Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Based on the screenplay by Mel Brooks
Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Musical Arrangements and Supervision by Glen Kelly
Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick
St. James Theatre / 246 West 44th Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

They show up every now and again: musicals whose measure of success goes by a different yardstick. You know the score isn’t very strong musically or lyrically, but the songs are positioned to perfection (most of them anyway) and about the right things, and the storytelling is so compelling that you can do naught but submit to an inarguable gestalt created by the right people in the right room with the right material at the same time. Such is "The Producers".

"The Producers" has yet another distinction that sets it apart from even those odd duck successes with which it can proudly keep company. It is–and I don’t believe I’m exaggerating or being hyperbolic–the funniest book musical to tread the boards. Ever. My friend and colleague Patrick Cook made the most astute observation about it. He said it hearkened to the bygone era when songs from a musical would be "covered" by the pop recording industry, such that the audience would sometimes go into the theatre already knowing the score, or at least its liftable highlights. The difference here being that the audience are not coming to hear familiar songs, but rather, incredibly, to hear familiar jokes. Mel Brooks’ first film "The Producers", opened small in 1968, to mixed notices, but it earned Mr. Brooks an Academy Award for best original screenplay and it grew slowly into a cult film and, with the advent of videotape, into an acknowledged comedy masterpiece. (The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted it as #11 on their list of 100 funniest films ever made. And at that they were scoring a few notches low.) It is a movie that many know nearly, or entirely, by heart, and certainly one that people in the theatre consider mandatory. To be sure, there are new jokes aplenty, and some smart structural reconfiguring, as inevitable in any good cinema-to-stage translation–but the old jokes, the ripostes so many of us can recall at the slightest hint of a straight-line or resonant context, produce laughter that is every bit as hearty. There is an affection for this story, and its irreverence about–well, about nearly everything it touches–that has created enormous good will, a good will that extends its serendipitous gestalt to the audience. And while I find nothing to celebrate in its introduction of a new $100 top ticket price, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you that it isn’t worth it.

We all know the story: Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) is a Broadway producer down on his luck. Once the King of Broadway, his recent career has been reduced to a string of ruinous flops. It is only when a mousy accountant, Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) going over his books idly mutters the magic words–"Under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit"–that Max sees the path to a new kind of success open to him. He persuades Leo to be his partner, and together they endeavor to find "the worst play ever written." Which turns out to be "Springtime for Hitler" subtitled "a gay romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchdesgaden" written by an unregenerate ex-Nazi German expatriate, Franz Liebkind (Brad Oscar). The plays rights secured, Bialystock and Bloom set about engaging the worst director in the business–and once they get past his über-queen watch-cat (with hiss to match), Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart), they solicit his participation too. He is Roger DeBris (Gary Beach)–whose name says it all. All the pieces are in place for total disaster. So of course…

If half the giddy fun of "The Producers" lies in the familiar jokes and plot, the other half lies in the surprises the creative team keep in hiding, that have to do with transforming the tale into a musical as gaudy and shameless as "Springtime…" itself. (I’m gathering that much of the renovation has to do with Thomas Meehan, who was requested by Mr. Brooks to be his co-author on this venture, and who was, according to recent interviews, the guru of theatrical structure, guiding Mr. Brooks’ divine madness along a more stageworthy path.)

Ulla (Cady Huffman), the Swedish "secretary" has been made something of a love interest for Bloom–and the most aware of her theatrical environment. When a shy Bloom crosses away from her, she coos, Swedishly, "Bloom? Why you cross so far downstage right?"

And the character of Lorenzo St. Dubois (Dick Shawn in the movie) has been dropped (Meehan has said he thought L.S.D. had become a dated character, and if he weren’t, the overage hippie would nonetheless be an anachronism in the current scheme of things: the tale is now set in 1959). But not to worry; an artful solution using established characters has been wrought with commensurate lunacy, and "That’s our Hitler!" still rings out with justifiable triumph.

Arguably the biggest structural change occurs in the section following "Springtime"’s opening night–here events have not only been reconfigured, but reinvented from the ground up–lower on plot, higher on character, allowing the two stars their eleven o’clock moments.

Mel Brooks’ new music and lyrics are somewhat better than top-drawer special material, somewhat less good than top-drawer musical theatre-writing. Few rhymes surprise (though he has some delightfully naughty couplets) and the tunes are aggressively those of a "hummer" (a fellow with an instinctive musical sense but no real musical literacy, who hums his crudely wrought tunes to an arranger–in this case the brilliant Glen Kelly–who then does the real compositional work of harmonizing, creating accompaniment figures, etc.). But as much as Franz Liebkind’s play is "practically a love letter to Hitler"–as Max points out–"The Producers" is, most definitively, Mr. Brooks’ love letter to Broadway, and a bygone, roaringly old-fashioned approach. Few of the songs take us anywhere new: rather, they explicate what we already know. But again, it doesn’t matter. This is one of those gestalt musicals, remember, and the level of joy and extravagant naughtiness is so high that dramaturgy is not the point. The point is how high any given number can up the ante. Most of them "up" it pretty good.

And, predictably, that grand mistress of choreographic innovation, Susan Stroman–who also masterfully directed–has lent her conceptual brilliance to extending the low comedy world of Mel Brooks into a high art articulation of movement and gimmickry: showgirls pop out of filing cabinets, caged pigeons do wing extensions (one even throws a Nazi salute–single wing); the little old ladies (Max’s backers) do Rockette-style patterns with their walkers…and of course, the evening’s musical centerpiece, "Springtime for Hitler" tops the movie rendition–opening out into a hard-sell solo for der Führer called "Heil Myself!"

The performances are spectacularly uninhibited. Nathan Lane, with his particular brand of timing and selective BOMBAST, may not be the only possible successor to Zero Mostel in the role (he can’t be: no musical has opened this big since "A Chorus Line" and he’ll have to leave the show eventually, not to mention the road companies)–but I defy you to think of anyone else so perfectly suited to it. Matthew Broderick, to my taste, is a bit too affected, especially at the top, but eventually his Bloom settles into something a bit more recognizably human (or perhaps you just get used to him) and he grows on you. Likewise, Cady Huffman’s Ulla, seems a klik or two off on the persona scale–I found myself a little too conscious of an actress at work; plus, she has the weakest number in the show ("When You Got It, Flaunt It"); but in the Brooksiverse, it seems churlish to complain about fine points when there’s a blonde bombshell that gorgeous to look at.

The remaining supporting cast, though, is so on target, you might well paint their faces on the center of bull’s-eyes. The Mssrs. Oscar, Beach and Bart know a good stereotype when they have one to play–and play without restraint or any pretense at tastefulness.

I’ve only once before seen a musical that elicited such constant, force-one guffaws (no, it wasn’t "Forum"–it was a commercially unsuccessful but inspired parody of musical theatre conventions called "Smith", whose take-no-prisoners philosophy was very like that of "The Producers")–but "The Producers" tops even that. This is an evening that I think, quite literally, sets a record for belly-laffs.

About two years ago, I was sent–for some reason I still cannot fathom–a review copy of one of those "End of Days" religious novels that have lately become such a prominent genre of popular fiction. In this one, a particularly goofy-ass entry, Satan resurrects Hitler to be his anti-Christ. At the end of the book, of course, God flings Hitler into the lake of fire where he proceeds to burn, with no relief of any kind, not even the morphia of unconsciousness, alone with his thoughts and his agony, for all eternity. And I suppose that’s pretty bad.

But I think it’s nothing to the justice rendered by a puckish 77 year old Jew, who once created a little, insane fable of showbiz, greed, ambition–and love–whose McGuffin, as it were, will continue to make that Austrian paper hanger look a perfect fool to over 1,000 people eight times a week for many years to come, which will extend to road and international companies, endless stock and amateur productions and a place in revivable musical theatre canon that will live forever. Now that’s hell.

And for the rest of us…heaven…


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