One of the highlights of Ebertfest this year was the screening of A Bronx Tale, Robert De Niro’s impressive debut as a director, with the script based on Chazz Palmenteri’s phenomenally successful one-man show about his childhood in the Bronx. The QA following the screening, with Chazz Palminteri and producer John Killik, was so entertaining. Here’s the whole thing on Youtube! Enjoy!
I was sitting in between Matt Seitz and Mum and afterwards Matt and I were talking rhapsodically about the whole thing. We both had seen the movie back when it first came out, and loved it, but we had found a new appreciation for it over the years, and it has grown in stature. I said something like, “I cannot believe that I have never seen him do his one-man show” and Matt said he hadn’t seen it either. So when I returned home from Ebertfest, I Googled Chazz Palminteri, found his Website, and saw that he was doing A Bronx Tale all over the place, a couple dates a month for the next couple of months. And there was one happening in Queens! I emailed Matt immediately. Wanna go? We bought tickets for ourselves, and Matt bought tickets for his girlfriend Amy and two kids. It would be an outing! A field trip to Queens!
The show was happening at the Performing Arts Center at Queensborough Community College (and it was a hike and a half to get there. The subway only took you so far. After that, multiple busses and a cab were also necessary.) So there was something emotional about that for me, how (relatively, let’s not overstate it) strenuous it was to get out there. Live theatre. People will come. Advertise and people will come. Because there’s something about live theatre that you cannot get anywhere else. Chazz Palminteri’s one-man show swept the New York and Los Angeles theatre world back in 1990. He has been doing it ever since. He created it while he was taking an acting class, bringing in the small pieces he had written, and egged on by the other students and the teacher to complete it. Before he knew it, he had a full-length play. It then went on to have hit runs in LA and New York, and studios wanted it. They wanted it bad. But they wanted him to sell it outright. He refused to sell because he wanted to be in it. It’s one of the all-time great examples of an artist taking that kind of risk and having that risk pay off so big (the most famous probably being Sylvester Stallone with his Rocky script). The price offered for the script kept rising (up into the millions), and Palminteri stood strong. Finally, Robert De Niro came to see the one-man show in New York and came backstage to introduce himself. He said he wanted to direct, and he wanted to direct A Bronx Tale, with Chazz Palminteri playing the role of Sonny. It couldn’t have worked out better for everyone involved.
In the one-man show, Palminteri plays all the roles: Sonny, his 9-year-old self, his 17-year-old self, his father, his mother, all the Wise Guys on the street, Jane the girlfriend … everyone. His demeanor changes, his voice, his gestures, but it’s not studied or affected. There’s a great flow in all of it. These are people he knew, people he was … he KNOWS them. The show is quite funny, uproariously so, and it’s astonishing to consider how LITTLE was changed for the film. You can totally understand why Robert De Niro, sitting in the audience watching Palminteri act the whole thing out, could see the entire movie, almost whole. There it was. It’s one of those rare scripts that is entirely on the page. You don’t have to do much to it. (The script for Rocky is the same way, one of the best screenplays ever written, just in terms of how much you can see the whole movie in your mind as you read it.) Apparently when De Niro came backstage to talk to Palminteri, he said, “You just did an entire movie up on that stage.” And he did. You can see the block of houses, you can see the streetcorner, you can see the crowded bar, the fruit peddler. It’s just one man onstage. The set was minimal: there was a street-sign on a pole to stage left, there was a little wooden set of stairs center stage, and there was a neon sign stage right saying “Chez Joey” (the name of the corner bar). And that was it. That’s all he needs. The rest? Comes from his performance.
It’s a bravura performance. It is warm and poignant, it’s gripping and intelligent, and the characters LIVE. Sonny lives, Lorenzo lives, all the secondary characters like Mush and Rudy (who sang everything) and Coffee Cake, all the nicknames … There’s one scene where Sonny invites the young Chazz to a craps game in the cellar. It’s a raucous group scene in the movie. Chazz Palminteri, up onstage, by himself, doing all the roles, creates the illusion that there were 10 people crowded up there with him. He created a group scene by himself, no tricks, no gimmicks, and THAT is what ONLY an actor can do. Directors and producers get caught up in production values sometimes. Maybe they worry they’re not doing enough, they feel like they must justify their positions by DOING something to the script, adding elements like lighting cues or rotating stages or whatever else. But honestly, if the work is true and good and honest, all you need are actors who can bring that story across. Yes, light them well. Yes, stage them well. But other than that, get out of the damn way.
One of the most striking things about Palminteri’s performance was its freshness and immediacy of emotion. How many times has he performed this? Hundreds? Thousands? And it felt like the first time. It is a well-oiled machine, he knows exactly what he’s doing in every moment, but he is creating it anew, he is living it again, for us, as though he hasn’t done it time out of number. That’s the actor’s gig. And it was an honor to watch him work. It was an honor to watch him do his thing. What generosity. What truth.
Watching Chazz Palminteri do his A Bronx Tale was an absolutely unforgettable experience. Really emotional, and the ovation he received was uproarious and spontaneous.
On his website, he lists out the dates of upcoming productions, and there are quite a few in the East Coast area. I can’t recommend it highly enough. What a great theatrical experience!