the modern world and what legendary figures like Rockne mean today. Even giving us a more warts-and-all look at Rockne, deflating the balloon of the legend (or at least coloring in the edges) would have been a step in the right direction, but SOMETHING IN THE GAME doesn’t really illuminate Rockne as a man beyond highlighting his fairly generic flaw of neglecting his family, and doesn’t really leave us with much more to think about beyond the message that family is more important than football. The show doesn’t seem very interested in examining or rebuking masculine archetypes either; there are really only two significant female characters, both of whom are mostly defined by their relationships to the men in their life.
The musical originally premiered back in 2008 under the title KNUTE ROCKNE ALL-AMERICAN, and has been substantially reworked for this version. Having not seen the original production, I can’t speak to how different this version is, but I do know that the world of 2018 is very different from the world of 2008, and something that may have seemed like a fun bit of history ten years ago can’t help but feel a little out of touch today, particularly in a theater landscape that is understandably concerned with deconstructing long-held societal ideals.
This isn’t to say that SOMETHING IN THE GAME fails to deliver as old-fashioned musical entertainment, because it definitely does. The performances are stellar across the board, with Tovar leading the cast with a deft mix of toughness and vulnerability. Cameron also does lovely work as his wife, serving as a reproach to Rockne’s team-centric life without coming off as negative or overbearing. James Earl Jones II, as disreputable local gambling joint owner Jimmy the Goat, and Rashada Dawan as his wife Thelma, are hugely entertaining and run away with the show any time they’re onstage, even if their scenes feel like an entirely different musical. And the ensemble, made up largely of Northwestern students, are nothing less than fully committed, filling in as team members, students, reporters, and dancers. The choreography, by director David H. Bell, is full of great touches mixing the athleticism of football drills with more traditional musical theater dance, while Alan E. Schwanke’s simple but elegant set and Robert Kuhn’s pitch-perfect costumes anchor us firmly in time and place.
All the elements are there, and it’s clear a lot of work went into the production, but it unfortunately can’t overcome Buddy Farmer’s clichéd book or Bell and Michael Mahler’s sometimes-clunky lyrics. There are a few really fun production numbers, particularly anything happening at the aforementioned Jimmy the Goat’s, but it doesn’t quite hang together in a satisfying way. It’s clear that Rockne has left a great impression on the world, both in football and the culture at large, but SOMETHING IN THE GAME doesn’t quite manage to answer the question of why, at least for someone on the outside. That said, if you’re already a Notre Dame fan or a Rockne admirer, you’ll likely find a lot to enjoy here, and the cheers at the curtain call suggest there are a lot of folks who enjoyed it immensely. I just can’t help but wish that SOMETHING IN THE GAME left us non-football fanatics a little more to chew on rather than preaching to the converted.