I had the feeling, while watching the new Susan Stroman-Woody Allen musical, that it might have been conceived during something like the following conversation:
SS: “Woody, I’d love to work with you. Have you got an old movie in your trunk that might make the basis of a Broadway musical? You know, the way Mel Brooks had when we did The Producers and Young Frankenstein together.”
WA: “Gee, Stro, let me think a minute. How do you feel about ‘Bananas’? Or ‘Zelig’? No? Well, what about my big success ‘Annie Hall’? No, that one is too identified with Diane Keaton. Oh, I know – ‘Bullets over Broadway’ – that one always felt like a musical. Yeah, what a good idea. Glad you asked.”
SS; “After all, why not? It certainly is the current fashion to dig up old movies, add some songs, and hope for something better than Big Deal or Tarzan. And one way to achieve that might be to eliminate any more collaborators. I mean, why bother with an original score when live lyricists and composers get to have opinions and it’s just so tiresome to have them interfere with our vision of the show. I mean, why not just pick songs that are golden oldies, many of them obscure, some of them familiar? That way we’d be certain they were of the right era, and since this show would be set in the twenties, we’d have a treasure trove of songs from that period and we’d be in full control. And we can cast it with all sorts of old favorites, and give the lead to some big Television name who’d give us a lift at the box office just in case the fans of the original movie were dead, or now living on fixed incomes and unable to invest.”
That’s how I imagine Bullets Over Broadway was conceived. I’m probably wrong, but the results indicate this was thought to be a slam dunk decision, put together quickly with a consortium of pre-sold producers headed by Woody Allen’s sister Letty Aronson.
What has emerged, and is currently on display at the St. James Theatre, is a slam bang, in your face musical which has bits and pieces of better musicals sprinkled throughout the proceedings, some of them staged by Ms. Stroman herself. For example, we have the lively tap routines done by a chorus of cuties who seem to have dropped off the wings of an airplane in Steel Pier right into Nick’s club. Only this time instead of the wind blowing while they sing an original Ebb and Kander ditty in the former, here they are with “Tiger Rag” for no particular reason.
Next, we meet Nick himself, right out of Guys and Dolls, playing a gangster with a moll named Olive, who is “Miss Adelaide” from that musical, the same girl minus her post-nasal drip and her longing for a wedding ring. Olive, on the other hand, is determined to be a Star, so she sticks with Nick even though he only gifts her with black pearls when what she really wants is the backing for a play that will showcase HER. Nick is in love with Olive, so that’s what she gets.
Next we meet our hero, David Shayne and his very sweet sweetheart Ellen, who deliver a deservedly obscure period number called “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me”. It gives us a chance to discover that Zack Braff has been hired because he spent several years on a series called “Scrubs” and has a following. Not untalented, Braff wrote and directed an independent film of considerable merit, “Garden State”, for which he deservedly received an award for Best First Feature and a Grammy for the soundtrack.
He’s also paid some dues on stage, primarily at the Public in Twelfth Night and Macbeth, directed by George C. Wolfe. But is he the best bet to play the lead in a Broadway musical comedy? No, he’s not. In the film, John Cusack played his role (David Shayne a naive playwright) with offbeat charm and charisma that made us root for him all the way. Of course he didn’t have to sing or dance, and that was a big help in making his character appealing. For the truth is there are a dozen young stage stars who could have brought magic to the role, but they wouldn’t have had the box office pull of Zach Braff. From the past, one thinks of Rob McClure in Chaplin, Harry Groener in Crazy For You, Gene Kelly (before he’d appeared in one film) in Pal Joey, Norbert Leo Butz in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and so many others. Zach Graff is OK in the role, but he’s not the singer, dancer or charmer to play David Shayne, because the material is just not there to give him the stature that a star must have as the center piece of a big Broadway musical.
Some of the supporting people do what they can to make the show seem better than it is.
Marin Mazzie is fun to watch as she spreads her gorgeous self around the character of “Helen Sinclair”, a role that Diane Wiest put her mark on in the film version. But Wiest did it without the burden of such hoary chestnuts as “There’s a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway” and “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle”, which is a ridiculous lyric for a high class diva with pretensions.
Helene York is the hot-to-trot Olive, but she can’t create empathy the way Jennifer Tilly did in the film. I mean “The Hot Dog Song” is not exactly in the same league as “Adelaide’s Lament”; no it’s minor league all the way. Brooks Ashmanskas is always welcome on stage and his take on Warner Purcell is fun, but he’s not helped by anything that’s been handed to him. For example “Warner Purcell” as a name conjures up some classy kind of gent, but the one joke about Ashmanskas’ Warner is that he’s a compulsive eater and his waistline grows throughout the show, until in the end he looks like he’s about to deliver a small rhino. He’s a mime master, this delightful actor, and he does generate laughs by his elephantine delicacy of movement, but the big belly does not look real, so once again his Warner is more cartoon than character.
Leonard Wolpe is a fine straight man, playing Julian Marx, hapless agent to playwright Shayne. Karen Ziemba is in there doing her excellent best to keep things moving by singing her one number “There’s A New Day Comin'”, for no particular reason except to get the second act off to a lively start. Nick Cordero’s performance as “Cheech”, a hit man with hidden talents as a playwright, manages to overcome the songs he’s been handed, by playing for real, by being the tallest actor in the cast and by having some of the best dialog left over from the film. Chaz Palminteri played the role in the movie, and Cordero is, if anything, even better in the musical. In his case, the bad songs suited his character. (“Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do” is so banal it becomes funny, and “Up A Lazy River” is an interesting accompaniment to bodies being dumped in the Gowanus Canal), so he’s the one who got lucky when songs were being distributed.
You see, that’s the major problem with this show. The score is so uninteresting, the lyrics so generic, that we can’t work up any real interest in most of these dopey characters. Allen’s humor as a writer is more intimate than Mel Brooks’, and staged and performed as broadly as it is here, adds up to a bloated musical of little distinction. I think it’s telling that the program cites the last number as “finale”, rather than by its rightful name, which is — “Yes, We Have No Bananas”! I know that’s a spoiler, and I apologize for that, but after two and a half hours of everyone on stage trying their best with inferior material, I lost control.
Bullets Over Broadway is at the St. James Theatre, 246 W 44th St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.