PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Bullets Over Broadway—Guys and Dorks
By Harry Haun
Woody Allen's new musical Bullets Over Broadway, starring Zach Braff and Marin Mazzie, opened on Broadway April 10. Playbill.com was there.
If it seems as though you've heard that song before, it really is from an old familiar score in the highly conspicuous case of Bullets Over Broadway, which is writ large in rat-a-tat-tats across the curtain that officially rose April 10 at the St. James Theatre.
All 21 were written when the '20s were roaring with Prohibition speakeasys and bloodied valentines. Broadway and gangland were doing land-office business—and, by banging these worlds together, Woody Allen created an infectious film comedy.
Now the infectious spirit has spread to Broadway and those who remember the fun they had with the film will go to the theatre expecting the same kind of fun, and they will doubtlessly find it.
The man who let it all happen came to his Broadway-musical debut tie-less, dressed in an unprepossessing gray suit, and ran the press gauntlet outside the theatre with casual elan, addressing press and TV cameras as if it's something he does every day.
Should Bullets Over Broadway prove a bonanza, would he consider having other like-minded light-fare turned into Broadway shows (say, "Purple Rose of Cairo" or "Midnight in Paris" or "Broadway Daddy Rose")? "Not necessarily," the 78-year-old filmmaker said. "No. I didn't even want to do this one. I had resisted it for years. I never had any interest in it as a musical. It was only when my sister [Letty Aronson, who co-produced the show with Julian Schlossberg] suggested doing it as a vintage musical that the idea excited me since I'm such a '20s jazz music fan. Only then. I had been asked by many people to do this as a musical. Even Marvin Hamlisch, who was a wonderful composer, had me in his apartment and played a couple of songs for me to hear written for it, and nothing felt right. I felt, 'It doesn't have to be a musical. Forget about it.' Then my sister said, 'Use 1920s songs,' and it suddenly came to life."
Stro seemed the way to go. Director-choreographer Susan Stroman turned Mel Brooks' film "The Producers" into the all-time top Tony champ, in terms of awards and noms. They went into their first huddle two years ago to the day of its opening.
Yes, the show has no bananas—dancing ones—now. Dancing hot dogs turned out to be phallic enough, and the enormous hot dog went the way of the dancing bananas. An idiotic controversy was stirred up in the gossip columns over these flourishes.
Because vintage '20s songs were so crucial to the project, musical supervisor Glen Kelly conducted an archeological dig and came up with some gems, both known and not, and then—because they were in public domain—tweaked them to fit the show.
"I did 37 percent of the lyrics," said Kelly, the music man behind The Producers, The Drowsy Chaperone and Aladdin. "That's the official percentage. A lot will hopefully go unnoticed. Some are more like plot things which you'd obviously assume were new to the show."
Douglas McGrath, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated 1994 screenplay for "Bullets" with Allen—and could wind up his Tony competitor this year (for Beautiful), embraced the new musicalization: "It lends itself to it because it's big, colorful and comical. It's set in the world of theatre, so it makes sense that it could be a musical."
McGrath is switching mediums for a while, "doing a pilot for HBO. It doesn't have a title yet. It does have a subject, but I'm not supposed to discuss it. Isn't that terrible?" Dianne Wiest also thought the film transitioned into a vintage musical quite nicely. "If I had not been in the movie"—and she, Oscar-winningly, was—"I would have thought it had always been a musical. It doesn't seem like it was ever anything else."
She just did a reading of "a wonderful new play" called Rasheeda Speaking and hopes to do it next year for The New Group, with Cynthia Nixon debut-directing.
Bullets is about the wising-up of an innocent, dorky playwright knee-deep in artistic pretentions but brought crashing to earth by alien hoodlums.
Not only must he endure the antics of a talent-free actress foisted on him by his mobster producer, but he must also take notes from her bodyguard, who is more proficient at making other kinds of hits and who, somehow, humiliatingly, is better at making theatre. Not quite as deadly but just as deforming is the fading, desperate star who shamelessly vamps a bigger and better role out of the hapless hack.
Properly tuned up for his musical-comedy (and Broadway) debut, Zach Braff makes the ideal Woody Allen facsimile in this lead role. "I have to be the straight man to a lot of insane people—I'm like the spindle on which all these crazies spin—and that's fun for me because, on 'Scrubs,' I was often the broad guy. Getting to say Woody's words makes you just feel like you're the most quick-witted person in the world.
"I love this character. My favorite moment is singing 'I've Found a New Baby' with Betsy Wolfe. I just think that number's great. As a fan of the classic Broadway belter, I get to sit in the front row and watch that girl hit those notes every night. It takes everything I have not to clap along with the audience."
The newness is still new to him. "All the time, I find myself thinking, 'Are we dreaming?' This is where Hello, Dolly! opened. This is where Oklahoma! opened. And we're standing on the stage looking out. For a kid from New Jersey who grew up going to musicals, I can't believe that I'm actually involved in something so epic."
Of all his characters, Allen said Braff's character was more developed in the musical than the movie. "In the movie, he was played by the great John Cusack, an actor who played it perfectly, but he didn't have songs to sing, and by giving Zach some songs to sing, his character was built up and enriched tremendously by them."
Most of the show's scenery-chewing is confined to that devouring theatrical man-trap named Helen Sinclair, whose "Don't speak" demurring spoke Oscar-winning volumes for Dianne Wiest in the movie. Here. she's manned by the amazing Marin Mazzie, who washes it all down with lighter fluid or, in a pinch, paint remover.
"Dianne came Saturday matinee to my dressing room," she said. I started crying, and she started crying, and we just hugged each other. She said to me tonight, 'I didn't think you could be better than you were Saturday.' She's a beautiful woman, and she's an extraordinary actress. She's an idol of mine, and it was a thrill to meet her."
"There's a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway" is Mazzie's favorite song in the show. "I love that sentiment. It's very true about how hard this life is but how rewarding it can be. I feel it's a real homage to what we go through as Broadway babies—or Broadway lifers, whatever you want to call me now. I'm a lifer, I guess."
Mazzie and Helene York, who plays the monumentally ungifted actress befouling the play, have formed a mutual admiration society of sorts—a good idea if they find themselves in the same Tony category in May. "I saw Marin in Kiss Me, Kate in the summer of 2000," recalled York, "and that performance changed my life, seeing her in that show, so to share the stage with her right now is wonderful. I wanted to be an actress by the point I saw Kiss Me, Kate, but I wanted to be as good as Marin Mazzie."
Off-stage, there's a gentle lilt in her voice you couldn't find with a compass on stage. She sounds like Judy Holliday with extra gravel. "I've been asked about that, but I didn't imitate anybody. I tried really hard to have it come out of me. There are so many lines in the show about how awful Olive sounds, and, of course, the lines themselves pretty well do that also. That was how it came out of me when I started reading the lines to audition. That's how I believe she would sound. Thank God, I don't actually sound like that. I wouldn't have any friends in my life, that's for sure."
She is of two schools of thought about the dumb blonde she's playing. "I battle that image seriously in my personal life, but I perpetuate it in my professional one," she admitted. "I think it was Dolly Parton who said, 'I'm not dumb and I'm also not a blonde.' Woody is always reminding me that Olive is not nasty. She's just dumb. That's the charm in her, and that's the tricky line I have to walk with this character."
One of her musical highlights is "Let's Misbehave," an exuberant mating-dance of sorts that Olive does with Warner Purcell, a British actor who deals with stress by compulsively and constantly overeating. He's played by Brooks Ashmanskas, an American comic actor in the windy wheeze of Roger Livesey's Colonel Blimp.
"Brooks is, by far, the funniest actor I've ever been around. The incredible thing about him is what he brings. His infectious positivity and humor pervade us all," York said.
The role of Purcell, whose weight increases from scene to scene—Ashmanskas uses two fat suits for illusion—seems to work better on stage than it did on screen because it's an easy laugh always available. But Ashmanskas won't hear a word said about Jim Broadbent's performance in the film. "I was obsessed with it when it first came out, so I'm thrilled and honored to do it."
The bodyguard/dramaturg is played by a former Toxic Avenger, Nick Cordero, who at six-foot-five, towers over one and all on stage and presents a persona of pure granite. "Finding the stillness, and the power in the stillness of Cheech, was a big part of the job, and I think we got there," the actor relayed.
One of the pillars of the production is the peace-making producer, played with good-humored tact and delicate diplomacy by Lenny Wolpe. "I love that he gets it done. He figures out how to make it work, and he follows through on it. He has to finesse things, and the show gets produced, and it's a hit, and that's what his job is.
"It was a lot of fun tonight. It feels like the show has found its shape, and audiences are having a great time—and that's what it's all about, that they're having fun."
Tony-winning Karen Ziemba is overqualified for the smallish role of the character actress in the company. True to the stereotype, started by Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight, she carries a small dog as a trinket. "I'm so lucky to be working with the most beautiful little princess in the business," she said. "She looks like a little stuffed toy she's so beautiful, but she's also very loving. We bond together every night before the show. We do tricks together, we do some commands, and then we just roll around on the stage. She jumps on me. We kiss, just play and talk to each other—just to get the love going there."
The role helps a little mourning that is going on for her. "I had McDuff, my terrier, for 16-and-a-half years. She just died recently, so this is kinda God-sent. I look forward to maybe getting another dog some day, and I think I may adopt a dog through Bill Berloni, who is the animal handler, through his connections with Rescue Dogs."
Vincent Pastore, with a rap sheet that includes "The Sopranos" and some Scorseses, is impressed with the upgrading he got from Broadway. "Everyone says, 'You're always playing gangsters,' but I've never played a gangster like this. This guy's on top, and it's a period piece. It's what a guy does for a girl. It's Jimmy Cagney and Doris Day, 'Love Me or Leave Me.' It's Born Yesterday with Paul Douglas and Judy Holliday. It's that type of storyline, and that's the kind of guy he is. He's nuts about this girl, but she drives him crazy."
Musicals, you may have gathered, are not a specialty with Pastore, but he's not entirely green. "I did Chicago on Broadway [the forgotten Amos Hart] and I was on the road in Guys and Dolls [the formidable Big Julie]. Locally, I do a lot of theatre. I've got my own theatre company in New York. The last piece I did was not a musical but it was about rock 'n' roll. I got Moritz Van Zandt involved, and we did it as a showcase. It's called Wild Children. I wrote and produced it, and we'll take it to Off-Broadway."
As Braff's girl back home, Wolfe is not so involved in the gangsters-on-Broadway melee, but she does sing out when opportunity allows. Of late, she has had a run of Mets. She had an opening at The Met in January, she attended the Les Miz opening-night party at The Metropolitan Club. And now this! Can The Metropolitan Room be far behind?
Gypsy miracle man Jim Borstelmann—in his seventh show and 17th straight year of performing on Broadway—fields five different roles in this production, from hot-dog vendor to rub-out victim. "Stro calls me Lon Chaney," he boasted. "She's the one who took me out of Chicago as a dancer and had me act, so I owe it all to Stro."
At the curtain call, director Stroman took to the stage and brought out for well-deserved bows all the backstage crew, all the music team, all the designers—every creative save one. "There was another collaborator here tonight, but he was too shy to come on stage," she said. "But we will see him soon at the party. He's probably warming up the dance floor now. Anyway, thank you for welcoming us. It was a great, great audience to welcome us to The Great White Way. Thank you so much."
And with that, first-nighters piled aboard a caravan of buses outside the theatre and whisked them off to the most sumptuous party of this or several seasons at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where guests luxuriated among the authentic ruins, sipped champagne and supped poolside at the Egyptian pool and roamed the recently renovated American Wing cluttered with ancient artifacts and priceless treasures. Ah, art!
It was pointed out to Mazzie's husband, Jason Danieley, that he had an extra wife on stage in Bullets. He and Ziemba were songwriting marrieds in Curtains a few seasons back, and, just to make the bond even tighter, Ziemba was in Mazzie's first New York show, And the World Goes 'Round, choreographed by Stro. 'Twas Old Home Week.
Did Danieley detect a diva around the house lately? He was the model of tact: "I guess there are traits that are apparent that get actors roles. There are reasons they get roles. Maybe she's saved a little bit for the character so there won't be accidents around the house." Next for him: "I'm doing a reading of a new Ken Ludwig play at the McCarter. It's about Sherlock Holmes. It's an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I play Dr. Watson. The Sherlock I'll find out on Monday. We're doing a three-day reading, then a production next season. It's not a musical—thank God--nice to do a play every once in a while. Gary Griffin, who directed me in Sunday in the Park with George at Chicago Shakespeare and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at Encores!, will direct."
Max von Essen and Adam Kantor, fresh from singing the "Unsung Carolyn Leigh" over the weekend in Lincoln Center's Kaplan Penthouse, were still basking in the warm critical reception. With von Essen in the title role, several songs from the unproduced Gatsby struck the fancy of The Times' Stephen Holden. "My gosh, that review was simply great," purred van Essen. "Hopefully, that'll gather even more interest. When The Times talks about something, people listen a little bit more."
He has several irons in the fire. Most immediate, in a couple of weeks, is Anything Goes with the Indianapolis Symphony with Rachel York, Gary Beach and Judy Kaye.
Seen side-by-side: Elizabeth Berkley and hubby Greg Lauren, an ex-actor—now-designer peddling a clothing collection based on his work as a painter; Regis Philbin and Joy; ABC's Cynthia McFadden on the arm of publisher Joe Armstrong; actors Martin Moran and Henry Stram; directors Stanley Donen and Elaine May; agent Richie Jackson and Jujamcyn's Jordan Roth; Ina Garten, the Food Network's Barefoot Contessa, and her count, Jeffrey.
Also: Charles Grodin; record mogul Tommy Mottola; flashy, frosty Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue; John Weidman, Stroman's Contact collaborator; Barbara Walters of "The View"; R&H kingpin Ted Chapin, who just made his bosses look very good indeed in the 92nd Street Y's "Lyrics and Lyricists" series; Marlo Thomas and Steve Guttenberg from the May-Allen clambake, Relatively Speaking; "image consultant to Broadway actresses" George Brescia; Wicked/Godspell's Stephen Schwartz; The Drowsy Chaperone songwriter Lisa Lambert; Pulitzer Prize playwright Doug Wright; and, surprisingly, a delighted Frank Langella, who has seen the show three times.
Berloni, the dog trainer who put Annie's Sandy on the map, escorted his newest stars—Romeo, the English bulldog that stole critical thunder from his two-legged co-stars in Threepenny Opera, and Trixie, Ziemba's Pomeranian armful in Bullets.
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