The company of Bullets Over Broadway
The company of Bullets Over Broadway

Play It Again, Santo

One of the great long-running partnerships in New York film and theater is that of Woody Allen and Santo Loquasto.

Allen is, of course, an American icon — a prolific filmmaker, New Yorker wit, jazz musician, and character about town. Then again, Loquasto travels in some pretty fast company himself: The winner of three Tony Awards for scenery or costumes, he has designed two Pulitzer Prize winners (Jason Miller’s That Championship Season and Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers), three Best Play Tony winners (Season, Yonkers, and David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones), and one Best Musical (Fosse). Add to that résumé many more Broadway and Off-Broadway hits, a long relationship with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and productions at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, and you have a career of uncommon accomplishment.

And then there’s Allen, with whom he’s been working since 1980. “The first film I ever did was Simon,” says Loquasto. “It was written and directed by Marshall Brickman, who cowrote Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Sleeper. I guess he recommended me [to Allen] and so I did the costumes for Stardust Memories.” A couple of pictures later, on Radio Days, Loquasto took on the role of production designer. “In total, I’ve done 27 films with him,” he notes, including Bullets Over Broadway in 1994 and, most recently, 2013’s Blue Jasmine.

Now Allen and Loquasto are taking on a new challenge, turning the film comedy Bullets Over Broadway into a Broadway musical, under the direction of hitmaker Susan Stroman (The Producers). One of Allen’s most honored films, cowritten by Douglas McGrath, Bullets is a farcical tale of 1920s Broadway, in which a nebbishy, idealistic playwright tangles with gangsters, a talentless ingénue, and the rapacious diva Helen Sinclair (“Don’t speak!”) on the road to opening night. The stage musical features a book by Allen plus a tunestack of ’20s pop hits. Zach Braff, of TV’s Scrubs, and Marin Mazzie lead a cast of musical theater favorites. Loquasto is the scenic designer.

Allen is, of course, noted for his taciturn ways with actors, most of whom never get to read the full script of his films. “Even when someone is offered a role and they’re allowed to read it,” says Loquasto, “someone waits for them to finish and the script is returned.” Allen is secretive in other ways too: A tight lid is being kept on Bullets Over Broadway’s song list, causing mad speculation among show’s fans. Fortunately, the designer says, their relationship is more collegial. “First of all, I read the script. And then I go through it with him as I would with anyone; he says what he thinks and I say what I think.” Because so many Allen films are set in contemporary Manhattan, the constant challenge is finding fresh locations — not easy in these security-conscious days. The designer says that he recently saw the 1972 Robert Redford crime caper The Hot Rock on television. “It was so much fun to see places that you could never get into today — like the Brooklyn Museum and the steps of the UN. They had an explosion on the steps of the UN! Those days are over unless you have a ton of money.”

It’s a first for Loquasto to be transferring one of his film designs to another medium and, he says, he is pretty much starting from scratch. “I said to Stro [everyone’s nickname for Stroman], ‘I’m not a keeper of the film. This is a whole different animal, and it has to function in a different way.’” Noting that the show draws equally on the landscapes of Broadway and the 1920s underworld, he says he drew visual inspiration from the photographs of Berenice Abbott, famed for shooting between-the-wars New York. She, Loquasto says, is responsible “for all those photographs that everybody looks at, of the streets of New York, under the El, images that are gritty and wet and romantic and dangerous.” His design also reflects a city undergoing a building boom. “American industrial steel is our world,” he adds. And he cites as inspiration a number of early-’30s film classics, including 42nd Street, Twentieth Century, and Broadway, all of which contributed to the gritty yet glossy Manhattan of our collective movie dreams. Those films “are where Stro lives, in a good way,” he says affectionately.

Bullets over Broadway unfolds in a variety of locations, including a nightclub, the hero’s Greenwich Village apartment, and backstage at a Broadway theatre. The play-within-the-musical, called God of Our Fathers in the film, was rendered on screen as a spoof of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, “a funny, abstracted set with expressionist walls and people seen through gauze,” says Loquasto. In the musical, it’s much more of a traditional Long Island drawing room, he notes: “I said to [the show’s costume designer] William Ivey Long, ‘It’s more fun if it’s like Downton Abbey, a grand parlor filled with people holding forth.’” There’s also a car sequence that features the city passing by, and a couple of scenes set in trains. Of course, this is a musical, he notes, “so we have girls tap dancing on top of it.” And not just on the train: He adds, laughing, “I told Stro, ‘If I had known every surface was going to be tapped on, I would have approached it differently!’”

Whatever happens with their new musical — admittedly, one of the season’s most anticipated shows — one suspects that the Allen–Loquasto connection will continue. “I haven’t done any of his European films, even though he nicely asked, because I wasn’t prepared to handle the time commitments,” the designer says. Sounding a bit wistful, he adds, “Last summer, he asked me to do a film in the South of France, but I was deep into Bullets Over Broadway.” He laughs. “I said to him, ‘What do you think I’m doing?’”