Theater was the birthplace of drama — but you won’t find any of it backstage at the new Broadway musical A Bronx Tale.
“We’ve all heard stories about big arguments between collaborators,” says legendary actor Robert De Niro, who is co-directing the production with four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks (Six Degrees of Separation). “But that ain’t gonna happen with me and Jerry. We have a harmony here that can’t be tampered with.”
Disharmony, however, is at the core of the musical’s coming-of-age story. Based on writer-actor Chazz Palminteri’s 1989 one-man stage play, A Bronx Tale centers on Italian-American teenager Calogero (Bobby Conte Thornton) growing up in the rough and tumble New York City of the 1960s. He finds himself pulled between his bus driver father (Richard H. Blake) and the charismatic mafia boss who becomes a father figure (Nick Cordero), while also falling for a black girl in the neighborhood (Ariana DeBose).
De Niro and Zaks have been pals since 1996’s Oscar-nominated Marvin’s Room, the Meryl Streep/Diane Keaton drama which De Niro produced and appeared in. “That was the first movie I ever directed,” Zaks says. “Bob was unbelievably supportive of me in a way that made a big impression. You never forget the people who are nice and kind and support you in this industry.”
“I’m gonna cry, Jerry,” De Niro deadpans.
Neither man is new to this material. Zaks directed a 2007 Broadway staging of Palminteri’s play, while De Niro directed and costarred in the 1993 movie version. Fifteen years ago, De Niro tried to mount a musical version. “It’s a simple morality tale with all the right ingredients,” he says, “but I stupidly lost interest.”
But then a few years ago the stars aligned: Zaks, plus book writer Palminteri, producer Tommy Mottola, eight-time Oscar winning composer Alan Menken, and lyricist Glenn Slater (School of Rock), all joined forces for the production’s acclaimed try-out run earlier this year at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse.
Zaks promises the Broadway endeavor will be even better. “It’s a matter of making many incremental improvements over what was,” he says. The staging is better and the lines are funnier. There’s nothing like having the opportunity to do it once before coming to New York.”
In terms of sharing the duties, De Niro, making his Broadway directorial debut, admits that Zaks is doing much of the heavy lifting. But Zaks praises his codirector for his chops.
“It’s a challenging thing that Bob and I are handling really well. Its like you can’t have two conductors conducting the orchestra at the same time — it will drive people crazy. But you can have two conductors discussing what they’ve seen and implementing it in the best way possible. We’ve worked out a pretty good system. We each bring different strengths to the undertaking.”
A Bronx Tale is performing in previews at the Longacre Theatre now, before opening on Dec. 1. Zaks and De Niro are still hard at work. “Our job is to keep making it better and better until opening night,” Zaks says, “and then we can all take a breath.
For tickets and more information on A Bronx Take, head to the show’s official website.