May 21, 2019

Director Jerry Zaks Brings ‘A Bronx Tale’ to L.A.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Originally conceived as a one-man show and first presented nearly 30 years ago in Los Angeles, Chazz Palminteri’s “A Bronx Tale” will come full circle when the Broadway musical version opens at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre on Nov. 6. Director Jerry Zaks has been involved with the show since 2007, from the solo play’s Broadway production through the musical’s debut there in 2016. 

Set in New York in the 1960s, the coming-of-age story follows a young man torn between loyalty to his workingman father’s values and the temptations of organized crime. “Its father-son story is universal and timeless, easily translatable to any culture, to anyone,” Zaks told the Journal. “It’s about a kid who witnesses a murder when he’s 8 years old, and how that affects the events of his life. It’s dramatic, it’s funny and it has great, unique characters. It’s so honestly observed and imaginative.”

Palminteri (who played all the characters in the one-man version) and Robert De Niro turned “A Bronx Tale” into a hit movie in 1993. “A lot of people wanted the rights to do the film but none of them wanted Chazz to act in it, except Bob,” Zaks said. 

De Niro made his directorial debut with the film, and three years later he starred with Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep in “Marvin’s Room,” which Zaks directed. The two became friends, co-directed Palminteri’s Broadway play 11 years ago and continued their collaboration on the musical version.

“It was an unusual situation, having two directors, but it worked because we made it work and we had mutual respect,” Zaks said. The musical version adds song and dance, of course, “but the characters, the relationships and the events are all the same.”

Zaks, a four-time Tony Award winner for directing “The House of Blue Leaves,” “Lend Me a Tenor,” “Six Degrees of Separation” and the 1992 revival of  “Guys and Dolls,” also directed Broadway productions of “Hello, Dolly,” “La Cage aux Folles,” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”

“What I was looking for in the shul I found in the theater, the ecstasy and joy of telling a story.”

— Jerry Zaks

Growing up in Patterson, N.J., Zaks “had no interest in seeing Broadway shows.” While attending Dartmouth College with plans to become a doctor, he saw a production of “Wonderful Town” and promptly dropped pre-med for English and theater classes.  

“My parents were shocked. They were in mourning. It was a big deal. But they came around,” he said, recalling a later stint in “Fiddler on the Roof” as Motel the Tailor. “They came backstage and met Zero Mostel. My father talked to him in Yiddish for about 20 minutes.”

Zaks, who also played Kenickie in “Grease” on tour and on Broadway, acted for 10 years before segueing into directing. “I was a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre off-Broadway and they asked me to direct,” he said. “I got the bug then. I loved acting. But acting is terrifying. You’re totally exposed. When you direct you’re conceiving it, shaping it, like a sculpture. They’re two completely different but very fulfilling jobs.”

The son of Polish Holocaust survivors, Zaks was born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1946, and immigrated to the United States with his parents 20 months later. “My mother spent a year in Auschwitz, and my father spent the war running from the Nazis with phony identities. They grew up together in the same town, both managed to survive, and were reunited after the war,” he said. “My mother was in a recovery camp situation and my father tracked her down and nursed her back to health. I was the miracle child.”

Zaks characterized his upbringing as “very Jewish. My parents spoke Yiddish to my brother and me and insisted that we speak English to them, so I could understand Yiddish but couldn’t speak it very well,” he said.

The son of people who had lived with terror, he “grew up terrified of everything and anyone that was different than we were,” Zaks said. “It’s been a life’s work to overcome that fear, to accept people that are different than I am and to embrace that and learn tolerance. I’m still working on it. That’s why I love the world of the theater. It’s all sorts of people working together. It doesn’t matter what you look like or what your sexual orientation is. All that really matters is that you’re good at what you do.”

Joe Barbara and Frankie Leoni, Joan Marcus, Bronx Tale, LA, Broadway, Jewish Journal

Joe Barbara and Frankie Leoni. Photo by Joan Marcus

The theater provided a sense of community and connection that he’d “lost sight of once I was bar mitzvahed. What I was looking for in the shul I found in the theater, the ecstasy and joy of telling a story,” he said. While he attends only the occasional High Holy Days service nowadays, “my Jewishness is in my kishkes, and it informs everything I do. It’s part of who I am, how I think and how I tell a story.”

The father of two grown daughters, Zaks currently has a movie project in the works, will direct John Larroquette in John Guare’s new play “Nantucket Sleighride” at Lincoln Center in February, and is developing a musical adaptation of the movie “Mrs. Doubtfire.” 

Asked to consider the secret of his success, Zaks laughed and responded in Yiddish. “Ver vaist? (Who knows?). I think it’s persistence. I’ve been described as relentless. And luck. And I love what I do. I’ve accumulated over time a lot of knowledge about my craft and I love sharing it with people.”

“A Bronx Tale” runs Nov. 6-25 at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre.