REVIEW: Bullets Over Broadway

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Recording Cover

When it was first announced that Woody Allen and Susan Stroman were teaming up to bring Bullets Over Broadway to the musical stage, the news was greeted with tremendous anticipation, tempered only slightly by the news that the show would feature a score cobbled together from songs from the 1920s, the era in which the show is set. As the show approached Broadway, anticipation built around the casting of Helen Sinclaire, the role for which Dianne Wiest won an Oscar in 1995. When Marin Mazzie won the role amidst rumors that the show’s creators were hoping for a star but couldn’t find one who matched Mazzie’s winning take, Broadway fans rejoiced. And then the show opened… 

While Bullets has its fans, it failed to catch on and recently posted a closing notice mere months after its opening. Despite its tepid reception, the production has left behind an appealing cast recording that emphasizes the show’s strong points (foremost of which are Doug Besterman‘s top-notch orchestrations and music director Andy Einhorn‘s winsome vocal arrangements) while minimizing the shortcomings (a book and score that by and large seemed to have little to do with one another).

Bullets features an ensemble cast, with nine performers sharing the top of the bill. Most get there moments in the spotlight on the album, with none emerging as the star of the piece. Zach Braff, making his Broadway debut as protagonist and Woody Allen-avatar David Shayne, exhibits a serviceable but not spectacular singing voice, more character than crooner. Betsy Wolfe, as his on-again/off-again love interest, shines in her three numbers. Nick Cordero, nominated for a Tony award for his role as gangster Cheech, was often praised for his big dance number in the show, “‘Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” but on disc, it’s his charming take on “Up A Lazy River” that best demonstrates his talents. Heléne York, as moll/chorine Olive, reigns in her grating character voice for the album, but even toned down, her numbers are the most likely to be skipped on repeated listens.

Marin Mazzie is in her usual form, only more so, amping up her vocal mannerisms to embody the diva-past-her-prime Sinclaire. How you react to her performance probably depends on how you feel about her in general, and how readily you can erase memories of Dianne Weist. (You might notice that nowhere on the album do we hear Mazzie’s version of Weist’s catchphrase from the film, “Don’t Speak!” That was surely not accidental.) Fans of Karen Ziemba or Brooks Ashmanskas will be disappointed at how little they have to do on the album, but each at the very least gets in a punchline or two during the ensemble numbers.

The album, produced by Besterman and Frank Filipetti, offers a warm sound, with the voices front and center, which occasionally pushes the 18-piece orchestra a little further back in the mix than I like. The taps in the dance numbers have a tendency to get lost in the shuffle, but at least the taps were recorded!

The liner notes come in an impressive 28-page booklet featuring a brief Woody Allen hagiography by radio personality Jonathan Schwartz, a synopsis of the show by Woody Allen biographer Eric Lax, and lyrics to all the songs. If you’re curious which numbers were reworked by musical adaptor/lyricist Glen Kelly, that information is there too, but it’s buried in the small print of the copyright notices, as are the names of the composers and lyricists who wrote the songs to begin with. The booklet’s one shortcoming is the paltry four production photographs, one of which is perhaps the least flattering picture ever taken of Zach Braff and Nick Cordero.

While Bullets Over Broadway is hardly an essential addition to a cast recording collection, it’s a pleasant listen that will surely leave those who never saw the show wondering what went so wrong. And however much one might have wished for an original score for this show, the collection of songs assembled is a delightful compilation of standards and forgotten gems worth revisiting.

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