Why Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway' Is a Bright Shining Lie

New Musical Is an Extravagantly Entertaining Bummer

Songs For Woody: Zach Braff and Nick Cordero star in ‘Bullets Over Broadway.’
Paul Kolnik
Songs For Woody: Zach Braff and Nick Cordero star in ‘Bullets Over Broadway.’

By Joshua Furst

Published April 11, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.