It’s 1929 and nightlife is thriving. Flappers are flapping. Gangsters are ganging. Playwrights are writing plays and getting mixed up with shady deals. Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath first took their comedic writing of Bullets Over Broadway to the screen in 1994. But the film-turned-musical made its way to Broadway in 2014, and now Chicago will be graced with the flashing lights and laugh-out-loud dialogue that Allen is known for.
The PHOENIX spoke with one of the stars of the production, Emma Stratton, who plays Helen Sinclair — an aging diva manipulating her way to the top of the cast.
“The show is about a writer named David, who is a playwright and he’s been writing shows for years and years and can’t get any traction,” Stratton said. “And finally, he finds a producer who will produce his show.”
Producer Julian Marx (Rick Grossman) finds funding for David’s play through Nick Valenti (Michael Corvino), a local gangster. The caveat? Valenti will only fund the production if his harlot girlfriend, Olive (Jemma Jane), gets a role. But according to Stratton, Valenti’s girlfriend has no talent.
Stratton’s character only further complicates an already complex plot.
“Helen is an aging diva who has been working her whole life but the last three years has been nothing but flops,” Stratton said. “She kind of takes [David] under her wing and convinces him to ‘cut this’ and ‘add this’ for her character … so she can make a comeback.”
Stratton, a young performer who recently graduated from Penn State University with a degree in musical theater, researched classic actresses so she could depict a woman far older than herself.
“There are a lot of old films and actresses like Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard — characters like this that I needed to research just to see how an ‘older’ woman held herself in ,” she said.
Although the costumes and makeup certainly help with Stratton’s transformation, the 24-year-old had to also “strip away all the contemporary” from herself so she could be immersed in the 1929 Broadway scene.
“It kind of is a perfect musical because it’s a Woody Allen script that everybody loves,” Stratton said. “On top of that, having Susan Stroman direct and choreograph … it kind of just makes for the perfect night at the theater.”
Renowned Broadway director Susan Stroman originally directed the play in 2014 and contributed the choreography for the Chicago production.
According to Stratton, the upbeat singing, dancing and hilarity adds to the glory of the production, but there’s also a deeper message that will hopefully make audience members think.
“There’s such an intelligence to [Allen’s] movies and his writing,” she said. “And I think that you’ll walk out of the theater thinking about how beautiful the production is, but also going away with the thought of … how the show has to do with what you’re willing to compromise for your art.”
Bullets Over Broadway runs through May 1 at the PrivateBank Theatre (18 W. Monroe St.). Tickets are $16 to $77 and are available at broadwayinchicago.com.