BWW Interview: Jeff Brooks of A BRONX TALE Talks About His Mafia Roles, Racial Tensions, and Why Everyone Loves Gaston
America's obsession with the Mafia began long ago, after the Great Depression plunged many into poverty and the world saw how the "family" took care of its own. Popular movies like "The Godfather" and "Scarface" further solidified our collective fascination with all things mob-related. In 1989, a little-known actor named Chazz Palminteri introduced his one-man play about his own experience with a Mafia boss in the Bronx. Many years later, that play blossomed into a movie and then a musical on Broadway and, now, a national tour that stops in Sacramento beginning March 3. A Bronx Tale tells the story of young Calogero and his gangster mentor, Sonny. Jeff Brooks, who plays the role of Sonny on the tour, recently spoke with Broadway World Sacramento about racial tensions, his Mafia roles, and the beauty of an open bar.
Welcome to Sacramento! Have you come through town on tour before? What is your favorite part of visiting the West Coast?
I've come through before. It might have been The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, or Beauty and the Beast...or another show. The weather is fantastic and it goes along with a certain type of temperament of people. It definitely affects how people treat each other. Sometimes people from the East Coast get closed off because of the cold. There are fewer theatres on the West Coast so there's more of an appreciation for regional theatre. I always look forward to West Coast audiences.
You just finished up in Rhode Island. Since you're a veteran with several tours under your belt, what do you like the best about touring the whole country? Where has been your favorite place to perform?
There is a really strong Italian-American population out there in Rhode Island and they love the show. That marked the end of the winter of our tour. We're all in warm weather from now on. This is something that I hold as a badge of honor-I've performed in all 50 states, which is really nice. You're performing for 1500-2500 people a night depending on the venue. The energy is always different. An audience in Dayton is going to be different than audiences in Scranton, Honolulu, or Anchorage. Or even smaller towns where people drive 40 miles in to see a show. There is a different chemical reaction every night. We have to really adapt quickly to the changing energies of the different venues that we're playing. I've had the benefit of playing a lot of them multiples times, so I remember their energy.
I've had the opportunity to play Chicago a couple of times now and the theatre scene is really fun. These big, old houses in big old cities like Chicago and DC have a lot of history. You walk back to your hotel room and you're a part of the city for a week. I'd say Chicago is one of my benchmarks. I love Honolulu just because I can walk barefoot to work. I've played the Pantages in L.A. and it's kind of the same feel. There's an energy and a power that you can't deny.
You grew up around both theatre and baseball, which happen to be my two favorite things. Was there a time when you had to choose between the two? Or did you always know that theatre was your calling?
I did that whole thing where I was in Little League and I lived right across the street from the field. I played for a little while in high school and really got into it but then realized that I wanted to be a golfer instead. Musical theatre was different. My mom had a stranglehold on me for that one. She was a musical theatre director, so I had no chance.
I read that out of all of the characters you have played, you would choose to be friends with Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. I had to laugh out loud at the reason why. Do you still feel that way?
Well, here's the thing. Take a good look at the character. To all of his friends, he's the coolest person in the town and no one is paying for a thing in that bar. No one. No money is exchanged for any drink. It's an open bar when he's around. If you had a friend like that in New York, you would probably say that's the friend you want to hang out with. Things get a little dicey when they start walking into the forest with torches and pitchforks, but that's way down the line. The weird thing about him is that no one understands why he hangs out with LeFou.
A Bronx Tale originated as a one-man play with Chazz Palminteri. Were you ever able to see that?
I only had one opportunity before we left for this tour and, unfortunately, I wasn't able to. He's still doing it, by the way. He's currently still got a touring schedule, out on the road once or twice a month. Eventually, I would love to catch it but I've been a little too busy doing the musical at night. A couple of coworkers saw the show and Chazz was conscientious enough to let them use his car for the long ride back home.
You've now done two shows where you've taken over a role previously played by Chazz. Was that by design? Are the characters from Bullets Over Broadway and A Bronx Tale similar?
I'll give you one better. I've played both of those roles. Chazz played the lead in both of the films and Nick Cordero played the roles in the musicals. He was nominated for Best Actor in a Musical for his role as Cheech. Chazz was in the film, Nick was in the musicals and I am in the tours. Cheech was a 20s gangster, more of a simpler, "he'll just kill you because his boss told him to." Sonny has a little more heart. I like to play Sonny more as a cool dad. He has flaws but wears them on his sleeve. Cheech never admitted to any flaws. It was his way or the highway. He was never a father, just a heavy. Sonny is trying his best to guide the boy down the right path but tells him that the path is ultimately his. Know that when you choose, there is no going back. We're looking at Sonny from the perspective that he's already chosen how he's going to be remembered. Most of the way Sonny is talking to this young man is a cautionary tale. If you choose this life, people will fear and respect you but that's the way you have to live the rest of your life. I like to play the softer side. I think it makes the character more interesting.
Do you think Chazz's experience growing up is typical of a kid in the Bronx?
No, I think this is the perfect story to be made into a fairy tale. This particular story that he lived, there's an essence of faith to it. So many things could have gone wrong in so many different ways. He ended up getting out of that place learning lessons and growing from it. There were probably young men from this time period that never made it out of the Bronx. Chazz came from a loving family who supported him and tried to protect him. When he met Sonny, Sonny could have easily turned him to his own will and made him into an instrument of twisted evil, but he gave him the choice and taught him how to survive this world. He learned from two different fathers and two different perspectives to navigate this really twisted labyrinth of life in the Bronx.
What do you think of the show being described as "Jersey Boys meets West Side Story?"
I think it has elements of West Side Story-that star crossed-lovers, Capulets and Montagues, two different sides of town thing. They should, by all rights, be enemies and should be on the battlefield. The butting of heads between Italian-American and African-American, we don't shy away from that. It was not a safe time for minorities. The racism that was inherent in that time period was very obvious and not very quickly punishable. Because the civil rights movement hadn't broken out much steam, there was racial violence happening in the streets that no one was being punished for. The warring faction was absolutely something that was happening in the Bronx at the time. As far as Jersey Boys, I think that speaks to the type of music you'll be hearing. A lot of doo wop, big band croon, Frank Sinatra type of stuff. You've got a barbershop quartet type of thing. There's also an African American musical influence. It's a melting pot of music and cultures. A Bronx Tale is in a class by itself. It has some heavy stuff, but you want to laugh and feel different emotions, not like you're at Les Mis and bogged down by dark emotions all the time. It's a lot lighter than West Side Story, I believe.
How do you prepare for a role as a mafia don?
I did 6 months at Leavenworth. No, most of my preparation was in a studio in New York and the 3-4 weeks of rehearsal time. Every actor works differently. I love to build my character a brick at a time. I need to make connections with my costars and their characters. It's a mixture of studio time and getting to work with Stephen Edlund, one of my favorite directors. He was always open about things he wanted to try. There can be pitfalls when remounting a production that was on Broadway. Sometimes there's an unspoken rule that "all of your choices are really cute, but we want you to do it like it was done on Broadway." Right from the beginning we realized that we had as much creative control with these characters as we do now. I was very lucky to be able to work with a creative team that was open to the directions I wanted to go with that character. You have to have a great connection with your team and costars. I wouldn't go anywhere without my wise guys and the audience gets to meet every one of them within a half hour of the show. You will not forget their names.
What do you hope the audience takes from A Bronx Tale?
First and foremost, I want them to forget they're in a theatre. I've had people come up to me and say that they cried and then they couldn't stop laughing. I love hearing about uncontrollable emotions from audience members who have delved into the show so much that they forget where they are. When you pare yourself down to those base emotions and you experience it in real time, that's the best. The performers love to see that, too. They're 100 percent in it and that creates the best situation for us to create the story.
What projects are next for you?
I have a couple of unofficial irons on the fire. My agent and I are talking about touring next year with another couple of shows. If I'm going back out on the road, like I said, it's definitely a lifestyle choice. I would love to be able to do some shows here in New York. I actually love the audition process. I love trying new things and making new choices. Working is fun. I have the opportunity to do some new musicals in New York, and I'll be trying new things that haven't been done before. It's always nice to be at the forefront of creating new work. The touring world has stepped its game up in the last 10 years. There are more Broadway-quality shows on the road now. Like the all-female cast of 1776 is touring for 6 months before they come to Broadway and that hasn't been done for a long time. The face of Broadway is changing and I'm happy to be a part of it. When I talk to students, I just tell them to keep working, no matter what.
Tickets for A BRONX TALE start at $26, and are available now at the Broadway Sacramento Box Office, 1419 H Street, Sacramento, or by calling (916) 557-1999; they are also available at the Memorial Auditorium Box Office, 1515 J Street, Sacramento, or by calling (916) 808-5181, or online at BroadwaySacramento.com. Evening performances are Tuesday, Mar. 3 through Saturday, Mar 7 at 8:00 PM. Matinee performances are Thursday, Mar. 5, Saturday, Mar. 7 and Sunday, Mar. 8 at 2:00 PM.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus