Dallas — Proud Italian-American actor, writer and Academy award nominee Chazz Palminteri is excited to have North Texas audiences see the new musical version of A Bronx Tale, the latest incarnation of a personal story that’s become, over the past two decades, his life’s work and legacy.
Lucky for us, the musical opens just as the turkey coma should be wearing off—on Dec. 26 at ATTPAC’s state-of-the-art Winspear Opera House. After all that caroling, what could be better than a dramatic, heart-tugging story and some finger-snapping songs from “da guys” on the corner?
The original A Bronx Tale, the one-man show Palminteri wrote for himself in 1989 (after years of toughing it out, waiting for “the big break” in New York and Los Angeles) was a hit on both coasts. Palminteri played all 18 parts: his father, himself as a boy and teenager, local wise guys and offbeat characters from the New York neighborhood where he grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s—the Belmont section of the Bronx. Robert De Niro caught the stage show in Manhattan, loved it, and bought the film rights…but only after agreeing to Palminteri’s one big ask: that he write the movie screenplay himself and play the part of Sonny, the story’s dangerous but fascinating mafia chief.
After the movie, Palminteri’s film career took off. He won an Academy award nomination for his role in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, and appeared in The Usual Suspects, The Perez Family, Analyze This, and Mulholland Falls, to name a few. Onstage roles kept coming as well. Palminteri is a member of the Actors Studio in New York City, and has appeared on Modern Family and other television shows.
Palminteri’s knack for storytelling and memorable characters—comic, dramatic, dangerous, touching—made the 1993 movie of A Bronx Tale easy to love. (De Niro directed—for the first time—and played Palminteri’s upright and loving bus-driver father). In 2007, he wrote and starred in an Off-Broadway re-do of the solo show co-directed by De Niro and legendary Broadway director Jerry Zaks. But this trio of talents wasn’t done—and with the help of music mogul and producer Tommy Mottola, they began to put together a stage musical version of A Bronx Tale. With music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, choreography from Sergio Trujillo, and sets by Beowulf Boritt, the musical opened in December 2016 on Broadway, and ran for nearly two full years.
And Palminteri (are we really surprised?) played Sonny again, taking over the role for the last few months of the musical’s run. It was a throwback move that drew on his early days singing R&B and rock as a singer with his own band—and, he tells TheaterJones, “it felt very good.”
If, somehow, you don’t know already, A Bronx Tale is the story of a young boy (and his older teenage self) growing up in a tough but tight-knit Bronx neighborhood in the early 1960s, pulled between a hardworking father and a flashy gangster who takes an interest in him after they meet in an unusual way. TJ talked by phone to Palminteri, who was spending a snowy day at his home north of New York City.
TheaterJones: This new musical of A Bronx Tale is the latest version of a story from your own life, a story you’ve been telling for nearly 20 years. You’ve written the script, screenplay or book for every version out there: the solo show (twice), the movie, and now the musical. It’s become your signature piece.
Chazz Palminteri: It really has. The story is a classic, and we have such an all-star, award-winning team for the musical [plenty of Oscar and Tony awards and nominations among them], with Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s songs, Bob De Niro and Jerry Zaks directing—and I wrote the book. It’s been terrific.
This story really happened. When you were nine-years-old, you saw a local mafia chief shoot and kill a man on the streets of your neighborhood. And you decided not to tell, to keep silent about what you’d witnessed. You’ve said seeing the murder didn’t affect you as much as people might think. But it must have been important to your young life, in ways you didn’t understand until much later.
I would think about it from time to time—but I can’t truly say I was traumatized. The truth is I went on with my life. But obviously it did mean something, because I wrote about it so many years later.
And though there was that kind of danger, you’ve said you loved your childhood, and that Belmont was a great place to grow up.
Oh, loved it, loved it. Did once in a while something violent happen? Yeah. But it was home to me. I go back there once a month to shop at the stores there. In the show, in fact, you’ll see five stores: Gino’s Pastry, Madonia Brothers Bakery, and so on. Those stores are real, and they are still there in my neighborhood.
The Bronx is one of the two boroughs of New York City I haven’t hit yet—though I’ve been to the Bronx Zoo, if that counts.
But that’s right near us, right by where we lived!
And the Bronx seems to be doing what Brooklyn did a few years ago.
Yes, that’s right—it’s being gentrified, more people moving in—and I think that’s great.
A Bronx Tale doesn't seem to be just about the Bronx. There’s something universal about it—something that lets the story connect with people all over the country, and around the world.
Just as an example, it’s been a very big hit in Japan, a huge hit—and you say to yourself, what do they know about the Bronx? But it doesn’t matter, it connects.
It’s about choosing your path, weighing good and evil, and that’s a part of all our stories.
And really, more than being a ‘good versus evil’ story it’s gray versus gray. Because the real Sonny, you know, didn’t want me to be a wiseguy. He actually wanted me to go to school, to get out of the neighborhood and make something of my life. It’s just that my father was threatened by that, because he felt I would be influenced by who Sonny was. He didn’t want that for me.
So you think if you’d followed in Sonny’s footsteps, he wouldn’t have been flattered, but actually disappointed in you?
Oh, God, yeah. I think a lot disappointed, in fact. But more than anything, it was the love of my parents that kept me on the straight and narrow. I never wanted to disappoint them, you know?
I love the line you’ve quoted from your dad—that it doesn’t take any real strength to pull a trigger.
That’s right. He said you want to be a tough guy, get up at four o’clock in the morning and go to work. That’s a real tough guy, a real man. Yeah, my dad was a pretty bright guy.
One critic said this was a tug-of-war for Calogero’s soul [Palminteri, born Calogero Lorenzo Palminteri, is named for his paternal grandfather] between two men who loved you and cared about you.
That’s what makes this story so different. Many people cry when Sonny dies, as bad as he was—let’s not make any bones about it, he was a bad guy in his world. But he loved this boy, who was almost like Sonny’s penance: if I get one thing right in my life, I want it to be this kid doing really well.
And Sonny being killed, as in the show—that’s really what happened to him?
Yes. It’s an old thing, you find it in the Bible—you live by the sword, you die by the sword. All these guys who live with violence like that, they usually die with violence.
There’s a point in the old Catholic baptismal service that asks the parents and godparents [speaking for the child] to reject “the glamour of evil.” With Sonny, there is an attraction, a charisma that your character feels as a boy and a young man.
Just like gunslingers had a charisma, gangsters have a charisma. It’s the same thing. It’s like a train wreck: you’ve got to look at it, but…Wouldn’t it be something to be able to do or say anything you want? Pretty exciting, you know.
You were the kind of Italian son I met in Rome when I was younger; your parents treated you like a little VIP—like a god, you’ve said. I can see that would tend to give a kid a lot of self-confidence. Are there pros and cons to it, though?
Yes, there are. My mother treated me so special—and you grow up a little spoiled being the center of attention all the time. But I have to say I had two sisters and my parents treated them the same way. Who treated me differently were the relatives; they looked to the son. I was Calogero, the namesake—the prince.
Was it all that attention—and the expectations—that gave you the emotional strength to stick with performing in the years before your career took off?
The whole family kept telling me don’t worry, you’re gonna make it—so I believed. I was 38 years old before it happened, but there was never a thought about falling back, about doing something else.
And finally, you wrote your own breakout role—well, 18 of them, since you played that many characters in your solo show.
Eighteen parts, yes. Everybody wanted to make a movie from the show—it was a bidding war. But they wanted to put a star in the [Sonny] role, not me. I turned down a million dollars [for the rights] when I had $200 in the bank! Then De Niro came to see it and said ‘you should play Sonny, you should write the script, let’s do it.’
Sonny is your role, the one you’ve played in every version of the story, including a few months on Broadway with the musical last year. Was there ever any thought that De Niro and you would play the opposite roles—that you might play your father?
No. Never a question, never a thought—I wouldn’t have sold it to him if he’d wanted to play Sonny!
Yet you did play your own father in the one-man shows. What was that like emotionally?
That’s a good question. Before I was married, I always related from the boy to the father. I played my dad [in the solo shows], and I played me at both nine and 17 years old—but I understood me more than my dad. When I became a father, I started to relate from the father to the boy, especially when I had a 17-year-old son of my own. It’s been interesting as an actor.
Is it true that your mother felt a bit short-changed by the father/son focus of the story?
Yes, that’s true. She was asking me, why did Dad have such a big part, and I didn’t? Even my sisters got mad at me—well, not really mad—because they weren’t even in the movie! I wanted it to be an only child, a boy; it raises the stakes when that’s the situation.
You live north of the city in Bedford, New York—a lovely, very high-priced area [Martha Stewart is a neighbor] you used to drive through as a young guy. Your children are growing up in a world you couldn’t have imagined.
I mean, come on, I have to tell the truth, it’s totally different for them—and though we raise them up strict, just from living here they [son Dante, daughter Gabriella] can’t help but be a little spoiled. But they’re great kids, they want to do good, they’re very ambitious; my son was at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. But yes, it’s totally unlike the way I grew up; they don’t have poverty driving them like I did.
Your mention of music reminds me that you were a band singer back in the day. How was it to sing on Broadway, when you took over as Sonny for the last few months of the New York run of the musical?
Great! I got myself prepared, took a few months of [voice] lessons before I went onstage. It felt very good.
Alan Menken’s music in this show is very street-corner, R&B style. Was that the sort of music you sang long ago?
Yes, it was. Alan is a master of styles—but also, he knows that time period; he was there himself. He’s just a brilliant, brilliant composer. Eight Academy awards, it’s crazy.
This is a bit out of left field, but I learned you have an intense interest in one of my favorite people of the Italian Renaissance, Niccolò Machiavelli—who isn’t the scheming, evil guy people think he is, but a diplomat and writer who had a terrific eye for human behavior, especially political. There’s a song about “Nicky Machiavelli” in the show—and you know the person who lives in his house!
Machiavelli started political science, if you think about it. And yes, I’ve been to his house, twice. It’s in Tuscany, just outside Florence. I had lunch there again this summer—it’s where he wrote The Prince.
He’d been exiled from Florence. Suddenly, he had time to think and write about Cesare Borgia and all the movers and shakers he knew—and how they operated in the world.
Many world leaders read Machiavelli—they won’t admit it, but they do. He was watching everything happening, and could see that if someone did one thing, they were successful—and if they did something else, they weren’t. He was a confidant to these important people. He asked things like ‘Is it better to be loved or feared?’ And he thought if you were a regular man, it’s probably better to be loved, but if you were a dictator—or a wise guy—then it’s better to be feared. It wasn’t evil, just reality. When it comes to me or you, he said, it’s going to be you—and there’s a lot of truth to that.
You’ve kept connected to your old neighborhood, and you’ve had the chance to explore a lot of Italy as well. Sometimes when people grow up in an ethnic enclave, they don’t really notice there’s anything different or special about their community. Were you always aware of and interested in being Italian-American?
Yes, I was always aware of who I was, and always very proud of my Italian heritage. All my family was around me, we lived together—grandparents, aunts, uncles. I loved it.
You were in Dallas briefly to publicize the musical….
It was cold in Dallas!
Is there anything more you’d like to say to North Texas audiences about the show?
I think the only thing left to say is that whether or not you know about A Bronx Tale, you should make it a point to see the musical. I was able to talk more deeply about my relationship with my father and mother in this new show, about my relationship with Sonny, too. And I added more about why my father would so often say that ‘the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.’
So it may be the same story, but there’s more of it—plus singing and dancing!
It’s gonna be great.