You can take the Italian girl (me) out of Yonkers, NY, but she still loves Dion and eats macaroni and meatballs on Sunday afternoon. And, if she is lucky enough to get tickets to the off-Broadway show Romeo & Bernadette, A Musical Tale of Verona & Brooklyn written by Mark Saltzman, she will be in a wonderland of fun. “Un-Block The Music” is not alone, the show is a hit. Romeo & Bernadette played a limited engagement at the Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres, but on March 17 it begins an open-ended run at its new home, Theatre Row (Theatre 2). This theater is double the size!
“Un-Block the Music,” caught up with Mark to, not only talk about the show, but to find out a little about the man who wrote it and his path to off-Broadway. It all started in Yonkers where he worked his way through school in a band called The Ultimates. “We did okay. I played the keyboards. By garage band standards, we were pretty successful. I didn’t have to be a cashier in the supermarket. I got to skip that which was a luxury.” Mark knew he wanted to be a writer, so when he went to Cornell he earned a degree in English.
Mark’s path to musical theater came from an unsuspecting place. “I wrote material for a revue called A… my name is Alice which played off Broadway. One of the cast members was Alaina Reed Hall who played ‘Olivia’ on Sesame Street. She liked the way I wrote for her. She told me I would continue to write for her on Sesame Street. No one said ‘no’ to Alaina,” Mark laughs. “I said, ‘Yes ma’am!’” Mark also wrote for another of Sesame Street’s stars, Kermit The Frog. I know you all remember the song “Caribbean Amphibian”!
As for Romeo & Bernadette, it started out as a screenplay, but Mark says, “it was too good to die in development hell. I thought it would be a great musical. I didn’t want someone to write fake Italian music. I would have hated that.” So, he took familiar Italian songs and updated the lyrics. Although Mark isn’t Italian by birth, he says the New York sensibility has everyone belonging to all ethnic groups. The music was part of his childhood too. “I love this music, and I get to listen to it every day at rehearsal. It makes me so happy all of the time,” he says.
So how does Romeo fit into 1960’s Brooklyn? After Romeo (played by Nikita Burshteyn) wakes up from his fake death in Verona, he meets Bernadette (played by Anna Kostakis) on vacation there. The story unfolds as he chases her back to Brooklyn believing she is his beloved Juliet. Bernadette, however, is the beautiful, foul-mouthed daughter of a crime family. I suspect even Shakespeare would laugh out loud.
Before starting “Un-Block The Music,” much of the work I did at Billboard Magazine was tributes to artists and bands celebrating anniversaries. There isn’t a lot of that now. Through no fault of their own, a lot of artists have one album, never to be see again. So, Mark Saltzman’s homage to the Italian music of the 60s really hits home. “I want to make sure the next generation can find this music which is so easy to vanish in pop culture,” he says. The young actor playing Dino (Michael Notardonato), the 1960s singer look alike, “had to study the music like it was Beethoven. He had to listen to how Bobby Darin and Bobby Rydell pushed their notes, Mark say. In addition to that pop music, the show also has an opera component. “One night, I saw a group of 15-year-olds in the audience When Romeo started singing opera on the balcony, they were transfixed!”
“Un-Block The Music” always asks advice from interviewees for up and coming professionals. Mark says, it’s funny how things work. Who would have known Sesame Street would be a link to Mark finding his way to off-Broadway with his own show? “There is no set path. There is nothing to learn. You make your own path. Don’t look at other people’s path as your model.” While Romeo & Bernadette has played in New Jersey and Seoul Korea, there hadn’t been a New York production until now. It took a New Yorker, like Donna Trinkoff, the artistic director at Amas Musical Theatre, to pull it together with producer Eric Krebs and director Justin Ross Cohen, says Mark. Amas, by the way, is in its 51st year and is devoted to the creation, development and professional production of new American musicals. (https://www.amasmusical.org/).
Mark says, to succeed in theater, “take the opportunities as they come.” That advice is true for everything. “Un-Block The Music” recommends you take the opportunity to see Romeo & Bernadette A Musical Tale of Verona & Brooklyn. Tickets go on sale through Telecharge starting March 1 (https://www.telecharge.com/). Yellow Sound Label will set down tracks for the original cast recording.
Just a side note: The theater community is so small. As “Un-Block the Music” explores the shows, I find connecting threads. You may have recently read my stories on Paul Rudolph’s All Hallow’s Eve. Like Mark, Paul is another Sesame Street alumni. Check out these stories, and if you haven’t already, follow this blog by scrolling down and pressing “follow” on the right hand side. So many great stories to come!!