29 August 2014

Bullets Over 'Bullets Over Broadway'

by Kirk Woodward

[Kirk Woodward, a frequent guest blogger on ROT, has come through with another interesting contribution.  Having caught a performance of Woody Allen’s musical stage adaption of his film Bullets Over Broadway, Kirk provides his assessment of the play and the production and as usual, he uses the performance as a way to discuss something more general (dare I say “universal”?) about musical theater.  Readers of ROT will know by now that that’s a subject about which Kirk knows a little something; he’s written on the genre before: “The Scottsboro Brecht,” 12 February 2011; “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” 2 October 2011; “The Jukebox Musical,” 7 October 2011; “Lady Gaga: Artist for Our Time,” 1 November 2011; and “Lady Gaga and Once,” 5 May 2014.

[Given the subject of this post, readers might also want to turn back to my own article “Movicals,” 20 September 2013, and the republished pieces in “More on Movicals,” 21 February 2014.]

I saw the Broadway musical Bullets Over Broadway the Musical, at the St. James Theatre in Manhattan, on Wednesday, August 7, 2014, and by that time the show, which opened on April 10, 2014, had already posted its closing notice for August 24, 2014, by which date it would have run for 33 previews and 124 performances. This makes it, in financial terms, a flop; it cost a reported $14 million to produce, and it will not have made back any of that investment.

Still, there are flops and flops. The show is bound to have a performance afterlife in university and community theater productions. What’s more, it had an afterlife with me too. I left the theater feeling I’d seen an enjoyable but maybe not terribly memorable show. Memorable, however, is what it turned out to be; I found that the next day I was thinking extensively about it, and I came to realize that I’ve learned something important about musical theater because of it.

Bullets Over Broadway is based on a film written (with Douglas McGrath, who this season is represented on Broadway by the book for the musical Beautiful) and directed by Woody Allen. Obviously Allen is a well-known figure, with so many accomplishments to his name that his biography in the program for Bullets reads, in its entirety, “WOODY ALLEN is a film director, actor and writer. His career spans more than six decades, and he has contributed to nightclubs, concert, television, theatre, literature and music.” Indeed he has. In 1994 the film version of Bullets Over Broadway was nominated for six Academy Awards. In 1996, Allen directed a musical film, Everyone Says I Love You, with a score made up of songs from previous decades. In 2014 he combined the two approaches: Bullets Over Broadway, the stage musical, has a score with songs like “Runnin’ Wild,” “I’ve Found a New Baby,” and Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave,” in addition to some less known blues numbers. 

But films and Broadway musicals are significantly different creatures. It is relatively easy for a director to control the tone of a movie; Allen is a master at it. On the other hand, a Broadway musical is notoriously difficult to control, no matter how smooth the process can seem when the results are successful. A song, a situation, a character can run away with a musical, leaving the rest of it looking lost and forlorn. (A good book on this subject is Second Act Trouble by Steven Suskin, published in 2006.)

Woody Allen has experience as a theater director (with the Atlantic Theatre Company), but considering the complexity of the musical theater form, he was wise to enlist as director and choreographer for Bullets the formidable Susan Stroman, who has done remarkable work with shows such as The Producers, Crazy For You, and the stunning John Kander and Fred Ebb musical The Scottsboro Boys

Stroman has the notable ability to understand her assignment. In the case of Bullets, her task was to make the show “go” with machine-like (I almost said machine gun-like) force, so the audience would be carried through certain complexities.

Because . . . there are complexities in the show. It has levels. The most obvious level, perhaps, is the one that must have made it seem likely that the musical would be a financial success: as its title suggests, it promises theatricality. That was Stroman’s department, and she and her colleagues made the most of it. In addition to the vigorous and satisfying dancing (she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Choreography), she staged the show like, well, like a bullet, with plenty of fast-paced movement. Stroman knows how to shape a song, a scene, or an act, so its climax occurs at just the right moment.

But speaking of bullets, here’s the next level of complexity: the musical is about gangsters who kill people. It’s not that the subject of killing is off limits in Broadway musicals, going at least as far back as George Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet in the musical On Your Toes (1936), right up through Sweeney Todd. Certainly the violence in Bullets is cartoon style – there’s no blood. But the gangsters of Bullet’s plot are real gangsters, whose jobs involve killing people rather casually, unlike the gangsters in, say, Kiss Me Kate, Guys and Dolls, and The Drowsy Chaperone, who are basically song and dance men in extra large suits. 

Allen needs a certain amount of realism in his gangsters to set up the contrasts in his story, because the next level of the show is a serious theme, set up in an early discussion along these lines: Suppose you could save either the last copy of Shakespeare’s plays, or the life of a down-and-out bum. Which would you save? The show works this question out in varied ways. The Greenwich Village group we see at the beginning of the first act is art- (and politics-) obsessed, and at least one member of the group thinks the question is no contest – he’d save the art rather than the (allegedly valueless) human being. Later in the show he may rethink his position.

The gangsters, of course, wouldn’t save a life for love or money – quite the contrary - unless ordered to by the Boss. Human life has no value for them. One of Allen’s inspirations in the movie and play is that one of the gangsters becomes so involved in the world of art that he potentially might – not surprisingly, considering his line of work – kill for it. Meanwhile – a fine twist – the people in the show who are dedicated to the arts are willing to sell out their artistic values altogether, just to make a little money in the field.

This theme of value in life and art is not just tossed at the audience. It’s embodied in the story of the play, in ways both obvious and subtle. It is not, however, particularly embodied in the songs interpolated throughout the script, and that may be a weakness in the show. Another weakness is that the play-within-the-play is not particularly interesting. But at any rate Allen is not making easy points about life and art – he’s tackling them in meaningful ways, and expressing them through character.

I will mention one more level of complexity in Bullets (there may be others I haven’t noticed). Allen’s humor adds a level of complexity of its own to the work, because it’s earthy but it’s also sophisticated. This is not the place to rehash the art of Woody Allen’s comedy; volumes, quite literally, have been written about it. The point is that in most Broadway musicals the jokes are so massively structured that it would take a very dull audience member to miss them. There are a few jokes like that in Bullets, but at the performance I saw, the big laughs were few – and the smaller laughs were frequent, as someone here, someone there, caught something clever that Allen had written for a character. “Humor,” Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “is a concealed pair.” In other words, humor –humor that’s well executed – contains real complexity inside itself. Allen knows humor.

What then did I learn about musicals by seeing Bullets Over Broadway? I realized that in any successful musical, the elements are of a piece – not identical to each other, but basically homogenous. Annie Get Your Gun and Pippin are very different shows, but in each the various elements connect closely to each other. In Bullets Woody Allen took the risk – a perfectly sensible one for him to take, considering the nature of his art – that he could combine disparate elements into a musical that “worked.” 

This was not a case of ineptly connecting the parts; it was a worthy, even “artistic” endeavor, but it didn’t entirely succeed. For the most part reviewers did not agree with Allen. Two of the three New York daily papers disliked the show; other reviews were similarly mixed. The reviews didn’t agree with me either – no notice I read indicated that the show had any significance at all. Instead, reviewers were mostly irritated because it wasn’t funnier. Woody Allen has been fighting that very battle for years – “why isn’t he funnier? He used to be funny.” Reviewers often review careers, not plays. That’s Woody Allen’s lot in life.

I should note that Bullets was nominated for six Tony Awards. I already mentioned Stroman’s nomination for Best Choreography, and Allen was nominated for Best Book, a nomination I’d say he certainly deserved. Nick Cordero received a deserved Featured Actor nomination, and he had some fine colleagues on stage: Zach Braff of the TV series Scrubs; Vincent Pastore from The Sopranos once again playing a very believable gangster; and the splendid Marin Mazzie and Karen Ziemba, among other members of the play-within-a-play. There were also nominations for costumes (Ivey Long), sound (Peter Hylenski), and, particularly notably, for Scenic Design (Santo Loquasto) that featured settings whisked up from under the stage while the previous scene was just finishing, and one astonishing set that whirled around the stage at the climax of the play like a Tilt-A-Whirl.

None of those nominated won. They’ll have to be satisfied with the values of art.

[Kirk will be back with more interesting and provocative examinations of topics theatrical and other.  I know some of what he’s got in the works or on his mind, but it’s too soon to preview them.  I can only attest that each idea he’s considering is well worth hearing and I urge ROTters to come back often to catch his contributions to the dialogue.  In the meantime, ROT readers are invited to return to the blog in a few days for an archival report on one of Woody Allen’s self-directed productions, A Second Hand Memory which I saw at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2004.] 

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