By William Wolf


First the audience at the Walter Reade Theater got a fresh look at a pristine archival print of Woody Allen’s 1994 “Bullets Over Broadway” provided by the Museum of Modern Art. Then a distinguished panel talked about the process of turning the film into the current Broadway musical. The event took place last night, May 5, under the auspices of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It was a rare opportunity for informed comparisons.

Revisiting the film, involving the creation of a Broadway play in the gangster-ridden 1920s, was a revelation. I had forgotten how very funny it is. John Cusack is splendid as the idealistic playwright from Pittsburgh who finds himself selling out when his play is produced, thanks to money from a gangster boss on condition that his girlfriend get a part. Jennifer Tilly is outrageously funny as the no-talent floozy trying hard to act. Dianne Wiest as a pretentious fading diva who needs a comeback and gets the starring role is wonderfully funny in what might be the best performance in her career. Chazz Palminteri is a delight as the murderous mobster assigned to guard the boss’s mistress and who starts re-writing the play. Other cast members in the film include Harvey Fierstein, Mary-Louise Parker, Rob Reiner, Jack Warden, Jim Broadbent, Tracey Ullman and Edie Falco.

The film won a slew of Oscar nominations, including Allen for Best Director; Allen and Douglas McGrath for Best Original Screenplay; both Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Chazz Palminteri for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Now the Broadway musical has won an assortment of Tony and Drama Desk nominations.

After the delightful experience watching the movie again, the evening was turned over to the panel, moderated by Kent Jones, Director of the New York Film Festival. Discussing the adapting of the film into the Broadway musical were the stage show’s director and choreographer Susan Stroman and its lead producers Letty Aronson (Allen’s sister) and Julian Schlossberg.

The first problem was getting Allen to agree to making a musical out of his film. Aronson said Allen was skeptical about finding someone who could create the right score. But when she came up with the idea of using existing period music, Allen’s attitude changed.

Stroman spoke about the different needs of a musical. “The songs have to advance the story,” she asserted. Then there was the problem of getting the right casting. Schlossberg noted that they never intended to go for famous stars, explaining that for one thing, such big names have a problem with signing a contract for a year. Also, he said when you cast a Hugh Jackman in a show, when he leaves, the show dies.

Stroman stressed the need for performers who not only could act but also sing and dance. She also told a funny story about the auditions, noting that actors tend to get nervous coming before Allen.

“One actor fainted, was hurt when he hit the floor, was bloodied and had to be carried out. Afterward, Woody said, ‘He was good.’”

In recalling how enthusiastic Allen, who wrote the musical based on the screenplay, was working on the show, Stroman said, “He would come in with a new joke every day, so there are lots of jokes in our musical that are not in the film.” She also said that he liked the idea of a theme that the show poses: What is more important—art or life?

Schlossberg dismissed gossip about the show when it was being created as simply not true, and said, “We just ignored it.” As a producer, he said that difficulties sometimes arise of confronting problems between the director and the writer. “We had absolutely none of that on this show.”

Stroman, who also directed and choreographed the stage musical “The Producers,” was asked by an audience member to talk about the difference between working with Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. She replied that Allen’s humor comes out of his dialogue, while Brooks tends toward the slapstick.

“Both were very generous to me and I have been privileged to work with them.”

Having seen and reviewed the stage production of “Bullets Over Broadway,” I can attest how well the movie was transformed. The basic plot is followed, the stage cast is terrific in getting across the comedy that makes the film so much fun, and there is a whole new dimension provided by Stroman’s creative choreography and the singing. Also the more prominent use of period music offers a special kick. (Stroman pointed out on the panel that there was a desire to not only use well known songs, but also lesser known ones.) The production also provided the opportunity to design some amusingly outlandish costuming, like chorus members dressed as hot dogs. (See Search for Theater on this site to find review of the musical.)

The evening was hosted by the Theatre Communications Group, and there was a reception in the Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery at the Walter Reade Theater. Posted May 6, 2014.


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