Setting Chazz Palminteri’s one-man show to song
Guys and Dolls may have been the first time anyone saw wise guy exploits brought to the Great White Way, but with A Bronx Tale, creator Chazz Palminteri has a chance to continue that tradition inspired by Damon Runyon and brought to life by Frank Loesser. Palminteri’s creation started out as a late 1980s autobiographical one-man show whose buzz attracted Robert DeNiro, who teamed up with Palminteri to release the 1993 film of the same name.
DeNiro made his directorial debut and starred as the main character’s father while Palminteri played the lead of Sonny LoSpecchio in addition to writing the screenplay. A Bronx Tale’s most recent permutation is as a musical that came to fruition thanks to the involvement of show producer and ex-record company president Tommy Mottola, book by Palminteri, stage direction by DeNiro and Jerry Zaks, music by storied composer Alan Menken and lyrics by up-and-comer Glenn Slater. Currently running at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre, this latest version of Palminteri’s show is a creative destination he always envisioned arriving at.
“We always thought about it, but it always takes that one person to really make something happen. I was always so busy with other projects and DeNiro was busy. But Bob and I talked about it for a long time and tried to get a couple of people and it wasn’t right. But then Tommy Mottola came over to me and said this was would be a great musical and that we had to do it. I said, ‘I know Tom we’ve been trying,’” Palminteri recalls. “I have to tell you, he put that thing on his back and made it happen. We went out and got Alan Menken. He read the book and loved it. But you have to be willing to take money out of your pocket. That’s the way you do it. Put your money where your mouth is—that’s what they say.”
The critical and commercial response has been overwhelmingly positive, largely due to the complexity of emotions and relationships at the heart of this trip down memory lane. Family, racial tension, coming of age and parsing out the differences between good and evil crop up in this story centered on a young Italian teen growing up in the Bronx and getting befriended by a ruthless mobster, much to the consternation of the boy’s father. It’s a heartfelt story Palminteri wound up writing out of financial necessity when he was hustling as a struggling actor and a part-time bouncer trying to make ends meet.
“I wrote it back then because I ran out of money. I wasn’t going to waste my talent and I knew I had to do something that would get me noticed, so I wrote a one-man show,” Palminteri says. “I went to Thrifty Drug Store, got five yellow legal pads and then I had to figure out what the hell I was going to write about. So I wrote about that killing [I witnessed when I was a kid], because it always stayed in my head, and the relationship I had with the wise guys and my dad.
I started out by writing the five-minute monologue of the killing and I did that for my theater workshop and they just freaked out. Each week I would write and on Mondays I would perform another piece. At the end of 10 months to a year, I’d read 90 minutes of a one-man show. I did it and boom—my life exploded.”
In the two decades plus since the celluloid version of A Bronx Tale made Palminteri a household name, he’s established himself as an in-demand film and television actor and even managed to bring his one-man show to Broadway for a 2007-08 Broadway run. A creatively restless sort, the die hard Yankees fan has also become partners in Chazz Palminteri Ristorante Italiano, which is on East 48th Street and Second Avenue and is being run by Jack and Jeff Sinanaj of Empire Steak House Fame. Palminteri is a frequent presence whose favorite dishes are A Bronx Tale (black linguine with brandy sauce, clams, shrimp and lobster and osso bucco (“the best in the city—anywhere”).
“The restaurant is phenomenal. We have a house in Italy and I’ve been going to Italy all my life. My wife and I had all these recipes and then we met with this chef named Chef Anko and he’s a brilliant chef—he just did a spin on all this stuff and people just love it,” Palminteri points out. “Because our partners have three of the best steakhouses in the city, we have the best steaks and chops. So not only are we a great Italian restaurant, we’re a great steak restaurant. The proof is in the pudding. We’re packed all the time.”
As for this gangster-driven one-man show becoming a musical, it all makes perfect sense to Palminteri, the son of an aspiring saxophonist and someone who got his start singing in a show band influenced by the likes of Johnny Mathis, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra. With Menken and Slater being added to A Bronx Tale’s existing creative team that includes DeNiro and Zaks, Palminteri is excited and proud about the feedback he’s been getting.
“I was the one who said that I wanted Alan Menken because I always thought that A Bronx Tale was a great fable and Alan did so many animated fables. His music is romantic, pretty and wonderful and I thought he would be a great guy to do it. Glenn Slater was the lyricist—I just think he’s one of the great lyricists coming up today. He’s young, smart and just wonderful,” Palminteri says. “The amazing thing is the reaction people have when they see it. People cry at the end. It’s very emotional to them. Alfred Hitchcock used to say that there are only three things you can do to an audience and if you do two out of three, you’re doing really good. You can make them laugh, cry or scare them and in A Bronx Tale we do all three. You just hope you can write something like that and the reaction we’ve been getting is just incredible. They stand at the end, laugh and cry. Knock on wood, the show has got great advance sales and people are just buying it up.”