Turning the Corner Again with Chazz Palminteri
"Turning the corner" with Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx Tale" the origins and destiny of a surefire hit musical
“Every project has this one person who makes it happen. Bobby De Niro made the movie happen – if it wasn’t for Bob, the movie, it never happens. If it wasn’t for (music executive) Tommy Mottola, this musical doesn’t happen. Tommy Mottola put it on his back, and he made it happen, so I gotta give him special thanks. This is no jukebox musical – it’s a real musical.”
Any iPhone will tell you that it is 32.2 miles from 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ, to the corner of E. 187th Street and Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, NY. Without traffic, the good people at Apple tell me the trip will take 52 minutes.
Recently, this blogger traversed the Hudson to that very street corner; the purpose of which was to connect in some small way to a production I have anticipated eagerly for some time: the February premiere of A Bronx Tale: The Musical at Paper Mill Playhouse. The original 1993 film directed by Robert De Niro and based upon writer Chazz Palminteri’s own childhood experiences has been a favorite of mine since its release. Still, I admit my trip was a vague, uncertain quest. The pull existed...but I had no clue what I would do once I was there. It was News Years Day. I chose this day to test Apple’s “52 minutes without traffic” assertion. (For the record: they are right.)
The neighborhood is a far cry from the 1960’s version Chazz Palminteri must have known as a boy: Spanish replacing Italian in the language of the shop windows, and the omnipresent hum of Latino music outstripping any wisps of Doo-wop which might echo in the back alleys of the apartment buildings, even after all of these years. But there was a spirit present.
For while the concrete sounds of Dion and the Belmonts may not have been physically beating in my ears, anyone who remembers the opening shot of the film, A Bronx Tale (with its slow, descending shot of a quartet of young Doo-woppers in tight harmony under a Hollywood recreation of this very spot) would have felt a presence.
Like all of New York, this little spot in the Fordham section of the Bronx has evolved. And so, too, has Chazz Palminteri’s story which originated there.
Now, we find this story on the cusp of its third incarnation: back to its theatrical roots, but in an entirely new way...as a full production musical. And the creative team which has been assembled to develop this piece is nothing short of extraordinary: Mr. Palminteri, Book; Alan Menken, Music; Glenn Slater, Lyrics; Sergio Trujillo, Choreography; and Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks, Directing.
Last week, I had an opportunity to sit down with Mr. Palminteri, and he conveyed that he could not be more thrilled with his team:
“Yes, it’s an incredible feeling. When you have people like that, you know you have to work. The secret to success is to work with the best because the best people bring out the best in you, and the best in each other.”
And while no one could hope to have a more capable team in place to portray one’s own life story in musical form, one only needed to observe Mr. Palminteri at a recent production showcase to witness his continued investment in the piece. As his performers dazzled an awestruck room of assembled press with select musical numbers from the show, Mr. Palminteri covertly displayed his best impression of Rodin’s Thinker, seemingly more concerned with the marking tape on the stage floor than the performers themselves. Not true, of course, and when asked about why he couldn’t seem to look at the press showcase with his own eyes, he added,
“I was listening. I was dissecting everything. I was listening to the rhythms and seeing if there was any false rhythm that I could pick out...if there was a false note somewhere, whether it be a lyric or a feeling not right with the book. So that’s why I closed my eyes, so I could hear it...I can hear, and if something doesn’t feel right, I can make a note, or I can go back later and take a look at it.”
And what a sound it was.
Now, it’s important to pause for a moment and note that Mr. Palminteri focused upon each word of this retelling as if it were the first time he told the tale. Being now three-times told, one might assume that Mr. Palminteri could sort of tell and tweak this story in his sleep -- but this is not Mr. Palmiteri’s present reality. Passion and attention are what make Mr. Palminteri tick...otherwise he could not have succeeded in bringing his story from the mean streets of the Bronx to stage and the big screen in the first place. And the proof of this lies in what might just be the dominant sense in his storytelling: sound.
Obviously, sound, in itself, is an essential part of any musical; but it has been a fundamental aspect of this story since Mr. Palminteri’s original script. In fact, the first words of his one-man show are not stage directions or dialogue, but a music note: “Pre show: We hear the music of Dion and the Belmonts.” In fact, throughout the script, there are numerous references to music and sounds of the street; and for anyone who has experienced the film, the soundtrack may as well be a complete love-letter to the 60’s.
Now, in bringing this project to its latest and most intriguing medium, Mr. Palminteri has two masters of sound at his disposal in Mr. Menken and Mr. Slater. Mr. Palminteri notes,
“We are blessed to have Alan Menken because I’ve always loved his music. Always. I would see these animation films of his, and I’d cry...I truly believe this from the bottom of my heart, he is the Irving Berlin of our time.”
All heartfelt sentiments to be sure, but the true value of speaking to these stars at Paper Mill reveals itself to me when they speak about what happens behind the curtain,
“The guy can write ten great songs, and then I could say to him, ‘They’re not working; they’re great, but they’re not working.’ And then he can throw them all out, and then like a week later he’s got another ten great songs. It is scary. No, no, no, it’s scary. He can say, ‘Well, what are you hearing Chazz?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well you know, it’s a thing and a feel when he sees the black girl the song has to…’And then he says, ‘Oh, you mean something like this?’ All of a sudden, you go ‘Y-yeah!’ I never seen anything like that.”
High praise, to be sure; and Mr. Palminteri provided equivalent praise for his lyricist, Glenn Slater:
“Glenn will say, ‘What did you guys do during the day?’ and I’ll say, ‘Ah, you know, we’d go to Orchard Beach, stick ball was really big, and this and that,’ and I would just riff about my day. And then he’d come back to me with these poetic lyrics that all rhyme and match. I mean, cmon. It’s beautiful.”
And judging from the performance preview at last week’s press event, it is beautiful...very beautiful. The energy, sound, and pride in the room permeated through each cast member and crewperson present; yet the prominent, tall frame of Mr. Palminteri still seemed to be the epicenter of that aura. At the conclusion of every musical number...during each quiet, huddled creative team discussion, all deference seemed to be directed his way.
Mr. Palmiteri expanded,
“It’s a fable. It’s about this boy who grows up – who sees this horrific thing at a young age, a killing – that I saw as a kid – and then has a relationship with wise guys. And his father tells him one thing and the wise guys tell him another thing, but it’s not about black and white – it’s about grey and grey. And as bad as Sonny was, he didn’t want the boy to be bad, he wanted him to be good. That’s what makes the story so good because you can’t really tell, ‘Who is the bad guy here?’ The father, as good as he was – and he was a good man – he didn’t want his son to go out with a black girl...but Sonny did. You know, I think that’s what makes the story so great.”
A generation of Bronx Tale enthusiasts would agree, I suppose, and thus the opportunity for a performance medium trifecta for the ages has arisen.
Musical runs through March 6. Tickets may be obtained through the Paper Mill Playhouse Box Office at 973.376.4343 or by clicking here.
Having originally hailed from Newark and a graduate of Seton Hall University, Rich McNanna grew up a stone’s throw from Paper Mill Playhouse in Springfield, NJ. Now a teacher in and resident of Westfield, he and his wife and son experience theater, music, and art with the same vigor as they do baseball. Paper Mill Playhouse is one of their favorite destinations.