Interview with A Bronx Tale star Bobby Conte Thornton
Bobby Conte Thornton is currently making his Broadway debut in the leading role of Calogero in A Bronx Tale - The Musical, directed by Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks, at the Longacre Theatre.
We talk to Bobby about adapting why a musical adaptation of A Bronx Tale works and about his experiences collaborating behind-the-scenes with both Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks:
Thomas Hayden Millward: So, you were brought onto the musical for the Broadway premiere, after its world premiere at the Papermill Playhouse. How did that come about?
Bobby Conte Thornton: I auditioned for the Papermill process, but I guess it just wasn’t the right timing. I had just graduated from school when I got the call for the audition for the Papermill. A lot then happens in six months of life. Not only do you grow as an actor but also as a human being and I think that is really important with this show. I was just very fortunate that I got a call one day saying they wanted to see me again for Broadway and that they had a clearer vision of what the show was and they were open to someone bringing in a new interpretation and seeing if this was a collaboration that could work. I lucked out! They gave me this incredible opportunity and I’m trying to make the most of it.
THM: My favourite number in the show has to be “One of the Great Ones” – Alan Menken at his best and Nick Cordero and yourself playing the scene. The reaction from the audience that night was so immense. Why do you think that scene in particular is being received so positively?
BCT: First of all, I think the song is so great. It’s a pastiche of Frank Sinatra and Nick sings the crap out of it! The persona of a guy that from a distance, when you initially meet him and see him shooting someone, you would never think he had a kind of openness and a heartfelt joy about him. So he can unleash that side of him and you’re so overtaken because the whole show is showing how my character Calogero is balancing these different influences in his life – from his father to the neighbourhood itself to Sonny – and if there is anything about Sonny, he is charismatic. He has a quality about him that will draw you to him. Whether his actions are the way to live life – as we deal with this issue of living life out of love or fear – I could not imagine that being more relevant than today. When someone like that then starts talking about love and human connection rather than how to instigate people out of fear, I think any audience is going to feel overwhelming relief, joy and a connection to something like that. When you put that together with the car door scene that so many people know so well from the movie, it’s a combination I don’t think can be beat.
THM: Both directors have a lot of experience with the material of A Bronx Tale – Robert DeNiro directed (and starred in) the 1993 movie adaptation and Gerry Zaks directed it on Broadway in 2007. How would you compare the directors to each other on this musical?
BCT: You know, Gerry Zaks is musical comedy galore. He just knows what works on a theatrical stage. He knows how to create pictures and he knows what technically works and how to structure a story for this medium incredibly well. He has a track record that’s proven for it. What Bob [DeNiro] brings to it – because he was so involved in the movie and is a born New Yorker – he is a stickler for authenticity. He had to check off every haircut and for me, he actually grabbed a pair of clippers and cut it himself to make sure it looked the right way. My chain has an engravement of the angel St Michael and he told me four bullet points about why Calogero would have something like this versus a standard cross or some other catholic symbol around his neck. My stance is very much engrained by the neighbourhood and the time and knowledge of Chazz Palminteri’s dad in real life, who besides being a bus driver was also a boxing trainer. So I stand in a way that if I’m up close with someone and we get into an argument, I’m ready to get into a fighter stance at any moment. If I have my legs apart and someone tries to push me, I’m not going to fall over. If my feet are too close together and I’m wonky, I would never survive two seconds in 1960s lower class Italian Bronx. So I think when you have a mixture of those two [directors], the hope is that when the curtain rises up, you can smell the cannoli and salami of this neighbourhood, but you still feel like it’s a traditional Broadway musical that follows the idioms and success stories of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb, and of other Alan Menken shows that have been written, where we know what systematically works and what we can bring to this world that makes it relevant for 2016.
THM: Another aspect of ‘A Bronx Tale’ I really enjoyed is the respectful nods to other Broadway musicals. The set design seems to pay homage to ‘West Side Story,’ the intro and outro pay homage to ‘Jersey Boys’ and so on. Were these nods deliberate from the get-go?
BCT: You know, our writer Chazz [Palminteri] - who I’m essentially playing in the show – his favourite musicals growing up were ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘West Side Story.’ I feel like our show is definitely an amalgamation of those two. I luck out every day that I get to work with my heroes and they all have a profound respect for the medium of musical theatre and the structure that has been proven to work. We find our moments where we not necessarily break the rules but we find what we can bring to it and what this story can tell and how authentic it can be when we raise the emotions to the point where I need to break out into song because I can’t do anything else. It’s always in the knowledge that we know the beats we have to take the audience on and we know how musical theatre can serve us in that way. Whether you’re acknowledging ‘West Side Story’ or ‘Guys and Dolls’ or ‘Jersey Boys’ – and I think of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in terms of the way I break the fourth wall and talk to the audience – we take what this art form has given us and what history has shown that connects with an audience and we hold that with great respect.
THM: Finally, what makes this Bronx tale in particular work as a musical?
BCT: I think at the end of the day, this story is told through the eyes of a 9-year old at the beginning and therefore it’s going to be a bit larger than life because of that. The experiences that happen to this kid within the first five minutes of the show – the stakes could not be higher. It gives you a reason for elevated emotion that leads to singing. You wouldn’t necessarily associate that with these kind of people, who are kinda gritty, home-grown and very much have their feet on the ground. If you watch the movie, I would be the first one to say: “Do not screw up a movie and a story that works so well.” I think that with the people we have involved - starting in my opinion with Chazz, whose story this is and who is here every single day re-writing the book and helping me as I’m essentially playing him – we get to tell an authentic story that seems fully realised and honest if we break out into song. What happened in his life is larger than life. His life in many ways was somewhat of a fantasy rooted in a lower class, eclectic neighbourhood in New York. Every single member of our audience would know or have an idea of what that is because it’s a subway ride away from this theatre. Who has written more fables – even if it’s in an animated setting – than Alan Menken? He is perfect for this! In many ways he’s going back to his ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ roots in terms of his style, which I can’t get enough of. We have people all around the helm helping us figure out how the story can uniquely be told in this idiom of musical theatre, since it has already been a huge success as a movie and a one man show.