T ruly poetic and delicately beautiful: this could be Spettacolo in a nutshell. But I wouldn’t pay it justice, because there’s so much more to it...
It was 1989 when Chazz Palminteri wrote A Bronx Tale, a one man pièce that was to become a movie in 1993 and eventually get on a Broadway’s stage around 15 years later, in 2007. Bronx, its cinematic transposition, was directed by Robert De Niro, whereas Jerry Zaks was the mind behind its theatre rendition in the mid-2000s.
This year, the two joined creative forces to produce and direct a new take on Palminteri’s classic, turning it into a musical, simply entitled A Bronx Tale: the Musical, on stage at the Longacre Theatre in New York until the 19th of November 2017. De Niro declared recently he always thought the theatre pièce would have made a fantastic musical, especially for the characteristics of its plot. For those not familiar with it, A Bronx Tale is set in 1960s New York City and has Calogero, a young boy of Italian descent, as its protagonist. Calogero witnesses a murder, but instead of reporting its perpetrator, local boss Sonny, to the police, he befriends him. Sonny becomes a fatherly figure to Calogero, whose real father, traditionally oriented, stern, yet positively honest, is another central figure of the plot and acts as a counterbalance to Sonny’s untraditional and illegal ways.
Spanning across the years of Calogero’s childhood and adolescence, A Bronx Tale, which Palminteri declared to be in part autobiographical, is a typical coming of age work, with the central character torn between his own family working class values and ethics, and the alluring world of Italian organized crime.
In spite of being set in New York and written by a New Yorker, the original A Bronx Tale was represented for the first time in Los Angeles and only moved to the Big Apple later on, where it was initially represented on the off-Broadway theater circuits. It’s here that De Niro came to know the play. Immediately attracted by plot and its atmosphere, De Niro offered to buy the movie rights to the play, offer that Palminteri accepted on the condition he could write the screenplay and act as Sonny: it was the beginning Palminteri’s own very successful cinema acting career.
In 2007, finally, the play landed on a Broadway stage, under the direction of Jerry Zaks.
It’s almost natural that the three most relevant figures in the artistic development of this pièce came to collaborate on its ultimate rendition, a musical one, where Palminteri wrote the book and Zaks and De Niro co-directed a talented cast performing on musics by Alan Menken – known for his Walt Disney’s scores: his are the musics of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Enchanted among others – and lyrics by Glenn Slater.
Reviews have been positive, especially for the cast choices, which have been particularly good according to critics. Praised have been the performances of many of the protagonists, including Hudson Loverro, class 2007, interpreting the earliest incarnation of Calogero, whom the public gets to see growing up throughout the play. Top notch is also Nick Cordero’s embodiment of Sonny, defined by Variety as radiating “his own magnetic field”.
A Bronx Tale, whichever version one may choose to go watch, offers a narration that goes beyond the Italian American stereotype some may think it represents: mirroring the autobiographical experiences of its author as a young man, it rather offers to the audience a soulful insight into a community as it used to be, with all its idiosyncrasies and beliefs. The coming of age drama of its protagonist, Calogero, torn between two fatherly figures, turns into a piece of social critique when he falls in love with an African American woman, something then difficult to accept in the working class community where the young man had been growing up.
So much has changed since the times in which A Bronx Tale is set, yet it remains a lively and enjoyable work, in all its renditions, a work that has certainly proven to be versatile and adaptable to many types of performances. The autobiographical take on the narration and, ultimately, the excellent characterization of the protagonists, never defined exclusively by their social role, but rather by their own humanity, feelings and beliefs, give to Palminteri’s work the right edge to transcend the cultural stereotypes some may be tempted to read into it.