If I had to sum up musical-theater history in just one word, that word would be "integration," which I define for my Boston Conservatory students as the extent to which a song or dance contributes to the dramatic purpose of the show. An integrated song or dance can serve one or more of the following purposes:
1. Progressing the plot
2. Revealing character
3. Establishing time and place
Over the past 150 years or so, musical theater has moved, sometimes painfully slowly, toward greater integration. Songs and dances used to be pasted onto a show, often with little or no relevance to what was going on in the show. Sometimes the songs were interpolated from outside sources, but even the songs that were actually written for the shows in question often had scant relationship to the proceedings at hand.
Then came such pioneers as Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Kurt Weill, George S. Kaufman, and Moss Hart, who worked strenuously toward a more organic form of musical theater, one in which the songs and dances emerged naturally from dramatic necessity.
So, what does this have to do with Bullets Over Broadway? Lots. I knew there was going to be trouble when I heard that Bullets would not be receiving an original score, but would instead be populated by standards from the American Songbook from the 1920s and 1930s. Did we learn nothing from Big Deal? If Bob Fosse, with decades of musical-theater expertise behind him, wasn't able to make it work with that show, what made Woody Allen think he could do it with almost no musical-theater experience? I mean, yeah, he did Everyone Says I Love You, but part of the charm of that film was how utterly ridiculous it was that these people were singing. (If you can call that singing.)
If we've learned one thing from the dreaded jukebox musical, it's this: It's extremely difficult (but not impossible) to successfully interpolate an entire score-ful of previously existing songs effectively. Bullets musical supervisor Glen Kelly has adapted the songs and written additional lyrics for such classics as "'T'ain't Nobody's Bus'ness," "Running Wild," and "Let's Misbehave," but almost all of the songs and dances feel wedged in. It feels as though the decisions about where to put musicals numbers were made because of timing, as in "We haven't had a number for a while. Who can we have sing this time?" Everything about Bullets Over Broadway feels labored, as though the creators are forcing the piece to become a musical against its will, and the piece isn't very happy about it.
For instance, one of the show's intended showstoppers is the aforesaid "'T'ain't Nobody's Bus'ness," which turns into a rousing tap number for Tony nominee Nick Cordero and the male ensemble. It's a great number, at least as staged by Susan Stroman, but there isn't really a reason for the Cheech character to dance, nor for his fellow gangsters to join him. Later, at the end of the show, we have the entire cast singing "Yes, We Have No Bananas," which sort of feels like the entire show in microcosm. The song has no relevance whatsoever to what's happening at the end of the show, as though Allen and Stroman are throwing up their hands and saying, "Yeah, we got nothing."
In truth, some of the musical numbers aren't bad as numbers per se. It's just that when the book kicks back in, the show tends to grind to a halt. Allen's dialogue is clunky and overly expository, and his characters, so rich in the movie, here feel paper thin. You'd think at least that a Woody Allen musical would be funny. Not so much. The night I saw the show, much of the intended humor was landing with a thud. This is the guy who wrote Sleeper, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and other comedy classics. But here we get such tired interchanges as the following:
Character 1: "He's got his finger in a number of pies."
Character 2: "What is he, a baker?"
Really, Woody? Really?
Many of the members of the cast are fairly game. Zach Braff is suitably affable in the John Cusack role. Nick Cordero certainly makes a strong impression as Cheech, played by Chazz Palminteri in the film, although I'm not sure Cordero's performance is Tony-worthy. The marvelous Marin Mazzie certainly gives it the old college try as Helen Sinclair, but honestly, how could anyone ever live up to Dianne Wiest?
Despite some moderately effective musical numbers, some solid performances, and the occasionally transportive comic set piece, the parts of Bullets Over Broadway never coalesce into a real show. It's a shame. Bullets could have made a great musical, but with someone with more extensive musical-theater experience writing the libretto and with an original score. (You know. Little things like that.)