Vincent Pastore of 'The Sopranos' plays a new gangster in 'Bullets over Broadway'
By Ronni Reich/The Star-Ledger
on April 06, 2014 at 12:02 AM, updated April 06, 2014 at 12:25 AM
“Everybody says to me, ‘You’re always playing gangsters,’ ” he says.
“You tell me two gangsters that I play the same.”
Known to “Sopranos” fans as Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, the burly, bulldog-faced, plain-spoken Pastore has taken part in the TV movies “Gotti” and “Witness to the Mob” and appeared on “General Hospital” as mobster Maximus Giambetti.
His latest stint does involve a character with a hit man at his disposal — but it’s safe to say that this looks like a departure.
Pastore, 67, can be seen as a song and dance man in “Bullets Over Broadway,” the new Broadway musical based on the 1994 Woody Allen film of the same name. Allen wrote the show’s book and Tony winner Susan Stroman of “The Producers” directs and choreographs.
Pastore plays Nick Valenti — in the movie, Joe Vitarelli — a speakeasy owner who exacts deadly revenge on those who cross him. He sets the drama in motion when he agrees to fund a Broadway debut work by rising playwright David Shayne (Zach Braff) — on the condition that his club dancer girlfriend Olive (Heléne Yorke) gets to star.
Marin Mazzie appears as diva Helen Sinclair and Betsy Wolfe is David’s girlfriend Ellen. Matters get more complicated when the bodyguard Cheech, who Nick hires to watch over Olive, gets involved with creative decisions.
Unlike other recent movie-inspired musicals, this one draws on songs from the Great American Songbook that suit its 1929 setting; it sounds not unlike one of Allen’s expertly curated soundtracks.
Sharing calamari and a Mediterranean salad at Angus’ Café Bistro near the St. James Theatre, Pastore reflects on his career and his latest project.
“I was in community theater in ’74, ’75 and I always stayed with it as the years went by,” he says. “I’ve done every musical you can think of.”
He began his film career in 1987 but kept fidelity to the stage. In 1997, he made his Broadway debut as Amos Hart in “Chicago” and he later appeared in “Guys and Dolls” — his favorite show — as Big Julie in Indianapolis. He performed the narrator Fat Frankie in “The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream,” and has written a play, “Wild Children,” which sold out the Nyack Village Theater and which he hopes to bring to an off-Broadway theater soon.
Valenti stands out among Pastore’s other roles for the time period and the tone of the show. And, as a guy willing to do anything for his girl — even buy her stardom — isn’t he something of a romantic?
“He’s a sucker,” Pastore says.
“And she’s a gold-digger,” he adds of Olive, and suggests that a different approach to the score could have included a certain Kanye West song.
Pastore has not returned to the movie to prepare his role, but to classic films such as “The Public Enemy” with James Cagney, and, for inspiration on the relationship between Olive and Nick, “Born Yesterday” with Judy Holliday and William Holden. The music was also familiar, including his song “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You.”
“Coming from a music background — which a lot of people don’t know I’m from — I knew most of these songs,” he says. “So, it’s really fun to be part of a show like this.”
Like his “Bullets” character, Pastore has worked in nightclubs — in fact, for more than 25 years he worked in several and owned two venues in Westchester. Even though his clubs were rock and disco, rather than Prohibition-era flapper hangouts, he relates to the proprietor’s running the show, buying people drinks — and, as he says in a line he ad-libbed, making sure they leave a tip.
“That world’s easy for me,” he says. “What’s kind of tough for me is when I step into the other side of Nick ’cause he’s very dark, he’s a killer.”
Adding to the challenge is that even when Nick is screaming on the phone, he needs to be funny. It’s Woody Allen’s signature style in creating such characters and story lines that made Pastore want to sign on for the show — that, and his history with the director.
“During my audition, I said, ‘I used to do extra work for you.’ ”
“Well, I don’t do extra work no more,” Pastore said.
“You know, it’s like I came full circle,” he continues. “There’s only two guys in New York that you want to work with at that level and that’s Marty Scorsese and Woody Allen.”
On the stage, Stroman holds that kind of status.
“I’m in love with Susan,” Pastore says. “You can print that. She’s been an angel in my life since the moment I met her.”
“She said to us, ‘You guys are a family now. Enjoy yourself. If somebody gets sick, help them.’ Who talks to the actors like that? She comes to your dressing room prior to your performance, she climbs the steps and comes in to encourage you.”
Pastore is still recognized for “The Sopranos” on the street and he sees how pivotal the show has been in his career.
“We all miss Jimmy,” he said of James Gandolfini. “We miss him so much. A lot of times when you hit the stage, you think about how you got there, and I got there because of the success of ‘The Sopranos.’ ”
In the show’s Playbill, he dedicates his performance to Gandolfini. He wears a watch that used to belong to the actor, inscribed with the show’s dates.
“My two years with Jimmy were like learning to be an actor every day,” he says. “He taught me so much.
“Jimmy would not let you walk away from a scene unless you were happy. A lot of actors deliver and get their stuff out but Jimmy would say, ‘Vinnie, are you okay? You want another take? You wanna go rehearse some of this stuff tomorrow?’ He was like that till the end.”
Pastore is proud to still be associated with the role.
“I think it’s an honor that I worked for only two years on a show that ran for seven and my character was able to endure,” he says.
“But hopefully with ‘Bullets,’ some of that will fade away and people will maybe accept me as a legitimate actor.”
He hopes to eventually go to the West End with the show, and says he wouldn’t mind singing “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You” for years on end. For now, the musical provides a joyful experience. When he’s off-duty, he sings the show’s surprise finale number to his 3-year-old granddaughter.
“I want her to experience seeing Grandpa on Broadway,” he says. “I’m hoping I’ll be there when she’s old enough to come and see.
“That’s one of the reasons why we do this. It’s really not for the money. You do it for your family, for your friends. … We’re making somebody happy out there.”
©Vincent Pastore 2009
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