It probably wouldn’t be too outlandish to say that a new Woody Allen cultural property is not exactly what anyone is in the mood for these days, given the last few months’ worth of op-ed tell-alls, backlashes, and comment-thread arguments. Despite the fact that the production of Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical had been in the works years before Dylan Farrow became part of the cultural conversation again, it still may seem like an April 2014 Broadway opening might not be the best timing for a musical based on one of Woody Allen’s films, especially as Allen himself wrote the book. The Broadway audience, however, is limited compared to the larger audience that would respond to the release of a new Woody Allen film, and it’ll be interesting to see in the next few weeks if the critical and public response to Bullets Over Broadway will indicate a turn in the acceptance of Allen’s work. Is it possible, at this point, to compartmentalize Woody Allen, to appreciate his art while not supporting the artist?
It’s interesting, then, that this is the property that will end up testing these waters. Based on the 1994 comedy (which Allen co-wrote with Douglas McGrath, which earned them an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, as well as a Best Director nod for Allen), the musical follows the hapless playwright and director David Shayne (played by Zach Braff, who makes his Broadway debut), whose dreams of directing his first Broadway play become complicated as his producer, the gangster Nick Valenti (Sopranos alum Vincent Pastore), demands that his ditsy, untalented, chorus girl moll Olive have a major role. As Olive’s poor acting abilities become apparent and exaggerate the script’s stodgy, grandiloquent writing, David turns to Cheech, Nick Valenti’s hired man, to secretly rewrite the dialogue. The result is a smooth, beloved play ghostwritten by a murderer, whose lack of pretense overshadows David’s pompous words.
Can a bad person be a good artist? Of course he can, and there are hundreds of examples in the last few centuries. Whether or not one believes Woody Allen to be guilty of all of his alleged crimes is moot in this case; to be a thoughtful, reasoned critic of Bullets Over Broadway is to examine all of its parts rather than reduce it to “a Woody Allen musical.” Under the direction of Tony-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman and featuring standout performances in particular from Braff, Marin Mazzie, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Heléne Yorke, as well as a score made up of selections from the American songbook, one can look at the greater work on display and proclaim that Bullets Over Broadway not only a joyous, splendid musical, but also one of the best new shows of the season.
The difference between your typical Woody Allen movie and Bullets Over Broadway is that the former is so vividly the work of an auteur; Allen’s touch is on everything in a Woody Allen film, from the typical neurotic Woody Allen stand-in to the jazz that underscores the film. In a Broadway musical production, however, you can more clearly see the work of several different people who have added their own hands to the material. Yes, Woody Allen wrote the script, but the work of the rest of creative team seems to be much more prevalent here. When I told a friend that I saw and enjoyed the musical earlier this week, he replied, “I just don’t know how I feel about supporting Woody Allen right now.” It’s understandable, but the fact is that a ticket to see Bullets Over Broadway is supporting a large team of actors, musicians, stagehands, etc. Those theater professionals are committed to putting on great work; they have little investment in Allen’s personal life, and it seems like a completely knee-jerk, sophomoric response to write this one off completely because of Woody Allen.
That’s not to say Bullets Over Broadway doesn’t have its flaws. It’d be nice to have had some original music rather than a collection of songs that are in the public domain (although the alternative could have been disastrous: new musical theatre numbers written in the style of ’20s jazz tunes that very well could be flops). The most glaring issue is the nearly all-white cast. Save for a sole African-American woman in the chorus (who seems to disappear under a blonde wig next to her white colleagues), the cast is entirely white, which the New York Daily News reported this week was a directive from Allen himself. (When asked for comment, Allen’s press rep denied that he instructed that no African-Americans should be cast in the show.) During a season in which most shows on Broadway feature colorblind casting — with even Les Misérables, a show set in 19th-century Paris, featuring two black actors in prominent roles — it’s no longer reasonable to even claim “historical accuracy” as an excuse for the racial disparity on stage.
But to focus on the show’s merits, which vastly outweigh its flaws, one only needs to look at its stellar cast. Zach Braff is perfectly cast as the nebbish David Shayne (in a role originally played by John Cusack; that Braff is a John Cusack for the new millennium seems reasonably apt), and is charming and funny to the extent that I was a little miffed to enjoy him in a role so much. Multiple Tony nominee Marin Mazzie was perfect as the diva Helen Sinclair; one could expect a Broadway star, one who is, for the most part, unknown beyond the Great White Way, to be overshadowed by Dianne Wiest’s performance in the film (for which she won an Oscar, her second). But Mazzie brings new life to the character, commanding the stage through song and delivering the famous line — “Don’t speak!” — in a way that doesn’t feel like an imitation or a quote.
And while the show’s supporting cast members Brooks Ashmanskas, Nick Cordero, and Karen Ziemba shine in comedic roles, it’s Heléne Yorke as Olive, the ditzy Cotton Club dancer who dreams of her name on a Broadway marquee, who truly steals the show. The first act belongs entirely to her, and Mazzie’s mid-act introduction can’t even reclaim the limelight from Yorke’s grasp. It’s rare to see a relative newcomer burst from a supporting role like that, and it’s a marvelous experience watching her take control of every scene. It’s just one of the reasons why Bullets Over Broadway is worth seeing. The other is that it’s a fine musical, a light, frothy joyride that proves, yes, art can be escapist and fun, and it sometimes allows us to escape the complications of real life and enjoy, for two and a half hours, a musical spectacle without guilt.