Kent Jones, Susan Stroman, Julian Schossberg and Letty Aronson at Film Society Monday. Photo by Lee Bullitt.
Bullets Over Broadway came away with six Tony nominations this year, cementing its place on Broadway, but it was the big-screen original that took center stage Monday night at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Crowds filled the Walter Reade Theater to see the classic 1994 feature written and directed by Woody Allen and starring John Cusack, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Tilly, Chazz Palminteri, Jim Broadbent, Joe Viterelli, Mary-Louise Parker, Rob Reiner, and Tracey Ullman. The film received multiple Oscar nominations, with Wiest winning for Best Supporting Actress.
“Woody loved the [concept] of how much you are willing to sacrifice for your art. Would you kill for your art, or would you allow someone else to write your words?” noted Susan Stroman, who directed and choreographed the Broadway version of Bullets. Stroman, along with producers Letty Aronson (also Allen's sister) and Julian Schossberg, joined New York Film Festival Director Kent Jones for a post-screening Q&A. Though Allen handed director duties over to Stroman, he nevertheless was very involved with the stage version of the story set in 1920s New York about a struggling playwright who is forced to cast a mobster's talentless girlfriend in his drama in order to get it produced.
In fact, Allen's presence during auditions was too much for one hopeful actor whose nerves got the best of him. “It was very difficult in front of Woody because [the auditioning actors] would get nervous. One poor guy even fainted. That was quite a day,” said Stroman. “He fainted and cracked his head, there was blood. Everyone picked him up and took him out of the room to an ambulance. I turned around and Woody was sitting there with a sandwich and said, 'He was good…'” Julian Schossberg said that other actors were waiting for their auditions as the injured thespian was lead out of the building. “It was a really tough session,” he added.
Aronson said that finding cast who could sing, dance, and do comedy was a constant challenge. Music was also key, with many numbers added to the Broadway Bullets Over Broadway. “Woody wanted to find tunes [from the era] that were not as well known,” said Stroman. “There is 'Let's Misbehave' [by Cole Porter, which is in the film version], but there are also songs like 'I Want a Hot Dog For My Roll.' Woody wanted them to be discovered too, but in the end it's about connecting it to the show.”
Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway.
Composer and lyricist Glen Kelly tweaked lyrics to help move the story forward. In order to give the stage version an Act I climax, the story was altered a bit to give the audience something to stew over during intermission. “We needed a bit of a cliff-hanger going into intermission,” said Stroman. “So Woody came up with the idea of going to Boston at the end of Act I and Ellen [played in the movie version by Mary-Louise Parker] would come to the train station with some suspicion that [boyfriend David] and Helen Sinclair are having an affair.”
Allen, in fact, added a number of jokes to the storyline. Stroman, Aronson, and Schossberg said that the filmmaker thrived off the live audience reaction during early runs of the musical and often came up with new ideas. ” Woody would come in every day with a new joke during previews,” said Aronson. “It was like a gift for each actor. He'd write them on a yellow piece of paper. For Woody to work on something live and hear the reaction of the audience—it just made him excited.”
Susan Stroman has had her share of time spent professionally with filmmaker/comedians. She directed and choreographed Mel Brooks's musical The Producers, winning her her fourth and fifth Tony Awards. She is also nominated in the choreography category this year for Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical. “They're both geniuses and to be around their spontaneous minds is just thrilling,” said Stroman about Allen and Brooks. “Woody is shy, reserved, and very business-like, while Mel is big and loud and leaping around. He's big. His characters are fantastical and exaggerated [while] Woody's characters are very real. Mel's humor is more slapstick, but Woody's humor comes out of this incredible dialogue. Both have been very generous to me… In this male-dominated world, I have to pinch myself that I have been able to work with these two great, great comics.”