Bullets Over Broadway was a perfect screenplay to make into a musical because its story lives in the world of the theater. The show takes the audience backstage to reveal the process behind creating a piece of theater and asks the question, “How much would you compromise for your art?” It’s that theme which really attracted me most – would you allow someone else to write your words? Would you kill for your art? For those of us in the commercial theater, compromising your art is a question we often face.
Developing this musical was one of the best collaborations I’ve ever had – fun, enlightening, invigorating. I was working with the top design team in the business – Santo Loquasto, William Ivey Long, and Donald Holder. And what could be better than working on a dark comedy about show business and gangsters written by a genius, Woody Allen? The comedy was the star of the show and that had to be supported by every department. What helped was a cast that was filled with first class comics like Zach Braff, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Heléna Yorke.
The characters were eccentric – the comedy and drama came out of their offbeat personalities. When their paths crossed, those strange and whimsical play-actors proved to be hysterical.
Woody needed the music to be true to the 1920’s. He wanted the scenes to live in a musical reality and the audience to feel an authenticity to the decade. We needed to find songs to push the plot forward, not just comment on the scene, and I knew that would be difficult. We set about the daunting task with genius arranger and lyricist Glen Kelly. We found a way to make each song from the past work within the story, pushing the plot forward.
In addition to using well known songs like “Let’s Misbehave” and “Tiger Rag,” we wanted tunes that would be rediscovered by today’s audience – songs like “’Tain’t a Fit Night Out for Man or Beast” and “The Hot Dog Song.”
I looked forward to choreographing in this decade because the dance crazes from that period included the Charleston, black bottom, shimmy, fox trot, and tap dancing. One of the numbers I loved creating for this show – and probably any show – was a tap number performed by the gangsters and Cheech called “’Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.”
It is a rare opportunity to choreograph a tap number in which the main goal is to show power and elicit fear. It comes out of the scene when the leading man David Shayne (Zach Braff) is told by gangster Cheech (Nick Cordero) to “mind your own business.” As Cheech sings the song he is joined by his fellow gangsters – who appear out of nowhere.
I told costume designer William Ivey Long that the ensemble of gangsters enters and exits quickly, like cockroaches. William put together one of his incredible image boards that included pictures of cockroaches, beetles, and other creepy-crawly insects to inspire him. When he designed those costumes, he added pinstripes the color of cockroaches and other bugs to the gangsters’ suits. It was a genius way to make each gangster stand out.
It was a thrill to watch a character actor like Nick Cordero embrace an artform he had never tried before – tap dancing. As Cheech, he not only conquered it, but he led an entire group of men singing and tapping out fast rhythms that sounded like machine gun fire. Those are the moments in rehearsals that live vividly in my memory – witnessing an actor being fearless. Nick was a performer with the depth and skill to effortlessly switch back and forth between drama and comedy – that rare talent is a director’s dream.
One of the funniest moments to direct was the rehearsal scene where David Shayne (Zach Braff) is meeting the actors who will read his new play. David Shayne traversing the emotions of glee at interacting with all his players to the crushing realization of how talentless the producer’s girlfriend (and now star of his show) Olive Neal is produced a treasure trove of comic opportunities. That scene generated the dramatic anxiety that character needed and it’s our first glimpse at his devastating awareness that he has compromised his art to get his play produced.
In every show I do, I try to create a lasting image for the audience to remember – something they have never seen before. Bullets Over Broadway is “a-play-within-a-play”. And for David Shayne’s play debut, Santo Loquasto designed “a proscenium set-within-an-actual-proscenium set”. He created a set piece that rotated, showing us the front of the stage, the wings, and the backstage. That allowed me to stage a wild chase scene on the set as it spun around, taking us from onstage to off as the gangsters arrive at the theater and begin to chase Cheech. The set would spin while Cheech and the gangsters and the terrified actors chased one another across and through all the various parts. It was a massive collaboration from all departments to make that chase scene work – and that collaboration is what I love most about the theater.
Santo also built special armchairs for the number “Let’s Misbehave” – a hilarious number for Warner Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas) and Olive Neal (Heléne Yorke). They would partner together like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – Brooks would flirtatiously throw her onto one of the chairs and she would immediately bounce up again and back into his arms as if she had just bounced off a trampoline. As the song ends, Brooks leaps onto the other chair and crushes it to the floor. It took many rehearsals and prototypes to get those chairs right. Of course the number worked not only because of the chairs, but because of Brooke and Heléne’s comic chops and fearlessness. Also – to my joy – in addition to both of them being extremely funny actors, they are also both quite notable dancers.
Our incredible leading lady Marin Mazzie became the leader of the company, making everyone feel special. She played the role of Helen Sinclair as an over the top, manipulative diva with great aplomb. You could tell she was having the time of her life. Whenever she covered Zach Braff’s mouth and said, “Don’t speak” the audience went crazy.
Bullets Over Broadway is a deliciously droll look at show business. It pokes fun of the theater and its traditions and cliches. In the end, the only character in the show who truly takes his art seriously is the gangster Cheech. Unlike the others, he refused to compromise for his art.
The show ran on Broadway for 189 performances. Although it did not run as long as we had wanted it to, it was beloved by many. Especially all of us who live in its world. I learned from Hal Prince a long time ago that just because you have a financial flop, it doesn’t mean it can’t be an artistic success. An artistic success was what Bullets was for me – and I know it was the same for everyone involved.
Written by Woody Allen
Based on the Screenplay by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath
Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Santo Loquasto
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Donald Holder
Sound Design by Peter Hylenski
Musical Direction by Andy Einhorn