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Retro musical A Bronx Tale delivers an indictment of American politics without even trying

Chazz Palminteri's immigrant story would have been feel-good nostalgia. But Trump happened. 

A Bronx Tale opened at Longacre Theatre on December 1.
A Bronx Tale

Wednesday night, on the way to review A Bronx Tale, the new musical about life in the Italian-American neighborhood of Belmont, I passed through the Union Square subway. There, over the past two weeks or so, New Yorkers have been pouring their hearts out via Post-It note therapy in response to the US presidential election. Thousands of notes express a collective sadness, anger, fear, and hope for the future.

“CALL YOUR REPS!” one note urged. “Never my president,” another declared in angry, bold strokes, the final word underlined twice: “NEVER.” Someone had stuck Post-its next to the signs for the Ⓝ and Ⓠ trains: Ⓝever Ⓠuit.

“Choose love, not fear,” one note read.

Two hours later, I would hear this same mantra delivered onstage — a dictum transformed in a moment of tremendous cultural upheaval from an easy moral into a bittersweet judgment on modern American politics.

A Bronx Tale was supposed to be a simple coming-of-age narrative about a kid who grows up under the spell of a local mob boss during a period of tremendous racial and class tension. But it’s impossible not to see that this tale is also an American tale—one whose parallels with the 2016 presidential election are likely unintentional, but still hard to ignore.

A Bronx Tale tries to fit itself within Broadway’s optimistic veneer—but its political subtext is just too glaring

Musical theatre has always been an outlet for trenchant social commentary; every decade from the genre’s inception has given us a Showboat, a Chorus Line, a Next to Normal. But it feels as though it’s increasingly rare for that social commentary to take aim directly at Broadway’s overwhelmingly white, middle-class audience—and even rarer for shows that do to become commercial successes.

For every Hamilton that manages to deliver scathing political commentary through innovation rather than cynicism, there are heartbreakers: Last year’s Allegiance was a flop despite delivering its moral judgments on America’s internment camps in the mildest way imaginable; the brilliant Shuffle Along, which wasn’t half as polite about its own real history, closed abruptly and controversially due to flagging advance sales after star Audra McDonald left the show. Both musicals, viewed alongside the soaring success and equally soaring optimism of Hamilton and the revival of A Color Purple, are reminders that Broadway musical audiences still typically prefer their politics encased in a healthy shell of optimism.

A Bronx Tale knows this truth very well. Its subject seems like unlikely musical fodder: It’s an oddly heartwarming narrative about a boy torn between his values and his loyalty to a local mob boss. Its biggest names are behind the scenes, and they aren’t often associated with the stage: actors Robert DeNiro (producer and co-director) and Chazz Palminteri (creator and writer). Its story is rife with the ethnic and class tensions of the ’60s. Yet A Bronx Tale is a perfectly enjoyable, charm-infused pop musical that strives to encircle its hefty political subplot in good humor and a steady stream of happy people singing and dancing. No wonder audiences have already flocked to it: It’s a textbook good time at the theatre.

And yet, even though A Bronx Tale is trying its best to adhere to Broadway’s current mantra of injecting rosy platitudes into every potentially barbed political statement, it still manages to be an indictment of its mainly white audience — and everybody else. As we enter a Trumpian America, the overt displays of bigotry and hate that have swept the country in the wake of his election have removed whatever comforting nostalgic distance A Bronx Tale might have had from America’s racialized, xenophobic past. To look back now is to look forward.

The careless optimism that once characterized A Bronx Tale has been soured by a renewed awareness that the overt racism it explores is not a safely conquered injustice of yesteryear. Had it premiered any other time, it might have been a nostalgic story about a young man learning to make the right choices; but now there’s no getting around the glaring parallels to the historic choice America just made.

A Bronx Tale is a story of conflicting values amid deepening ethnic tension

The show is the passion project of the Oscar-nominated Palminteri, who first wrote A Bronx Tale as a lightly autobiographical one-man play in 1989, then adapted it into a film that became DeNiro’s 1993 directorial debut. Venerable theater director Jerry Zaks brought the play to Broadway in 2007, and has now steered its musical update back to the stage. Composer Alan Menken, who wrote most of the Disney songs you know the words to, rounds out this stable of stage and screen legends, with assists from lyricist Glenn Slater and choreographer Sergio Trujillo.

From the show’s opening harmonies, A Bronx Tale projects a combination of hometown pride and winsome affability — one it maintains even as its protagonist, Calogero, grows into adulthood amid a backdrop of organized crime, violence, and escalating racial clashes between his primarily immigrant neighborhood and the Bronx’s local black population. As the narrator of his own story, Bobby Conte Thornton’s Calogero wears his most winning smile at all times, even, especially, when things in his life seem bleakest.

Then again, given that he’s taken under the wing of the local crime boss at the age of 9, things don’t really get bleak for Calogero until he falls in love with the wrong girl from the wrong part of the Bronx — a bright student named Jane, played with vivacity by former Hamilton ensemble favorite Ariana DeBose.

Until he meets Jane, Calogero’s primary conflict is with his father, a hard-working bus driver who fears Calogero’s involvement with the mob boss, Sonny. Played by Waitress’s Nick Cordero, Sonny is poised, blunt, and likable. He’s also a cold-blooded killer. Still, he clearly loves Calogero — or “C” as he calls him — and it’s easy to see why Calogero prefers him to his dad. Sonny projects confidence. Calogero’s dad, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake), mostly projects a world-weary fear for his son’s growing involvement in mob life.

Lorenzo’s love of Joe DiMaggio and his insistence that his son must grow his heart and not his pocketbook come off as hopelessly quaint next to Sonny’s ability to command the neighborhood and line Calogero’s pockets with cash. When Lorenzo turns out to disapprove of his son’s interracial relationship with Jane, Sonny is the one who encourages him — and who prevents him from getting swept up in a wave of racially motivated hatred sweeping the neighborhood.

It’s a twist that further complicates the show’s already complicated racial politics, in which the local black population excoriates the “immigrant scum” of the local Italian population, who serve up beatings and Molotov cocktails in response. Palminteri’s book frequently reminds viewers that racism lies not in far-off villains, but in the hearts of people they love, and even in their own hearts. Our charming narrator, Calogero, is the one who flings the show’s horrifying racial slur, which landed on an unsettled audience at a moment when many of us were confronting family and friends who voted for an overtly fascist presidential candidate.

A Bronx Tale takes a shallow dip into America’s racial tension, but its first priority is to sell audiences a good time

A Bronx Tale is only lightly a story of the immigrant experience and New York City life. The brush strokes are there, but they’re broad; the gorgeous set design does most of the work at orienting us to time and place, while Menken’s score is mostly ’60s pop without any particular cultural ethos.

His songs — with the exception of two gorgeous lovers’ duets and “Great Ones,” a surprisingly touching duet between Sonny and Calogero — are peppy doo-wop that harkens back to his first Broadway hit, Little Shop of Horrors. Menken hasn’t tried to produce solo showstoppers, but rather ensemble songs that are thorough, serviceable workhorses for working-class characters. Slater’s lyrics tend to flatten out characterization, except for the moments when Calogero and Jane poignantly sing about how the world isn’t ready for the two of them to fall in love.

They’re right; but it’s a happy musical, so it’s fine. Palminteri’s book is the undisputed star of the show — fast-paced, clever, and brimming with humor and a touch of wry folk wisdom — while Zaks’s talent for delivering fast-paced, upbeat musicals has never been clearer. The singing and dancing is fun, and the opening second-act dance number from a group of local black teens is a welcome highlight. Hudson Loverro, who plays 9-year-old Calogero and clearly loves every minute, is a scene stealer and the clear audience favorite. The loving nods here and there to other New York musicals like Damn Yankees and Guys and Dolls are fine. Racial violence occurs, but never with enough emotional impact or real repercussions to kill the happy buzz. It’s all fine.

Calogero’s story ends on a happy note; he never has to choose decisively between the two men he loves, or deal directly with the fallout from his friends’ incitement of ethnic violence or his own racial slurs; he gets to serve as a kind of tour guide through racial tension in New York in the ‘60s without ever having to get out of the bus. Palminteri’s social commentary is glancing, mild, and immediately followed up with laughs; it’s not an empty message, but it’s not particularly nuanced or deep.

And yet it’s just deep enough to implicate its viewers in its tale, whether it means to or not.

Calogero’s choice between his dad and Sonny can be read as a bitter mirror of Clinton versus Trump

A Bronx Tale isn’t trying to draw a direct parallel between its mob boss and the new president-elect, but it doesn’t have to try for the parallel to be glaring anyway. Sonny’s mantra that “fear is cash in the bank, kid” works just as well as an unofficial slogan for the Trump campaign. Sonny built his empire by bullying his way to success, and now is surrounded by sycophants too afraid of him to challenge him. Like fascist leader Mussolini, Sonny reveres Machiavelli’s dictator handbook The Prince (a book Trump recommends in his 2007 book Trump 101), and teaches his impressionable young protégé that it’s better to “choose fear, not love.”

Meanwhile, Lorenzo’s hold on his son’s loyalty and integrity slips away as Calogero’s fascination with Sonny and his lifestyle deepens. Lorenzo characterizes his job as one requiring patience, hard work, and responsibility, rather than shortcuts to easy money. It’s boring and unglamorous, much like Hillary Clinton’s presentation of her own candidacy was often accused of being. And Calogero reacts to his dad’s attempt to teach him the value of hard work and remind him of his ethics exactly the way large swaths of America reacted to Clinton: with scorn and dismissal.

If A Bronx Tale had debuted on Broadway last season — back when we still lived in a world where Nazis didn’t feel emboldened to heil one another in broad daylight — its characters’ overt prejudice would have seemed quaint; the easy nostalgia surrounding its themes would have signaled to audiences that this era of overt prejudice was comfortably in the past. Before the election of Donald Trump, its passionate dictum to choose between love and fear would have been a mild, feel-good platitude meant to politely jostle, but never deeply disquiet, a mainstream white Broadway audience.

But now, after, it’s a desperate cry on a subway wall in the heart of a country that has already chosen to elect a president who campaigned on fear. We no longer live in a world where feel-good platitudes can distance us from our sins. Even the most superficial looks at prejudice and racism are sobering.

Now, when its narrative reminds us that Calogero is a bright young kid with lots of potential but a penchant for rashness, easily dazzled by the lure of fame, money, and success, it’s a reminder that this, too, is America: still young among nations, perhaps too full of confidence, and wrestling with exploding racial conflict.

A Bronx Tale’s message may be unpalatable for Broadway lovers who want a bit more nuance in their onstage social messages. But the time for nuance is over. As Calogero warns us, the choices we make will shape our lives forever — and the time to choose love over fear is right now.

A Bronx Tale is currently playing at the Longacre Theatre.