Late in the second act of Bullets Over Broadway, one character proclaims of her new lover, “With an intellect that big, you tend to create your own moral universe.”
The theme of morality, and the vicissitudes of its codes, runs through this adaptation of Woody Allen’s 1994 film as regularly as the leggy chorines and tap-dancing mobsters who inhabit the 1920s Manhattan of the musical’s world. In the film’s final scene, the protagonist puts aside his own philosophical wrestlings, makes a few satisfying declarations on the value of human life over the integrity of art, and decides to get married and move back to Pittsburgh. In the hands of another filmmaker, the character’s neat conclusions might make for little more than a feel-good Hollywood ending. But Allen shoots the scene in the damp, moody shadows of a Greenwich Village night, and as the credits roll, the viewer is left with the sense that something unsettling, something more complicated, remains hidden and unanswered in the alleys just beyond the camera’s frame.
But Bullets comes to Broadway under the command of hit-maker Susan Stroman. Allen is credited as book writer for the musical, which means the autonomy he has enjoyed throughout 45 years as both writer and director of his films has been handed over, willingly, it seems, to Stroman. Under Stroman’s direction, the needling ambiguities of the film’s final moments have been replaced by a glitzy party scene and a production number in which the cast sings the 1920s nonsense song, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” The song is reminiscent of the finale for Stroman’s biggest success to date, The Producers, in which the audience is told, “If you like our show, tell everyone, but if you think it stinks, keep your big mouth shut.” This was Mel Brooks’s way of asking his audience to take the show as a joy ride and refrain from overthinking the two-and-a-half hours they’ve just spent in the theater. The song was a fitting conclusion to a show by Brooks, an entertainer who deals in the kind of comedy meant to be offensive to all people equally.
But the same inducement in song at the end of a Woody Allen show has the potential to come off as less-than sincere. Allen is a comic who, while peddling his nebbish-in-analysis persona, ended his stand-up routine with, “I wish I had some kind of affirmative message to leave you with. I don’t. Would you take two negative messages?”
Not that Allen is allergic to the lighthearted. His one previous musical, the 1996 film Everyone Says I Love You, is an ode to the pleasures of old-Hollywood escapism. But the intimacy of Allen’s style—the physical and psychological close-ups that border on claustrophobic in his best work—refuses the glib hilarity an audience can relax into while watching Nazis shim-sham through “Springtime for Hitler.”
Bullets Over Broadway, which opens tonight at the St. James Theater, does, however, seem a natural candidate for musicalization. Though Allen’s restraint keeps the film from being labeled “madcap” or “zany,” the plot whirls around the exploits of a mediocre playwright, a boozy Broadway diva, a braying, talent-free gun moll, and a hitman with a knack for dramatic structure and dialogue. In the Broadway production, songs that serve as underscoring in the film are brought forward (along with a slew of other 1920s hits), their melodies given the breadth of full orchestrations, their lyrics taking on the task of both revealing character and propelling the narrative.
Stroman has been entrusted with massaging Allen’s introverted world outward onto the stage, and the $15 million production rests primarily in her hands. But Allen has been with the cast throughout the rehearsal process, in the studio to tinker with dialogue or change the rhythm of a joke. No novice when it comes to reading the ways in which a live audience can forecast the temperature of a show (Allen’s first play, Don’t Drink the Water, was produced on Broadway in 1966), Allen has attended nearly every performance of Bullets since previews began in early March. His notes after each performance, delivered both in person and fresh from a typewriter on lined yellow legal paper, are detailed and precise, the mark of a master miniaturist who understands the inner-workings of the larger machine. “He knows what it’s like to be up there himself,” says one cast member.
Bullets Over Broadway hit movie houses in September of 1994, just two years after the drawn-out, much-publicized court battles between Allen and Mia Farrow had come to an end. While Stroman was putting her Broadway company through their paces this past February in midtown Manhattan, Dylan Farrow’s open letter to The New York Times reignited the discussion surrounding Allen and his daughter’s allegations of childhood sexual abuse. Allen refuted the letter with a letter of his own, his latest film, Blue Jasmine, earned an Oscar for its star, Cate Blanchett, and the matter seems to have, once again, subsided. But just as it may have been tempting to view the moral conflict in the Bullets screenplay as semi-autobiographical when the film premiered in ‘94, audiences at the St. James Theater might find themselves wondering if the on-stage story is Allen’s comment on, or defense of, the moral responsibility of an artist.
Early on in the Broadway production, one Greenwich Village aesthete exclaims, “The artist can be forgiven anything if he produces great art.” Moments like these could cause ticket-buyers to squirm or, perhaps, reflect on their own capacity to overlook and forgive. But couched in the gleam and splash of this big Broadway musical, the audience may be willing to wait for a counter argument, which is made, eventually, by the show-within-the-show’s producer: “Life isn’t perfect. Plus, it’s short. Ok? And if you can sell yourself on reality, you may as well just pack up and go back to Pittsburgh.”
Perhaps the engine beneath this Bullets Over Broadway isn’t moral justification or even an attempt at good, old fashioned musical theater escapism. Rather, the show might be driven by the sentiments of a song written in 1931; a song that could have been included in the Bullets score had the show followed its characters past the roar of the ‘20s and into the crash of the Depression. “Life,” the song says, “is just a bowl of cherries. So live and laugh at it all.”