Becoming Al McGuire
In his Tony-awarded career playing larger than life figures, Anthony Crivello never met a character — or a challenge — quite like Coach Al.
By Jim Higgins
For six years, Anthony Crivello sang the title role in The Phantom of the Opera in Las Vegas. He won a Tony Award for portraying the revolutionary Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway. But neither role has stretched him in the way that playing legendary Marquette Basketball Coach Al McGuire has.
“It’s a load to strap this guy on your back,” says Crivello, who starred
in a Milwaukee RepertoryTheater production of McGuire, a one-man play written by the coach’s former broadcast colleague, Dick Enberg.
After the initial run filled houses, the Rep brought Crivello back for several weeks of encore performances in June.
As an actor in character, Crivello is accustomed to tying one thought to the next and then the next, in a progression. But when McGuire talked, Crivello says, echoing the coach’s words, sometimes he made a right turn at a left turn. “From that standpoint, he is not like any character I have done,” Crivello says.
It’s not merely the content of the non sequiturs that makes playing McGuire daunting. “Al’s rhythm is pretty rapid fire,” says Crivello, whose offstage voice is both pitched lower and delivered slower than the coach’s. “Those words are firing out of my mouth.”
For 85 uninterrupted minutes on stage, Crivello fires those words, taking the
coach through victories and defeats on and off the court. McGuire led Marquette to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in 1977, the last of the 13 seasons he coached Marquette. He became a national figure as much for his NewYork swagger, fiery showmanship and street- poet diction as for his tournament victories.
Crivello says McGuire is one of three roles he has played that was so demanding he had to guard his health obsessively during the production. (The Phantom and Che in Evita were the other two.) That meant some nights he couldn’t schmooze in the green room or the Rep’s common areas because Stage Manager Richelle Harrington Calin told him the flu was going through cast and crew of another show in the complex.
Crivello and Associate Artistic Director Brent Hazelton worked with Enberg
to deepen and darken his celebratory original script. The actor cited McGuire’s remark that he had broken all the Commandments except the one against murder and would need a deaf priest for his confession.
Crivello spent hours watching footage of McGuire, absorbing cadence and gestures, including a bringing together of his hands that almost resembles prayer. But Crivello also had a view that can’t be found on YouTube. As a Marquette cheerleader in 1974–75, he watched McGuire, the ringmaster, on and off the hardwood floor. McGuire’s partnership with Medalist Industries on daring uniform styles, including the famous “bumblebee” look, was among his many “brilliantly calculated” moves to change the image of the program, Crivello says.
Leaving the nest
Born in Milwaukee, Crivello grew up on Holton Street and graduated from Thomas More High School. He spent two years as a Marquette theatre major before leaving school to launch his professional career, a move validated by a famous visitor to town.
Crivello performed opposite Lucie Arnaz in a summer theatre production of Bye Bye Birdie at Milwaukee’s former Melody Top Theatre. One night the audience included Arnaz’s mother,TV star Lucille Ball. After the performance, Ball beckoned him over to compliment his performance. What was he planning to do when the production ends, she wanted to know.
After he told her he planned to look for work in Milwaukee productions, “Her eyes went wide and she started shaking her head,” Crivello recalls. “She said to me, ‘It’s time for the little birdie to leave the nest.’”
“I carry the torch of Marquette,” says Crivello, who has a Marquette bumper sticker on his car and an MU decal on his front windshield.
The university has warm feelings for the actor, too. Crivello was named Communicator of theYear in 2003 by the Diederich College of Communication and was inducted into the college’s Hall of Fame in 2016. He returned to the Helfaer Theatre this March for a conversation with students, staff, faculty and alumni.
While Crivello stands alone onstage during McGuire, he is not working alone. “The biggest primary additional player is the audience,” he says.
“Sometimes they will talk back or make a comment,” Crivello says. “I always look for that opportunity to then improv with them. So that the experience becomes much more real in the room.
“What happens is Al becomes that much more real.”