This show seemed to have everything going for it…a faithful adaptation of a hilarious movie, stuffed with classic Twenties hit songs, and with a star-studded cast…yet it only managed a six-month run and is already half-forgotten. Granted, that was a season with a lot of wonderful shows that didn’t quite make it (Big Fish, The Bridges of Madison County, Rocky the Musical, and If/Then all came out that same season), but one still has to wonder what went wrong for a show that seemed to have all the ingredients for success.
Well, for one thing, this is definitely one of those shows where the book outshines the score…Woody Allen himself, who had been the film’s director and screenwriter, co-wrote the stage libretto, and it shows. While there are those who would quibble with the apparent irony of Allen writing a show that is essentially an exploration of whether being a great artist can make up for being a bad human being, the fact remains that Woody Allen is one of the funniest men of all time, and his unerring comic instincts and unique sense of the absurd make the book to this show riotously funny. Granted, the stage book is slightly more of a cartoon than the movie, which had a bit more emotional depth, but that change arguably just makes it funnier…the film was already a cartoon at heart to begin with, and eliminating the periodic attempts to imbue the characters with depth makes the work’s tone much more consistent.
The main problem is that there wasn’t much point to this being a musical in the first place. Granted, the film was soundtracked with Twenties Jazz standards as well, so I get why they thought that approach made sense for the stage show, but the period Jukebox score doesn’t really do anything to enhance the material, and one gets the feeling that they only made this a musical instead of a straight play because they thought this material would be easier to market as a musical. Granted, you could argue the same about 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and that never seemed to dampen its success, but as funny as Bullets Over Broadway is, it’s not the one-of-a-kind, groundbreaking work of genius Spelling Bee is, and its hilarious but still fairly conventional Broadway comedy couldn’t quite carry the show when the score let it down.
On top of that, as a pure collection of songs, the score isn’t nearly as interesting as it should be. One of the implied trade-offs of a Jukebox musical is that, while the song won’t fit into the story as neatly, you’re supposed to be guaranteed a consistently great score, and any Jukebox musical that fails to fulfill that promise is in trouble. Apart from a few stone-cold classics like “Let’s Misbehave”, “She’s Funny That Way” and “‘Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do”, most of these songs are at best second-tier standards, many of which are almost totally forgotten today. This is particularly frustrating given the amount of still-legendary classic standards available from the time period they were drawing on. As I said, the film also used standards from that era for its soundtrack, including at least a couple of the same songs, but it had a much greater ratio of well-remembered classics in its tunestack.
As I said, the book was hysterical, and the performers, including Broadway legend Marin Mazzie, had a lot of fun with their parts, but the musical portions were too weak to really justify this being a musical in the first place. As enjoyable as the show is on stage, I suppose I understand why it didn’t take off…for all of its laughs, it somehow doesn’t quite satisfy. Of all the wonderful flops of the 2013-2014 season, this is probably the least imposing, and while there is apparently some attempt at a tour going on right now, given that all the show really left behind was a third-rate cast album that only preserved the worst elements of the show, I wouldn’t be too optimistic about its chances of being vindicated by history.