By Peter Filichia
All right, most of us don’t like the semi-recent phenomenon of “jukebox musicals.” And yet, we must admit that far more often than not such shows spur entertaining original cast albums. Maintaining this tradition is Bullets over Broadway.
Woody Allen’s 1994 film – which insisted that a true artist will die for his art while a non-artist will compromise – now is augmented with twenty vintage songs. Here’s a nice mix of classic and lesser-known tunes that were written between 1915 (“There’s a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway”) and 1936 (“The Panic Is On”).
1936? But, purists will argue, Bullets over Broadway takes place in 1929. Thus, they’ll insist, any song written after that (three others were, too) shouldn’t be in the show. Well, yes, that’s true of “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You,” because it’s done by the chorines as a night-club number; how could it be a hit of the day if it weren’t written until 1931?
But as for the others, they function as book songs, so anachronism isn’t a particular problem. One could even effectively argue that the Bullets’ characters sing these songs because they’re actually quoting them. After all, haven’t you ever said “The sun’ll come out tomorrow,” “By George! I think she’s got it!” or “Does anyone still wear a hat?” So why shouldn’t Nick Valente sing the then-current “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?” to his unappreciative girlfriend Olive? Nick might well have heard the song so much that he’s memorized every word.
And given that Helen Sinclair is quite the lush, she’s probably frequented many nightclubs where she’s often heard “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.” Now she’ll sing it to playwright David Shayne to let him know her demands that she, not his longtime girlfriend Ellen, will be first in his heart. Meanwhile, there’s nothing wrong with Olive’s recalling the nightclub number she once delivered — “The Hot Dog Song” — considering that it was actually written in 1927.
Truth to tell, “The Hot Dog Song” wasn’t the name that songwriters Tausha Hammed and Clarence Williams gave their little opus; they had actually titled it “I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll.” Glen Kelly, whose invaluable skills with music and words helped turned Mel Brooks’ drafts of The Producers into a Tony-winning score, may have changed the title to be more demure.
Or perhaps Kelly believed that the original title would tip off that the song would include plenty of double entendres. Just as “The Father of the Bride” in I Do! I Do! should be called “My Daughter Is Marrying an Idiot” and “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” in A Chorus Line would normally be named “Tits and Ass” (as, in fact, it once was), “I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll’s” new title is meant to obfuscate, too.
The way Broadway’s going, we’ll someday undoubtedly have a jukebox musical in which Santa Claus in his North Pole home will be singing “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” Until then, let’s enjoy Zach Braff’s out-of-this-world rendition when his character, David Shayne, realizes that the money’s in place that will allow him to direct his own play on Broadway.
Actually, one could effectively argue that Bullets over Broadway is not r-e-a-l-l-y a jukebox musical, the way that Five Guys Named Moe or Forever Plaid are. Those shows concocted their plots around existing songs and left the numbers intact. (So did A Class Act, but the difference there is that none of its songs – originally written for musicals that never saw the light of Jules Fisher — was ever found in anyone’s jukebox.) Bullets over Broadway found songs to serve its plot the way that All Shook Up did, but it deserves to be called a hybrid musical, because Kelly changed a substantial number of original lyrics in seven of the songs.
Part of the fun of the disc is deciding which lyrics are still in place and which are Kelly’s new ones. For example, “Runnin’ Wild,” the opening number, includes the lyric “Feelin’ gay.” Those who don’t know the song word-for-word have to wonder: did the songwriters put “gay” in the original lyric in 1922? Or did Kelly add it, knowing that plenty of songs from the period (and much later) used it in a “carefree” context? (Turns out the former is the case.) Similarly, when hitman Cheech angrily tells David that he’ll do what he damn pleases in life and “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” you might want to check out the lyrics on the two Ain’t Misbehavin’ cast albums to compare and contrast what Kelly did or didn’t do.
Is there any doubt, however, that in “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” that Kelly added plenty of lyrics? When Cheech cites the 1921 hit to Warner, the gluttonous actor who’s consorting with his boss’ girlfriend, Kelly certainly added two lines for the overeater: “Please don’t touch my teeth; they’re what I use to chew.” Those who know the song cold will find that “Nobody loves you when you’re old and gray” has morphed into “Nobody loves you when your head is gone.”
Nick Cordero, who’s received Tony and Drama Desk nominations as well as a Theatre World Award for this performance, has the right level of routine menace when threatening Warner. As his targeted victim, Brooks Ashmanskas sounds as if he’s shaking as much as a paint-mixing machine. What fun he has in playing the cowardly lyin’ neurotic.
Granted, Cordero’s crooning of “Up a Lazy River” to commemorate where he dumps bodies is anachronistic; 1929 would have to give way to 1930 before the song would be written. Yet Cordero croons it so effectively that we wonder if it really were his composition and that he sold it to the songwriters on a whim.
Marin Mazzie’s oh-so-grand Helen has no lack of self-confidence in “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, over Me.” Later, listen to her hold the note on the song-ending word “band” on “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.” Not having a vowel to bring a song to a close isn’t easy, but you’d never know that a lyric-ending consonant poses any difficulty for Mazzie.
There are two surprising discoveries here. First, there’s Vincent Pastore who plays Nick. Who’d expect that “Big Pussy” from The Sopranos would turn out to have a nice voice – and excellent timing to boot? Indeed he does.
Then there’s Betsy Wolfe, whose Ellen loves David until she decides that “I’ve Found a New Baby.” What a snazzy confident delivery of this 1926 hit! She rivals Carol Channing’s performance on the similarly-themed “So Long, Dearie,” especially with her sly, side-of-the-mouth delivery.
Karen Ziemba gets the rousing second-act opener “There’s a New Day Comin’!” and proves once again that she knows what to do with a show-stopper. And yet, Ziemba’s most endearing moment on the disc comes in the eleven o’clocker “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Let’s not spoil the surprise, but after she exclaims “Everybody!” see if you don’t laugh out loud (to use the expression that everyone used in the ‘20s long before “LOL” became the term of choice).
This is Ziemba’s fourth collaboration with Bullets’ director-choreographer Susan Stroman (first as a Crazy for You replacement and then as a star of Steel Pier and Contact). At a recent New Dramatists luncheon that honored “Stro,” as she’s affectionately called, Ziemba said, “I want to thank you for including me.” And while the cast album can’t let anyone see Stro’s work which, said the troupe’s artistic director Todd Lincoln, “takes a lot of sweat to make that magic,” you can somehow hear how efficient Stroman is by the many tap-dancing sequences on the album. Don’t all the tappers sound like one loud tapper? As John Weidman, the bookwriter of Contact said, “she works ‘round the clock to get that effect.” (Stroman then told us that her father was responsible for her success because he told her “the two things you had to have in life: a Thesaurus and a bottle of Listerine.”)
Listerine brings us to Helen Sinclair, who would drink it in a pinch if no bar were open. Every famous movie has at least one quotation that people always remember – such as the ones that begin with “Frankly,” “Play” and “Toto.” For Bullets over Broadway, the one that everyone cites is Helen’s admonition to David — “Don’t speak” — whenever he comes close to expressing his love for her (although she indeed does want him to do just that). So what does she say in this new musical?
You got it: “Don’t sing.”