“One of my opening lines is, ‘I’m on the corner of 187th and Belmont Avenue,’ and I was on the corner of 187th and Belmont, looking at the stoop and seeing the church down the block, and all of those things I sing about in the opening number,” recalls Jason Gotay. “The smell of freshly baked bread and the cannolis and the markets—to see all that was just incredible. It’s just so rare to get that opportunity.”
He reminisces about his trip to the Bronx with Chazz Palminteri before A Bronx Tale went into production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. “It was the coolest day ever,” Gotay continues. After all, it’s Palminteri’s tale being told—the coming-of-age story of Calogero (Palminteri’s given name), a young man who grew up in the Bronx and was introduced to the world of organized crime by friend (and father figure) Sonny, the local mob boss.
In A Bronx Tale, Calogero is torn between fathers—his biological father, who is a bus driver, and his mob father, the one who makes him feel special around the neighborhood. He’s torn between his group of friends, a gang of Italian Americans, and the girl he admires, an African-American classmate named Jane. He knows he’s different, and his dreams span beyond the block of Belmont.
Much like Calogero, “I definitely saw early on that I was very different than a lot of the kids in my neighborhood,” says Gotay. “I didn’t feel stuck in my neighborhood; I fought to get out.”
Gotay grew up in Brooklyn, but hit the streets of Manhattan regularly to attend PPAS (Professional Performing Arts High School) in the heart of midtown. “For me, it was two trains and a bus,” he explains. “It was me getting up at crazy hours to get to school on time an hour-and-a-half away. I was rehearsing at school til late hours… I was traveling by myself as a pre-teen because I knew what I wanted, and I went after it so aggressively.”
In a way, he was like Palminteri. The actor, screenwriter, producer and Oscar nominee began telling his Bronx Tale in the late 1980s, earning him his big break. What started as a one-man show in Los Angeles turned into a Hollywood hit when Robert De Niro saw the story told Off-Broadway and bought the rights to transform the stage property into his screen directorial debut. De Niro starred opposite Palminteri in the 1993 film—they were the aforementioned father figures at the forefront.
As for Gotay, after performing arts high school and college at Marymount Manhattan, he got his break in Bring It On, playing a teenage heartthrob amongst a group of headstrong cheerleaders. But, Bring It On’s Broadway extension was cut short, and his second Main Stem endeavor (alternating as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark) was also brief. Shortly after his casting was announced, Spider-Man posted closing.
Now, leading the show in Bronx Tale, he’s taking cues (in more ways than one) from Palminteri.
“We talked about so many things,” he says of his day in the Bronx. “It kind of felt like Sonny and Calogero a little bit. We were walking around the neighborhood and saying ‘hi’ to people on the corner that he knew. We talked about the show, but we talked about what it means to be in this business and what’s important to remember being an actor and how to navigate this crazy industry. We talked about some of the obstacles you face and some of the pressures you’re going to face as your career continues to grow. And, if there’s anyone you want to talk to about that [with], it’s Chazz because the guy is a legend.
“One of the things that I’ve really taken from him is the trust you need to have in yourself and how the process needs to be about you and the people who you’re working with and not these outside forces. He talks a lot about reviews and critics and [how] everyone’s going to have an opinion. If you really take that into account, you’re going to end up really damaging yourself and really damaging the process. He’s very passionate about not reading reviews and not letting yourself be influenced by any outside voices. It’s really about maintaining the integrity of the process, and that’s something that I really admire about him.”
Like in A Bronx Tale, Palminteri (who played mob boss Sonny LoSpecchio in the film) is the outside force currently fathering Gotay along his journey. At home, it’s Gotay’s mother, Marla.
“It’s a story about family and the relationship between Calogero and these two father figures in his life,” says Gotay, “and the main figure in my life was my mother, who has been with me through everything…. Losing one of these two father figures at the end [of the show] and dealing with that loss and coping with that, I definitely reflect on my relationship with my mother and how important she’s been to me. It’s that kind of piece that requires you to be really intimate and personal, and because I connect to it through her, it is a really emotional experience for me.”
Both Gotay’s mother and Palminteri were in attendance for Bronx Tale’s Valentine’s Day opening night at Paper Mill Playhouse. But, after opening night, Gotay decided to take a page from Palminteri this time around.
“I have not read any reviews,” he says, “and I don’t intend on reading any reviews—for the first time ever! Usually, I can’t help myself, but this show just means too much to me, and the relationship I have with the audience is too fragile, especially because I narrate and talk to them so intimately. I don’t really want to damage that by clouding my head with the thoughts and opinions of people out there.
“Everyone’s going to have an opinion. Over the past few years, that’s something I learned. People will love you; some people are going to hate you, and that’s not what’s important. So, no! No reviews for me!”