It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Man Spits: Recalling a Colorful Coach
Opera Celebrates Bum Phillips, Who Led the Houston Oilers
“Luv Ya Blue,” an electronic sign reads as you enter the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa for its current show, referring to the defunct Houston Oilers of the National Football League through the color of their home jerseys. The word “Blue” flashes at times, seeming to short out, then morphs into “Bum.”
“Luv Ya Bum”: Now that would at least have been a grabber of a title, however inexplicable to the uninitiated, and you wouldn’t have had to quibble about whether the show it referred to, which opened last Saturday evening, was a musical, an opera or an opry. Instead, its makers gave it the awkward and tendentious title “Bum Phillips All-American Opera,” so let the quibbling begin.
For those of you who do not automatically shift your gaze from, say, the Metropolitan Opera on a fall Saturday to the N.F.L. on Sunday, a little background may be needed. In fact, a lot is needed, and that’s part of the problem.
Oail (pronounced AWL) Andrew Phillips, nicknamed for his sister’s inability to pronounce “brother” — “bumble” was shortened to “bum” — was from 1975 to 1980 the coach and general manager of the Houston Oilers (the forerunner of the current Tennessee Titans, and not to be confused with the present-day Houston Texans). Though he turned a mediocre team into a Super Bowl contender in his final two seasons, its hopes were quashed both times by the Pittsburgh Steelers in conference championship games, a step short of even playing in the Super Bowl, and Phillips was fired in a New Year’s Eve Massacre in 1980.
But by then he had become a cult figure in Houston, a hero to the Luv Ya Blue throng of avid Oilers fans. Hefty and jut-jawed, he presented himself as the quintessential Texan, with his cowboy hat and boots and his down-home manner and platitudes. He chewed tobacco and spat a lot, as was copiously documented in an NFL Films segment that presented him as the No. 8 Character of All Time.
In the film clip, he points out a homemade sign in the stands: “It ain’t over ’til the fat man spits.” So is it opera we’re talking about, after all?
No. For all of Phillips’s late immersion in the Christianity of his upbringing and his newly adopted mission of visiting prisoners, there is no heroic action here of operatic scope.
The issue is not quality. Conceived and directed by Luke Leonard, the work functions reasonably well on Broadway musical terms, and there is no reason to believe it would have been better for being more operatic.
The work “was born from nostalgia,” Mr. Leonard writes. And Phillips was indeed a colorful figure, but the color was local.
Even for many of us who followed football avidly at the time, he was never more than a peripheral figure. Of what I wrote above, about all I remembered before I started digging was coach of the Houston Oilers, cowboy hat and boots, and jutting jaw.
So exposition is needed: lots of it, and it’s still not enough. In Kirk Lynn’s libretto, the television announcers tell about Bum; family members tell about Bum; Bum tells about Bum.
In operatic terms, almost everything functions as recitative, little as aria. Even when the melody soars a bit, it seldom conveys overwhelming emotion of the kind that motivates operatic arias; it is still too busy just dispensing the facts.
All of that said, Peter Stopschinski’s music has appealing moments, perhaps more of them in a countrified mode than in the higher-flown tunes or the slightly more adventurous harmonies, and a talented and energetic cast added to the appeal.
The hard-working, strong-voiced, charismatic and, yes, jut-jawed baritone Gary Ramsey offered a tour de force as Bum Phillips. In the other glamour role — as Phillips’s second wife, Debbie — Alison Bolshoi unfurled a plush and lovely dramatic-soprano tone but spent a little too much time slightly under pitch.
For those who know more, and care more, about Bum Phillips, this will undoubtedly make for a fine evening’s entertainment. But merely loving music and loving football isn’t enough to make it so.
“Bum Phillips All-American Opera” runs through March 30 at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater, 66 East Fourth Street, East Village; 212-475-7710, lamama.org.