Nick Cordero just can’t seem to shake Chazz Palminteri. The two first met when Cordero was starring as Cheech in the musical adaptation of Bullets Over Broadway, the role Palminteri originated in the 1994 Woody Allen film, and Palminteri was looking for an actor to portray gangster Sonny LoSpecchio in the musical of A Bronx Tale, Palminteri’s semi-autobiographical one-man-show-turned-movie (He played Sonny in the movie).
“When they first approached me, I was literally playing Chazz as a gangster in a musical on Broadway, and they’re like, ‘We have a great idea. We want you to play Chazz Palminteri as a gangster in a musical!’ And I was like ‘Umm…,’” Cordero says with a laugh. The story follows a young boy, Calogero, who witnesses a gang-related crime, and he develops a friendship with an influential gangster involved in the incident. However, Cordero initially suggested taking on the role of the boy’s father, played by Robert De Niro in the film, as he wanted to play a different type of character.
“We had a conversation about the difference between the two roles, and how they’re different guys, different times, different scenarios. The great thing about Cheech is his singularity, his focus, and his determination on one thing,” explains Cordero. “With Sonny, he’s a little more of a conflicted character. He’s chosen a path in life that is a little precarious, a little dangerous, a little on the dark side. He’s at a time in his life where he’s looking back at the choices he’s made and wondering whether or not they were the right ones, and he looks at Calogero as a chance for redemption.”
Now Cordero is enjoying being back in the gangster shoes eight times a week as Sonny in A Bronx Tale, which is playing at the Longacre Theatre, and he’s thrilled to be working with some of his heroes. Palminteri penned the musical’s book and De Niro produced the show and directed with Jerry Zaks, and Alan Menken composed the score.
“Growing up, I watched the movie many times, and when I was a teenager, just discovering acting and it being what I wanted to do, DeNiro and Chaz and all those guys were pretty central in that education,” he says. “I was a big fan of it then and the fact that I get to do this now is remarkable.
While Cordero’s six-foot-five frame can make him seem imposing to many—especially since his character doesn’t speak for a while at the beginning of the show—the actor is anything but scary. On a rainy Friday afternoon, the actor enthusiastically greets everyone working on the photoshoot, and his shawl collar cardigan, jeans, and boots are a far cry from the shark skin suit he wears onstage. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy embracing his dark side, since he tends to get cast as slightly villainous characters.
“It’s fun to play villains, but what I like to do is tell a bit of a story about why they’re that way,” he explains. “No one’s really born that way—life and circumstance create the character—I like to kind of show a little humanity, a little bit of a softer side if I can, because people don’t really expect that.”
But in real life, it’s hard to find a hard edge on Cordero. He just got engaged the weekend before our interview, and his joy shows no signs of waning when he talks about his fiancée. He rented a house in Woodstock on her birthday and proposed the next morning at a mansion on a hill overlooking the Hudson River.
“I was shaking like a leaf!” Cordero says of his nerves. “It was great. It was like just the two of us surrounded by this gorgeous view, and it was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, and she had no idea what i was doing.”
When he’s not onstage, Cordero enjoys playing music with his band, Other Courage, and he and his fiancée have two dogs and enjoy frequenting wine bars and pizza joints in their neighborhood. Though despite the roles he’s cast in and his choice dining options, Cordero has no Italian heritage. (He grew up in Canada, and his dad is from Costa Rica and his mom is Canadian.)
“I’ve been told that there are Italian Corderos, so I don’t want to pop the bubble,” he says with a smile. “If you want to think I’m Italian, go for it.”