The story behind Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'

Dianne Wiest as Helen Sinclair and John Cusack

Dianne Wiest as Helen Sinclair and John Cusack as David Shayne in "Bullets Over Broadway," directed by Woody Allen. (1994) (Credit: Miramax Films / Brian Hamill)

When "Bullets Over Broadway" opens at the St. James Theatre Thursday, it'll be exactly two years to the day that Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Susan Stroman first met with Woody Allen at his East Side editing studio to discuss the idea. The noted film director had been pestered for years to turn his hit 1994 film about jazz-age show-biz shenanigans into a musical, but he'd never agreed. Till he realized he could write the book and fill his musical with classic jazz and blues standards.

"It was important to him that the music be authentic," says Stroman, sitting in the theater after a rehearsal.

In the months that followed, the two met in the kids' playroom at his Upper East Side apartment, sitting in tiny chairs at a tiny table. They created a new musical with old (slightly rewritten) songs and the potential to wow audiences like Stroman's previous movie-to-stage-musical epic, "The Producers."

But this is Broadway, where no show's a shoo-in, and bullets are the least of your troubles.

CASTING AND CONTROVERSY

"Bullets'" cast, for instance, is mixed -- part seasoned pro (multi-Tony nominee Marin Mazzie plays booze-soaked diva Helen Sinclair), part untested ("Scrubs" star Zach Braff makes his Broadway debut as the nebbishy playwright who agrees to cast a mobster's gal to get his play financed) and part unknown (up-and-comer Nick Cordero plays Cheech, a thug with surprisingly keen theatrical advice).

"If you'da told me a year ago I'd have my own tap number in a Broadway show," says Cordero, chuckling, "I woulda spilled my drink."

Allen's fame is also problematic. Advanced ticket sales seem strong -- but allegations of sexual abuse, revived in February in a New York Times blogpiece written by his estranged daughter, Dylan Farrow, no doubt gave Stroman & Company the jitters.

Those allegations originally erupted during a 1992 custody battle between Allen and longtime partner Mia Farrow -- this soon after Farrow had discovered he'd been having an affair with another of her adopted daughters, then 19-year-old Soon-Yi Previn.

Allen has always denied allegations of sexual abuse, and he and Soon-Yi have been together now for more than 20 years (they married in 1997 and adopted two daughters).

The show, in unexpected ways, almost seems to address these issues, most notably in act one when the playwright (Braff) ponders whether an artist can be forgiven anything if he makes great art.

ADDING MUSIC TO THE MIX

If anyone has the ability to overcome such hurdles, it's Stroman.

"People who knew her told me she was a pleasure to work with, very creative, and had a wonderful sense of humor," Allen told The New Yorker. (The director rarely gives interviews to the press, and did not for this article.)

The two -- both jazz lovers -- worked on the show in his apartment for months, first restructuring the story into two acts with an intermission, then adding music.

Only two songs from the "Bullets" film soundtrack made the cut -- Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" and "Up a Lazy River," a lesser-known Hoagy Carmichael tuner sung by Cheech.

"The first time I sing it is more crooner-y," says Cordero. But in the reprise, it's all menace and threat.

That's no easy task, playing a credible thug -- who sings and dances. And Cordero, whose only previous Broadway credit is "Rock of Ages," puts forth a solid effort that could earn him a Tony nomination.

"Initially, I wondered if singing would throw off the audience or make the toughness hard to swallow," says Cordero. "But they're buying it -- and it seems to be an extension of Cheech's character, an example of his hidden artistry."

TAKING A RISK

Most nights during previews, you'll find Stroman and Allen sitting in the theater.

"He brings a new joke for us to try every day," she says. "He listens to the audience, hoping to get a bigger laugh. He's in tune to how an audience sounds."

No doubt his former days as a stand-up comedian come in handy.

The question that remains -- well, one of many, it seems -- is why Allen would risk trying something so new at age 78. Sure, he knows a ton about music and has written plays, but writing a musical is a skill -- and a tough one -- all its own.

"You know ... he's a workaholic," says Stroman. "He does a movie every year. He plays jazz clarinet at the Carlyle Hotel every Monday. I think he's just always had this in the back of his mind."

By all accounts, Allen is pleased with the result, and credits Stroman.

"She knows the field much more than I know it," he said in The New Yorker interview. "I could do it in the movies, but she's the one on the stage. It's really Susan's show, 95 percent."

"I think he's enjoyed it," says Stroman. "It's his two loves -- music and comedy. And for the first time, his real two loves have come together."

Allen is hardly a Broadway newbie

"Bullets Over Broadway" may be Woody Allen's first Broadway musical, but he's no stranger to the stage. His earlier work includes:

"From A to Z" (1960) Hermione Gingold musical revue (Allen wrote the book).

"Don't Drink the Water" (1966-68) Iron Curtain comedy with future Allen film co-star Tony (then Anthony) Roberts.

"Play It Again, Sam" (1969-70) Comedy starring Allen, Roberts and Diane Keaton (stars of the '72 film).

"The Floating Light Bulb" (1981) A Brooklyn comedy set in 1945, starring Danny Aiello and Beatrice Arthur.

"Relatively Speaking" (2011-12) Three comic one-acts written by Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Allen.

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