The biographies of some artists simply can’t be told without mentioning a certain credit, so intertwined are the person and the play. You can’t tell Yul Brynner’s story without bringing up The King and I. Rex Harrison is forever associated with My Fair Lady. And when you think of actor Chazz Palminteri, you immediately think of A Bronx Tale.
The play, movie, and now musical—currently playing at the Longacre Theatre—is about a young, impressionable Italian-American boy growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s who is torn between the example of his law-abiding father and the flashier role model presented by local mob boss Sonny.
Palminteri and A Bronx Tale go back more than 28 years. As an unknown actor, he first performed the autobiographical piece as a one-man show in Los Angeles in 1988; when he brought the show Off-Broadway in October of 1989, Robert De Niro took in a performance and saw the material as a good vehicle for his feature film directorial debut.
“When no one would give me a chance, Bob said, ‘No, you would be great as Sonny and you should write the screenplay because it’s about your life,’” recalls Palminteri. “He made the movie happen.” The 1993 film proved a success and brought the story to a wider public. It also made Palminteri’s name.
Now, De Niro is serving as co-director alongside Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks, who directed Palminteri in the 2007 Broadway staging of A Bronx Tale. Similarly, Palminteri was originally encouraged to reprise his role as Sonny, but declined. “Bob wanted me to,” he says. “He said, ‘Maybe you should play Sonny.’ But I did the one-man show, I did the movie. I wanted this to be a whole new incarnation. Something brand new.”
Photos: In Rehearsal with A Bronx Tale
Talking to the A Bronx Tale team may lead one to believe that every previous version of the story was a step along the way to its pre-ordained destiny as a musical.
“I always felt Bronx Tale would be a wonderful musical,” says De Niro. Palminteri felt the same way, as did music executive Tommy Mottola, a producer of the show (and, as with Palminteri, a Bronx native). Palminteri himself brought in composer Alan Menken, who wrote the score with lyricist Glenn Slater. “Bronx Tale is a fable,” explains Palminteri. “And Alan does these fables. They’re animation fables, but they’re fables.”
Palminteri’s film credits include such memorable movies as Bullets Over Broadway and The Usual Suspects, but it’s A Bronx Tale that has proved the inescapable through line in his career.
“I’ve done 60 movies, and people just love A Bronx Tale,” he says. “It’s strange. Not just here in America, but everywhere—Japan, Europe. I don’t understand it. It touched a chord with a lot of people. I guess what I wrote was archetypes. It’s about so many things, about being the best of who you are. It’s about choices. And the story has just connected to people for so long.”
The enduring appeal of the story is not a mystery to De Niro. “It’s kind of a morality story,” he explains. “It’s got a simple story in a way. It has that kind of timelessness to it.”
Still: solo play, movie, Broadway staging, musical. Doesn’t Palminteri ever get tired of the seemingly never-ending tale of the Tale?
“No,” he says, without hesitation. “Never. Because it’s such a great story.”
WATCH A SNEAK PEEK OF A BRONX TALE FROM MEDIA: