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Chass Palminteri took "A Bronx Tale" from stage to screen and back to stage again

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Monday, January 20, 2020

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When Calogero "Chazz" Palminteri first staged "A Bronx Tale" as a one-man play in 1988, the then-aspiring actor "just wanted to be noticed — I just wanted somebody to see my works as an actor and a writer."

They noticed.

While Palminteri went on to an accomplished acting career — an Academy Award-nominated performance in "Bullets Over Broadway," "Analyze This," "The Usual Suspects" and TV's "Modern Family" — "A Bronx Tale" has enjoyed an exciting life of its own. Impressed by Palminteri's autobiographical script, and performance, Robert De Niro turned it into a movie in 1993. And four years ago it premiered as a stage musical, with a book by Palminteri and songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.

A charmed life, to say the least.

"It's the first time it's ever been done — a play, a movie, a musical — and where the person that stars in the play wrote the movie and the musical and starred in each one," the New York-based Palminteri, 67, says. And if the idea of setting the gritty "Tale" to music seems far-fetched, Palminteri thinks otherwise.

"We always talked about a musical because it lends itself to that," says Palminteri, who drew from his youth growing up in, of course, the Bronx and the adventures of a youth whose loyalties are torn between a kind-hearted gangster who takes him under wing and the boy's father, who wants to shield him from street life. It also involves an interracial romance at a time (and in a place) where that was a particular taboo.

"The themes are so operatic," Palminteri explains. "Each character is such an archetype — the father, the son, Sonny (the gangster), good and evil, to be loved or feared. But the thing that really makes 'A Bronx Tale' what it is is it's not about black and white — it's about gray and gray. Sonny is telling (Calogero) the same things his father is — 'Stay in school, get out of the neighborhood and make something of yourself.'

"That's what makes it so different — it's more philosophical as opposed to the usual wise guy kind of story."

Palminteri says "A Bronx Tale" draws "85, 90 percent" from his own life. "All these things happened. What I did was compress them into a quicker story."

He began writing it at a dark point in his life, after being fired from his job as a club bouncer when he refused to let famed Hollywood agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar into his own party.

"He came late and was just arrogant," Palminteri recalls. "He said, 'Don't you know who I am?' I said, 'Yeah, you're the guy who's not getting in.' He got upset and said, 'You're the guy who'll be fired in 15 minutes.' The boss came out and I was fired in 15 minutes.

"I went home driving my dumpy car, to my dumpy apartment.’ What the hell am I gonna do with my life?' I decided if no one was going to give me a part I'd have to write one for myself."

"A Bronx Tale" was a hit with critics and audiences in Los Angeles and eventually moved to the Off-Broadway Playhouse 91 in New York. Palminteri was routinely turning down six- and even some seven-figure offers for the movie rights, primarily because they would not allow him to star in the film. "I said, 'No, if I can't play Sonny I'm not doing it,'" Palminteri remembers. Then De Niro entered the picture.

"One night the stage manager walks over and says 'Robert De Niro is in your dressing room waiting for you,'" Palminteri says. "I walked in and there's Bob. He said, 'Look, I know what's going on. You won't sell it. Lemme tell you what I feel. You should play Sonny, and you should write it, ’cause it's your life. You write it, I'll direct it,' and I said yes."

The 1993 "A Bronx Tale" film played to better reviews than box office and was nominated for the American Film Institute's Top 10 Gangster Films list. It launched Palminteri's acting career and gave De Niro standing as a director, while entertainment mogul Tommy Mottola pushed both men to create a musical, which he produced and De Niro co-directed.

"Alan Menken, Glenn Slater and I, the three of us got in a room and worked our butts off," Palminteri remembers. "Alan Mencken's a genius. You'd write a great song, then realize it doesn't fit and an hour later he comes back with another one. It's kind of scary. And Glen Slater is a brilliant lyricist. He writes about fables, and 'A Bronx Tale' was a fable.' They're geniuses."

The musical opened on Broadway in November 2016, playing 729 performances before closing 20 months later. Palminteri was part of the cast, briefly, during the spring of 2018.

"A Bronx Tale" has been on tour since October 2018, two months after it wrapped on Broadway.

Palminteri, who still performs the one-man play, has a number of projects on his docket now — a book, a play and another musical, none of which he's talking about — and the second season of the Epix TV series "Godfather of Harlem." But, he promises, he'll never lose his love for what started it all.

"'A Bronx Tale' is my life, and my life's work," he says. "I don't know if it will be the best thing I've ever done, but it's the most important. I can't imagine ever not having it be part of my life."

"A Bronx Tale" runs Tuesday, Jan. 21, through Feb. 2 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. $39 and up. 800-982-2787 or broadwayindetroit.com.

Web Site: www.broadwayindetroit.com

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