In Broadway's A Bronx Tale, audiences hear homages to hitmakers gone by: Frank Sinatra, Otis Redding, Chuck Berry, Bobby Darin, The Shirelles, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations, to name only a few.
"We're both addicted to pop music," says lyricist Glenn Slater, who collaborates with composer Alan Menken for the new musical. "One of the reasons we work well together is because we each know so many different genres and what makes them work. For this project, we wanted it to sound as if you were walking down the streets of the Bronx on a summer afternoon, and listening to what's coming out of radios in the windows and the cars."
This time, Menken and Slater - who are also behind the music of Disney's Tangled, ABC series Galavant and that Sausage Party song - found themselves writing new music alongside show producer and seasoned record exec Tommy Mottola, and Chazz Palminteri, the book writer who also penned the original play and 1993 movie from his personal experiences. Co-directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, the production about a young boy torn between his father and a local Mob boss opens Thursday at the Longacre Theater.
Read more: 'A Bronx Tale: The Musical': Theater Review
Before opening night, Menken and Slater sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at New York City's The Glass House to talk Bronx Tale grit, Galavant dreams and what they'll do if their Sausage Party number ends up nabbing an Oscar nomination.
How did writing for this project differ than others you've done?
MENKEN: Chazz Palminteri first mentioned it to me 15 years ago, when I was scoring his movie Noel. With this project more than any other, Chazz wanted to be in the room with us - the opening number, originally called "Sitting on My Stoop," has some lines from Chazz. I gotta say, we had a great time.
SLATER: We'd have both of them in the room: Tommy Mottola wanted everything to sound like the real music of that time, not the watered-down Broadway version. He'd shout about every guitar sound and every bit of reverb: "This is right" ... "They would've never done this back then." Same with Chazz with the language: "They would've never said that back then" ... "That's a word you would've heard 10 blocks down." Authenticity was always the top concern.
How did you translate the film's grit and violence into musical theater?
SLATER: Figuring out when characters should sing or speak, while still making it coherent, was challenging. In "Hurt Someone," the instinct is to do the West Side Story quintet. But when everyone sings at the same time, it loses some of the edge and the stakes feel a lot lower. We needed the violence to feel as real as possible.
MENKEN: Also, "Ain't It the Truth." You basically have these wise guy friends saying the rules of the neighborhood: "You gotta dress nice and strut yourself." Then it goes to another level of risqué, and then to racial stereotyping. We want to be funny and then add a little lump in your throat, but you gotta play that carefully. Finding that line of, it's all fun in games until something happens.
What's the most challenging thing about writing for an adaptation?
SLATER: Giving people somewhat of what they expect, but also not being too limited by that. This movie has so many classic lines and moments everyone knows and loves. In a traditional musical, they'd feel like anecdotes that might not end up being used, but in a story that's essentially a series of anecdotes, you need to honor those moments.
MENKEN: In a way, you hide your craft a bit. The audience who comes to this show just loves the story and that era, and wants to be taken on a journey. Our job in a way is to be invisible and support the vision. But those limits are good. The hardest assignment is one with no guidelines: "Write whatever you want." In Tangled, we did 20 versions of "I See the Light" - just pick one!
SLATER: We wrote the big belty ballad duet, and they said, "We want it quieter." Alan said, "What about this?" "That's too folky" ... "That's too quiet." It went on for hours. Any of those versions could've been a hit song.
If you don't use a line or a musical phrase, do you bank it for another project?
SLATER: No. It's always fresh.
MENKEN: Nothing has any value unless it works for what we wrote it for. When we worked on this, we also had Galavant - 60 songs over two seasons. Believe me, we learned how to throw out material without a second glance! I gotta say, I don't want Galavant to just go away. I'd like there to be some kind of a stage version. There's so much great material that went into those two seasons.
Do you ever read reviews or social media reactions of your work?
MENKEN: I've stopped. I'm very proud of the work and I know what the intention is, and you just hope those who come can see that and accept it for what it is. Whenever reviews come out, I hope to be knee-deep in three other projects and not day-to-day invested in the reactions or the box office, because that work is done.
SLATER: For me, the high point is when it's just us writing in that room together. By the time we open, it belongs to the actors and the audiences.
What advice would you give to new composers and lyricists?
MENKEN: A musical is the most collaborative of forms. What's precious is not that song you wrote or that idea or musical phrase you had, but your creativity and pure involvement in the process. Don't get attached to anything in particular; stay in the moment, pour your talent out and the results will come.
SLATER: Yes. It's all about telling a story. Expect to write twice as much material as you'll end up using, and embrace that. Write the song that comes to your mind, and the song someone else suggests, and see what works.
MENKEN: The better song is not always the best song for the show. Sometimes, what's required for that moment is something that's going to support other things.
SLATER: When we did Leap of Faith, we wrote 19 songs for the second slot of the show. I'd guess half of them were better than what we ended up with, but that didn't tell the story as well.
You previously collaborated on the Little Mermaid Broadway musical. Will those songs be in the Disney reboot with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the creative team?
MENKEN: Very likely, yes. I hope so. Unbelievable material. Disney seems to be - God bless them - pulling out so many sequels and reboots and I'm just going, "Ah!" It's wonderful, I guess, and at the same time, it's amazing how film companies will announce, "This is happening!" Then a year goes by and nothing, and then all of sudden, they go, "Now!"
Right now, Lin is involved with Mary Poppins [Returns]. I'm incredibly excited to work with Lin on this, whatever it's going to be. He'll be writing, I guess, lyrics? Or book ideas? It's not defined at all. Nobody knows at this point.
You also wrote the opening song for Sausage Party. How was that writing process different?
MENKEN: The original song was an assignment that's almost like Belle's [opening song in Beauty and the Beast], and it was supposed to be wink at Disney. I wrote a very complicated song with two countermelodies and three parts - it was a musical theater masterpiece, but a lot of that audience watched it and went, "Huh?"
SLATER: It was clever and was probably entertaining from a musical theater standpoint, but it didn't set up the story as well and probably wasn't as funny in some ways. We started simplifying this and that, adding different lines.
How do you feel about Sony's awards push for it?
MENKEN: They're serious about that song - it's a little scary! (Laughs.) I've done some press for it. I'm very amused by the whole thing. I love Seth Rogen and I love that he's happy, and whatever happens, great.
SLATER: Oscar songs fall into a couple of categories - you always have the big soaring ballads - but you don't often get just this R-rated WTF-er. There hasn't been anything like this since ["Blame Canada" from] South Park, and that was 1999.
MENKEN: But [if it gets nominated], how are they gonna present on the show?
SLATER: You'd have a song that's all bleeps! If they want us to write a censored version, sure.