Behind the Scenes with Stars from Bullets Over Broadway
We spoke with actors Michael Williams and Jemma Jane about their roles in the musical, now showing at PPAC.
Bullets Over Broadway, the musical adapted from Woody Allen’s 1994 film of the same name, follows the story of David Shayne, who (looking for funding) casts Olive, the talentless girlfriend of mobster Nick Valenti, in his Broadway production. The play was originally brought to the stage by five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman, who directed and choreographed the musical. And now, it’s showing at the Providence Performing Arts Center May 31–June 5.
The stars of the show, Jemma Jane (Olive Neal) and Michael Williams (David Shayne) sat down with Rhode Island Monthly to talk controversy, challenges of being on tour — and dancing hot dogs:
Carly: Tell me a little bit about your roles in the play.
Michael: I play the role of David Shayne. The story is sort of centered around his journey of trying to get his play produced on Broadway. He embodies the theme of the show, which is, “How much are you willing to compromise for your art?” So he starts off very high-and-mighty about never [compromising]. Something that the director keenly pointed out is that by the end of every single scene that he’s in, he’s compromised more and more, so it’s certainly a zany journey he goes on throughout that process.
Jemma: I guess my character, Olive Neal, is one of those compromises! She is the girlfriend of mobster boss Nick Valenti, and she wants to be a star. She comes from Jersey and she has this nasally accent that goes along with that. She’s not book-smart, by any means, and that’s shown throughout the show—and mocked. But she is very strong-willed, determined, fierce — and street smart. Her tragic flaw is her inability to see how her actions affect people around her. She’s very childlike and naïve, but she’s never malicious. She never wants bad things for others. She just fails to realize that there are consequences to your actions.
Carly: What kind of research did you do for your roles?
Michael: I actually pull a lot from myself for David. He’s very much an idealist and wants things to go a very particular way and breaks down when they don’t. And I relate to him very much that way. [Jemma and I] are fresh out of school so we had a clear sense, respectively, of what to expect on a tour. But for me, a lot of things were thrown out the window or expanded…. Susie Stroman was great to give us a dramaturgy packet about some stuff in the time period that would affect what we might see every day. But David’s particular journey is drawn from a lot of my personal experiences.
Jemma: I think that, for Olive, obviously knowing the era and the location. She’s from Jersey and she’s living with gangsters, so you have to do all of that research, but I think character-wise, a lot of it comes from self. I love the character. I think of her as a best friend, and I will miss her when I’m done with this. She’s definitely a part of me. Being with this character for ten months, she’s still growing and still evolving. I was saying to Michael just earlier that I would be foolish to think that I know everything about her or every way that there is to be in this show or to deliver a line. I think it’s the same as it is with yourself. I don’t know everything there is to know about myself and I don’t know everything there is to know about Olive, and if I revisited her in three years, I think I would learn more.
Carly: So the character can surprise you sometimes.
Jemma and Michael: Absolutely!
Jemma: And sometimes, working as Michael and I both do, off of natural impulse — on stage, sometimes something comes out of your mouth that is surprising—or the way that you do something. You don’t expect it to happen that way. And that’s always great, too.
Michael: It keeps the sense of play in check, for sure. It “fundamentalizes” the definition of being in a play — being able to play with other people on stage. It has to be fun for you, as well.
Jemma: Especially with a long contract like this. It can’t get stale.
Carly: Bullets Over Broadway is the farthest thing from stale. In typical Woody Allen fashion, it’s a controversial show… with a lot of mixed reviews.
Jemma: It’s an art form, so everyone’s going to have a different opinion on it. And the point of art is not to make people happy. It’s to affect them. It doesn’t matter in what way that is. I guessMichael and I are in the same boat coming right out of college and [playing] such strong, controversial characters in a strong, controversial show. But I’ve learned I’d rather play [those roles] and take those risks and have extremes of positive feedback and negative feedback, than play it safe and get safe criticism.
Carly: If the controversy isn’t enough to draw you in, why else people should come to see Bullets Over Broadway at PPAC?
Jemma: Dancing hot dogs. Tap-dancing gangsters. And lots of spit-takes from Michael.
Michael: Quintessential musical comedy with a splash of Woody Allen. And guaranteed (in some form or fashion) a good time.
Carly: There you have it: It’s a show you won’t want to miss.
Bullets Over Broadway continues at PPAC today through June 5. Tickets start at $54. Tickets are available at the PPAC Box Office at 220 Weybosset St. in Providence, by phone at 401-421-2787, and online at ppacri.org.