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Citizen Woody

Woody Allen insists he's just a regular guy who regularly makes movies about regular people. But, in his latest effort, the characters burst into song.

December 01, 1996|John Clark | John Clark is an occasional contributor to Calendar

UNION CITY, N.J. — There's something oddly familiar about meeting Woody Allen. He's played that compulsively jokey character for so long, it's easy to confuse the role and the person. They are not the same, of course. The real Allen doesn't hide behind one-liners, which makes him both less entertaining and more accessible. In fact, he's shy and almost earnest, even about his phobias.

Take, for example, today's shoot just across the Hudson River from his beloved Manhattan. The quickest way here would have been through the Lincoln Tunnel, but because Allen hates tunnels, he was driven miles out of the way across the George Washington Bridge. On screen, Allen's character would have made a mountain out of this anxiety. In person, his attitude seems to be if you share it, fine. If you don't, that's OK too.

Between shots, Allen sits in a trailer and talks about his newest movie, "Everyone Says I Love You." He has plenty to say on this subject and almost nothing to say about his current project, which, as usual, is closed to the press and is as yet untitled. He's got his trademark get-up on: black framed glasses, brown corduroys, black shoes, gray sweater. His eyes are red-rimmed, and he's got a little stubble.

"I don't have to work today," he says, meaning he doesn't have to act. "That's why I didn't shave. It's a treat day for me. I can just get up, shower and come here."

He had a few treat days while making "Everyone Says I Love You." Though he acts in it--he plays an expatriate novelist unlucky in love--a lot of screen time is given over to other characters, played by Julia Roberts, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Drew Barrymore, Tim Roth, Edward Norton, Lukas Haas, Natasha Lyonne, Natalie Portman and Gaby Hoffman. It's a typical stellar Allen cast engaged in typical Allenesque celebrations and confusions about love. What's atypical is that they express these emotions in song. "Everyone Says I Love You" is a musical.

"I'd always wanted to do some musical things," Allen says. "I could do them tentatively in 'Bullets Over Broadway,' and then we had some choreography in 'Mighty Aphrodite,' and then I figured, 'Why not do that musical you always wanted to do?' I remember many years ago saying to Marshall Brickman, when we were collaborating on 'Annie Hall,' 'What if the characters just sang at a certain point?' And he said, 'Maybe. I don't know how people will take to that.' "


Allen, who turns 61 today, has seldom concerned himself with how people will take to this or that. In the case of "Everyone Says I Love You," audiences face several obstacles. First they have to overcome their resistance to musical conventions--characters bursting into song whenever their hearts or heads are overflowing. Then they have to overcome their expectations that the performers know what they're doing--here, none of the singers can sing and none of the dancers can dance. Julia Roberts drones a version of "All My Life." Allen himself mumbles out "I'm Through With Love." Edward Norton dances with two left feet to "My Baby Just Cares for Me."

"I wanted to do a musical where it was like my parents at their anniversary, where they just dance and your heart goes out to them, but they can't dance," Allen says. "There are times when you're in the shower or your car or at a party and you just sing because you feel good or rhythmical or exuberant or sad--I guess you wouldn't sing if you're sad, except in a musical. But people do sing privately. It's an expression of emotion, and I wanted the actor or actress to act the scene and then, when it came to a certain point, sing the thing rather than just go on with the dialogue. I didn't want to get Pavarotti and Frank Sinatra. I didn't even mention to the actors that it was a musical when I cast them. If that person could sing, fine. If that person couldn't sing, that was fine too."

An example of the former was Goldie Hawn, who was so good that Allen had to take her aside and say, "Take it easy. This is not supposed to be Radio City Music Hall or Las Vegas." On the other hand there was Tim Roth. Apparently music coordinator Dick Hyman called up Allen and expressed reservations about Roth's singing abilities, which, given the vocal limitations of the other actors, is saying something.

"Tim Roth was amazing," Hyman says. "I didn't think he was able to handle it. He learned much better than I gave him credit for."

It was Hyman, incidentally, who had to notify the actors what they were in for. According to Allen, Hyman called them up and said, "I want to get together with you and just rehearse your song a little bit." And the actor would say, "What do you mean, 'my song'?" Allen snickers when he tells this story.

Perhaps Hyman and the actors had the last laugh, though.

"Woody himself approached the music with some trepidation," Hyman says. "I think his was the first thing we did. I think he wanted to see if he was comfortable with it."

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