‘Look, this is not a gangster story. This is a family story. This is about the triumph of the spirit.’
“A Bronx Tale is a great movie, and it’s a great play,” he said. “And I will tell you something else: One day it’ll be a great musical, too. You watch.”
Seven years later, Palminteri was proven right. Again.
“I just knew,” Palminteri says now of the fully fleshed 1950s musical that played exactly 700 performances on Broadway before hitting the road on its Denver-bound national tour. “It had everything a musical needs. First off, it had a great story. It’s a classic. The characters I wrote are archetypes. If I could get great music, I knew it would click. And it did. It’s poetic.”
But it took a decade, starting back in 2006, for Palminteri to pull it off. “I would say out of all the things I’ve tried — writing, directing, acting and producing — musicals are the hardest by far, because there are just so many things that could go wrong,” Palminteri said. “You could have a great book, but if the music’s not great, you’re sunk. If you don’t cast it right, you’re done. The wrong director could destroy it. It’s like a circus with a thousand moving parts that you’ve really got to put together just right. It’s hard. But when you hit it like we did, there is nothing like it. People are just going bananas over this show.”
Palminteri did it by surrounding himself with the most talented people he could find: Four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks and film legend Robert De Niro as co-directors. Music mogul Tommy Mottola producing. And, after some fits and starts, he landed eight-time Academy Award winner Alan Menken and three-time Tony nominee Glenn Slater to write the music. (Palminteri wrote the book himself.)
“Look it, that doesn’t guarantee it’s going to come out great,” Palminteri said. “But we put a lot of great minds together, and a great musical came out of it.”
Palminteri has been telling his story in one form or another for 30 years. A Bronx Tale is the “semi-autobiographical” story of young Calogero (Palminteri’s given name), who at age 9 sees local mobster Sonny LoSpecchio commit a murder but won’t give him up to the police. When Sonny takes the boy in, it sets up a clash between his father — a hard-working bus driver — and his new gangster father figure. Ultimately, it’s a story about trying to do what’s right when what’s right isn’t always obvious.
“Look, this is not a gangster story. This is a family story,” Palminteri said. “This is about the triumph of the spirit. This is about a young boy whose father taught him the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.
“Don’t waste your life.”
Palminteri’s life changed in 1989 when he debuted his play on a Hollywood stage, portraying all 18 characters himself. And from there, he didn’t waste a minute. “My whole career just blew up,” he said. The film rights, he says, became the most sought after property since Rocky.
What happened next is now movie lore: Palminteri wanted to play Sonny. The studio wanted a star. Palminteri was down to $200 in the bank but even when the offer grew to $1 million for Palminteri to hand over his script and walk away, he said no. Until De Niro came to see the play. He told Palminteri: “Look. I’ll play your father. I’ll direct it. You play Sonny. You’ll write. We’ll be partners.”
Palminteri had to wait another three years for De Niro’s schedule to clear, but it was clearly worth the wait. Critics loved the movie. The next year, Palminteri was nominated for an Oscar for Bullets over Broadway – and never again had only $200 in the bank. (For more on that story, scroll to the bottom of this page.)
Palminteri said he keeps bringing A Bronx Tale back in new forms because there is always a new crop of 9-year-olds who don’t know the story.
“Some people who never saw the one-man show and never saw the movie, they see the musical for the first time and then go back and revisit the movie,” Palminteri said. “So one feeds off the other.”
But the musical could not work without great music. And the score brings another level of realism to the story, Palminteri says.
“It starts out with four guys on the corner singing doo-wop under a street light,” he said. “That’s what it was like back then. All the different kids had their own kind of music. The music was clashing just like the people were. Alan Menken is from that time, and so am I, so we were able to really nail it in the story.”
But the musical was ultimately a hit, he said, because it passes the Alfred Hitchcock test.
“Hitchcock said, ‘There are only three things you can do to an audience: You can make them laugh, you can make them cry or you can scare them. That’s it. And if you do two out of three, you’ve got a hit,’” Palminteri said. “In A Bronx Tale, we make you laugh, we make you cry and we scare you. We do all three.
“I guarantee you the people who come see it in Denver will come again because it’s just that powerful. People cannot get enough of it because they learn something new every time. And I encourage people to bring their families. It’s a really great piece for young people to see. Boys, girls, from 11 years old to 90. I guarantee they will like it.”
And at the end of this latest interview, Palminteri had one more full-circle prediction to make.
“I’ll leave you with one thing,” he said. “Remember this: One day, there will be a movie of the musical. You mark my words.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
(Click on any photo to see larger version.)
A Bronx Tale! Ticket information
- Book by Chazz Palminteri; Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Glenn Slater
- Directed by Jerry Zaks and Robert De Niro
- Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
- January 8-20
- Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Video: Cast member Richard H. Blake sings Broncos’ National Anthem
Online bonus: How A Bronx Tale got made into a film
A Bronx Tale lives as a one-man play, a film and, now, a Denver-bound Broadway musical. But it very nearly never made it the silver screen, and how did is one of Hollywood legend.
Film star Chazz Palminteri grew up in the 1950s amid violence, racism and local crime lords clashing with old-fashioned values at home. When he turned those experiences into his hit solo play in 1989, everyone, it seemed, wanted to it into celluloid gold. But Palminteri had two conditions: He must be the screenwriter, and he must play the mob boss who takes an interest in the 9-year-old version of himself, to the chagrin of the boy’s blue-collar father.
Problem was, the assembly line of A-list directors all shared one common condition: No Palminteri. No one knew him. This was before the Oscar nomination for “Bullets Over Broadway.” Before “The Usual Suspects.” Before “Mulholland Falls.”
When Palminteri was offered $250,000 for the rights, he had $200 in the bank, he was living in a dump apartment, and he was eating pasta and tuna fish almost every night. All he had to do was take the money and take a hike. When he said no, “Everybody was telling me I was nuts,” he said. “If I had a wife at the time, she would have killed me.”
When the offer got to $500,000, “people thought I was crazy,” Palminteri said. “And when it got to $1 million, they thought I was certifiable. They all said, ‘Ah, the kid’s gonna blow it.’ ”
He didn’t blow it. Palminteri may not have had any money, or clout, but he had his script. He had faith. And he had what he calls X-ray eyes.
“I was born with it,” he said. “I could just talk to people and just know if they were lying to me, or trying to cheat me or rob me, because I grew up with so much of that.”
Palminteri’s vision was telling him to stick to his guns.
“I’ve got to be honest with you — everybody wanted to make the film,” he said. “I knew that, sooner or later, somebody would have caved.”
They caved when Robert De Niro, who had seen Palminteri on Broadway in 1991, decided to make “A Bronx Tale” his directorial film debut. The debate over Palminteri’s involvement began and ended with De Niro’s handshake.
The film catapulted Palminteri’s film career, now more than 85 films strong, including four with De Niro, co-founder of Tribeca Films – and a co-director of A Bronx Tale (the musical) with Jerry Zaks.