The plot of “Bullets over Broadway,” the new musical by Woody Allen (with essential help from director Susan Stroman and music “adaptor” and lyrics tweaker Glen Kelly), is built around an elaborate setup. David Shayne, a Greenwich Village artiste in the vein of Eugene O’Neill, discovers to his astonishment that one of his experimental, symbol-laden plays has been selected to be produced on Broadway. But the show is being funded by a mobster, Nick Valenti, to placate his vapid moll Olive, whom David is required to cast despite her total lack of acting talent. Along with Olive comes her minder, Cheech, a brutal goon who’s tasked with protecting her chastity.
What follows has all the narrative simplicity of a classic George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play (or Hart’s autobiography, “Act One” — soon to be a Broadway spectacle of its own!) As David inevitably finds himself unable to fix the apparently inexhaustible problems with his script, Cheech steps in and rewrites it from scratch, turning it into a Broadway hit. It’s a classic ironic reversal: The thug is an artistic genius, the pretentious bohemian a talentless fraud.
The producers of this show are, I’m sure, hoping for the same critical and commercial success that the play within the play achieves. But what are the terms of “success” in this context? And do they have anything, really, to do with art?
With cynical precision, “Bullets over Broadway” models the form that the contemporary Broadway musical is expected to take. As I watched the show, I kept a list of the ways that it panders to its prospective audience of tourists and high school drama clubs, and it contains everything they may possibly desire:
A pre-existing, pre-tested, “beloved” entertainment platform (or as they might have it, story) on which to hang the singing and dancing and theatrical shenanigans: In this case, it’s Allen’s 1994 backstage farce of the same name about art, commerce and the mob. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including original screenplay (for Allen and his co-writer Douglas McGrath, who curiously goes without mention — given how closely the musical follows the screenplay, shouldn’t he be getting a credit here?), best supporting actor (for Chazz Palminteri) and actress (for Jennifer Tilly), and best actress (for Diane Wiest, who won).
A jukebox musical score made up of songs the audience already knows: “Bullets” may not have “Dancing Queen” or “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” but it does feature “Let’s Misbehave,” and “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”
Stars of stage and screen: The big draw is Allen himself, obviously, but the show also boasts Zach Braff of “Scrubs” as David Shayne.
Stunt casting: The role of Nick Valenti is played by Vincent Pastore — “Big Pussy” himself!
Extravagant, expensive-to-build sets that allow us to feel we’ve gotten our money’s worth: They fly in from the wings. They rise from under the stage. They’re gigantic, intricately detailed and there are about a hundred of them. Two of the sets spin on their axes, “Les Miz”-style, for the entirety of their scenes.