Whatever musical comedy is, there hasn’t been much of it this season. We’ve seen plenty of musical drama, sure. A few revues and bio-jukeboxes. Even, God help us, a rock-star rabbi. But of the four new shows that could possibly be considered heirs to the once dominant Broadway category, one feels more like an operetta (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder), one’s a Disney retread (Aladdin), and one (First Date) was basically a skit and died. That leaves only Bullets Over Broadway — Woody Allen’s stage adaptation of his charming 1994 movie, with Susan Stroman directing and choreographing — to hoist the pinstripes-and-marabou flag above midtown. Unfortunately, as musical comedy goes, it’s neither.
It does have songs, of course. And it has the movie’s amusing premise: A mobster finances a bad play in order to give his talentless girlfriend a role; when the henchman he sends to mind her during rehearsals turns out to be a natural dramaturg, the play gets so much better that the girlfriend has to go. So far, so good. But dumping music and comedy into the same pot does not in itself make musical comedy; what matters is how you cook the ingredients. In this case, the recipe was obviously based on The Producers, the Mel Brooks movie that Stroman turned into a billion-dollar behemoth. On Brooks’s advice, Allen hired her for Bullets, which has a similar Rialto setting and likewise draws its humor from the interplay of theatrical insiders and wannabes. The match seemed ideal.
Is Allen being humble or just backpedalling when he says in interviews that the resulting show is 95 percent Stroman’s? At any rate, she delivers, at least at the start; with her customary focus she gets the story moving (and dancing) in seconds. After an opening sight gag we’re immediately thrown into the mobster’s supper club, where the talentless girlfriend, Olive Neal, she of the Lina Lamont–by–way–of–Cyndi Lauper voice, is performing “Hold That Tiger” with a troupe of chorines called the Atta-Girls. Even before the song is over we meet the mobster, Nick Valenti; a blink later, the entire plot apparatus is engaged in two lines:
NICK: I promise I’ll have your name in lights.
OLIVE: Sure you’ll have my name in lights — if I change it to Exit.
Stroman’s staging trademarks — precision, seamlessness, attention to detail — are all visible here. In the final pose of “Hold that Tiger,” wittily costumed by William Ivey Long, each girl’s tail is displayed differently to hit the lights and form a pleasing composition. The composition then dissolves as the next one materializes. Stroman approaches these transitions like a series of physical riddles. If the Atta-Girls chassé left, what will grab the eye in their place? Whom must the audience see first in the ensuing scene? You imagine that she solves these management problems with the help of tiny posable dance assistants and an Excel spreadsheet.
But then, once that first transition is over — crash, so is the fun. A long witless scene introducing David Shayne, the neurotic writer whose play Nick will finance, completely lets the air out. David and his girlfriend Ellen, discovered at a roof party with their bohemian Village friends, are asked to deliver what you might call exposition for morons, in which they explain the backstory to characters who would already know it:
ELLEN: Julian Marx likes David’s play.
DAVID: But he can’t raise the money so what good is it?
ELLEN: So he keeps waiting on tables and driving taxis.
Bizarrely, Bullets Over Broadway never recovers from this pedantry; Allen’s book, obsessed with underlining plot points, stops caring if they actually make sense. Characters who seemed lovably eccentric in the movie just seem clammy and mystifying here, the more so when some of them actually get moidered and the rest take it in stride. Worse, the one-liners go dull — and take several lines, as in this exchange between the playwright and his producer:
MARX: His name is Nick Valenti.
DAVID: How do I know that name? What does he do?
MARX: He’s got his finger in a number of pies.
DAVID: He’s a baker?
Let’s charitably say that Allen is harking back to the sensibility of 1920s musicals, which were not very sophisticated dramatically, and which often featured disreputable but fun-loving characters toting prop machine guns. But ever since Guys and Dolls perfected a form of character-based storytelling that was emotionally coherent, the bar for musical comedy has risen. (Note too that Guys and Dolls involved gangsters but not murderers.) That bar may now be too high for material that is so tonally jumbled as to answer gangland rubouts with “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”
There was little to be done to fix that problem once the decision was made to musicalize the story with period songs instead of a newly composed score (though Marvin Hamlisch apparently started one). Even in the 1920s, when most of the numbers were written, they were little more than novelties and ditties, with titles like “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me” and “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle,” both of which are sung here by Marin Mazzie as the superannuated vamp Helen Sinclair. Despite some contextualizing new lyrics by Glen Kelly, these at best feel shoehorned, making humor out of the outlandish way they advance the plot, even if only by centimeters. (Bodies are dumped in the Gowanus Canal to the tune of “Up a Lazy River.”) Only when used diagetically, as in the nightclub scenes, do they reward the effort of fitting them in, and even then, as in “I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll,” the double entendre humor gets tiresome quickly. (“Give me a big one, that’s what I said. / I want it so it will fit my bread.”) The more cleverness Stroman throws at such numbers, the less sticks.
As the dark-horse dramaturg must know, the odor of dead fish can’t be unsmelled. “’Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” a blowout tap dance for the gangsters that would knock ’em dead in a Stroman revue, does little here but fill time. All of Mazzie’s voluptuous wit goes for little, though she looks sensational in her Chrysler Building gowns. The rest of the cast, including Zach Braff as David, Vincent Pastore as the mobster, and Nick Cordero as his henchman, get nowhere for all their effort. Worse, the vivacious Karen Ziemba is reduced to inglorious dog wrangling and Pig Latin. Only Heléne Yorke as Olive makes any comic hay — and you probably know what happens to her. Yes, we have no bananas.
All of which leaves you wondering: How could what was so charming on screen become so deadly onstage? Partly it’s to do with music, which has peculiar and completely unpredictable effects on tone and narrative. Here, by bringing the story out of itself, it seems to have exposed the material to expectations it could not meet: Producers-sized laughs; the heart of Guys and Dolls. But there’s also the matter of venue. When you watch a movie comedy, the humor takes place in a very small space: your head. A stage comedy, on the other hand, is a social event, shared with perhaps 1,700 people at a theater like the St. James; it requires a much higher initial velocity to achieve lift. It takes place in the air, or not at all. It therefore doesn’t matter that Stroman was able to wrangle so many of the condiments of stage comedy: the chaser lights, the chorus girl caryatids, the dazzling if somewhat effortful Santo Loquasto sets; the dish itself had staled. Onstage, Bullets Over Broadway is all roll, no hot dog.
Bullets Over Broadway is at the St. James Theatre.