In the late 1980s, Chazz Palminteri first performed his one-man show A Bronx Tale in Los Angeles. The show transferred to the now-closed Playhouse 91 Off-Broadway and quickly began to garner critical buzz. Among those who went to see it during its short run, was Robert De Niro. He immediately recognized the potential for a screen adaptation and just a few years later, the show inspired the film of the same name. At the helm, was De Niro making his directorial debut.
“In every project, there’s always that one person that makes something happen,” says Palminteri. “They put it on their back and they make it happen. When I did the one-man show it was me; with the movie, it was Bob De Niro…[he] pushed it through.”
Now, decades later, two-time Oscar winner De Niro returns to the timeless New York City story, and says he has long-been convinced of its potential to be a great American musical. “It’s one of the few movies I directed and I just had a great belief in it as a musical,” says De Niro, who co-directs the world premiere production at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse alongside musical theatre heavyweight Jerry Zaks.
“A year or two after the movie came out [in 1993], I was talking to Chazz and I said, ‘This really could be a terrific musical,’” he continues. “It’s got all the potential: the type of story it is, the father-son relationship, the good and bad morality tale.”
A Bronx Tale, the musical, began performances February 4. Set against the backdrop of racial strife and organized crime in the 1960s, it tells the story of an Italian-American teenager who must choose between his father and the local mob boss who befriends him. The new musical features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater.
De Niro says he originally encouraged Palminteri to write the music for the show, but then wasn’t too keen on the original samples. “It wasn’t bad, it was just off. It had no connection to this story,” he explains. De Niro and Palminteri became side-tracked with other projects and set aside the musical. It was producer Tommy Mottola who was instrumental in getting everyone together again for this stage show.
With Mottola's encouragement, Palminteri, who had worked with Menken in the past, began collaborating with the acclaimed composer on developing new music for the show. Next, they got lyricist Slater on board, who had previously worked with Menken on numerous Disney scores. After decades, the Bronx Tale musical was slowly coming together and De Niro considered whether he would be the one to direct it anew.
“I thought for a long couple of months about whether I should tackle this,” he says. “But I think [the creative team] got nervous that I wouldn’t be able to really give it my full [attention due to scheduling] so I said, ‘How about having somebody like Jerry [Zaks] help?’” Four-time Tony winner Zaks had helmed the Broadway version of Palminteri’s solo show, A Bronx Tale, in 2007 and had directed De Niro in the 1996 film Marvin’s Room. “I knew Jerry, I’d worked with him,” says De Niro. “The stuff I’ve seen him do over the years is terrific.”
“At first I was reluctant and we went through a period of kicking it around,” he continues, admitting he had originally wanted to direct it himself. “Then we invited Jerry to one of our run-throughs and just decided to do it like that.” Soon after, Zaks and De Niro agreed to co-direct the musical. So how has their collaboration worked out?
“It’s been terrific. Jerry is terrific; he’s a mensch,” says De Niro. “We have a very good relationship and I only do things when I feel I’ll add something to it. I’m learning a lot at the same time. I feel very grateful.”
“It’s been pretty uncomplicated,” agrees Zaks. “Because we both love the story…and we knew and highly respected each other.” Unlike De Niro, Zaks says he never envisioned A Bronx Tale as a musical, but is very happy to have the opportunity to work on it again. “I’ve always loved this story,” he continues. “I fell in love with it when I worked on the one-man show with Chazz.”
There is something about A Bronx Tale that has captured De Niro and Zaks and hasn’t let go, even after all these years. It’s their shared love of Palminteri’s story that has ensured the success of the show far beyond it’s original conception. The Upper East side theatre where the one-man show debuted may no longer exist, but A Bronx Tale is far from over.
A Bronx Tale, which concludes its debut run March 6, also features choreography by Sergio Trujillo. The cast features Jason Gotay, Joshua Colley, Nick Cordero, Richard H. Blake, Coco Jones and Lucia Gianetta. Visit www.papermill.org/ for more information.
Olivia Clement is a news and features writer at Playbill.com, specializing in the wonderful and expansive world of Off-Broadway. Follow her on Twitter @oliviaclement_