AISLE SAY New York
Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Based on the screenplay by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks
Directed and Choreographed by Susan Stroman
Starring Roger Bart, Shuler Helmsley, Andrea Martin,
Sutton Foster, Christopher Fitzgerald,
Megan Mullally and Fred Applegate
Directed and Choreographed by Susan Stroman
Hilton Theatre / 42nd Street at 7th Avenue
Reviewed by David Spencer
Part of loving the musical of The Producers, and I do, unabashedly, is forgiving it. Forgiving it a certain amount of self-satisfaction, forgiving it not always landing optimally without actors of star wattage playing the lead roles, forgiving a score comprised primarily of novelty songs and special material-type numbers masquerading as a true musical theatre score—we won't even get into forgiving the lackluster film adaptation.
Because I did forgive it, I won't rake it over the coals for its infractions here—well, all right, I started to do so in an earlier draft, but it seemed out of proportion; we're supposed to be focusing on the show that followed here. Although in a way, one of the reasons why I forgave The Producers nearly everything was knowing that a singular and alchemical mix of the right creative team, the right gestalt and the right material, had created it. And I knew, even as I was watching, that Mel Brooks could never follow it. Not with the craft and savvy of a seasoned musical dramatist.
The Producers was the first blush explosion of an old showbiz pro, it tapped into all his most familiar and foolproof comic, absurdist and irreverent reflexes; plus his ethnic background; plus arguably his most beloved and original characters; plus a story whose execution was so gleefully un-PC that hammering home an obvious joke with a musical number (such as "Keep It Gay"); sore-thumb patches of lazy lyric writing (weak rhymes; flat [and even dramatically contradictory] jokes [i.e. "We jete'd them out the door"? I didn't see any sub-par dancers up there, did you?]; playing the "sexy showgirls are desirable" card three songs in a row); all seemed to validate the gag-machine, throw-it-all-against-the-wall, I'm workin on instinct here approach. And the score, musically, was unusually strong for a "hummer" score. (Mr. Brooks neither arranged nor notated, but rather dictated his melodies to "musical supervisor" Glen Kelley, who really did the grunt work of harmonization and arrangement, and thus literal composition. And like most hummers, bereft of the tools schooled composers have, Brooks defaulted to the familiar genre song styles and foursquare song structures he was conversant with as models. But because The Producers was all about lampooning archetypes and icons, and because Brooks had been storing all this up for most of his career, and could approach the task with the freshness of a newcomer, he had a versatile enough catalog of styles to choose from. As I say, with The Producers, the stars were in alignment.)
But that kind of lightning never strikes twice, because the conditions allowing for that kind of luck can never be replicated. The curse of the hummer composer/casual lyricist is that he moves onto new projects carrying the old bag of tricks. And one size never fits all, not in the musicals game. Each show defines its own territory. You can carry your own imprimatur from one show to the next (most writers do), but the techniques of dramaturgy and song implementation must mold to the needs of the tale being told, not the other way around.
Which is what's at the root of Young Frankenstein being so disappointing. There's even more self-satisfaction to it than to its predecessor, as if the success that befell The Producers would of course bless Young Frankenstein too, so one gets the impression (accurately or not) that Brooks either didn't or couldn't work as hard on it. (Years ago, one of the wisest theatre men I know commented on the work of a writer sounding "lazy" to him. I replied, "Well, [the fellow] isn't lazy, he works so much." And the sage replied, "No, no. It has the veneer of industriousness. But it's lazy." And I knew exactly what guru was describing: the difference between conceiving something richly, fully and phoning it in.)
(For the purposes of what follows, I'm just going to assume, by the way, that you all know the musical Young Frankenstein is based on the Mel Brooks film of the same name, written by Brooks and Gene Wilder [who also starred in the title role]; and assume, because it's such an iconic bit of cinema, that most of you are familiar with the film [as most of you knew the film of The Producers], and not summarize plot here. For the uninitiated, suffice it to say merely that it's the tale of how the American modern-day descendant of a mad scientist travels back to Transylvania to claim an inheritance, and gets pulled into recreating his grandfather's experiments.)
It's not that Young Frankenstein isn't entertaining, because if you don't demand that it be as good as it's supposed to be, it amuses. It isn't dull, it's respectful of its source material, there's more than competence and passion for the project evident everywhere, you smile at it, laugh some—it just doesn't...I don't know how better to put this...it just doesn't earn itself.
First of all, Brooks is defaulting to trademark signatures rather than re-investigating his material from the inside out. His leading man in The Producers had a dexterity patter section in his first song; sure enough, Young Frederick Frankenstein has a dexterity-patter section in his. The crazy German playwright in The Producers sings "Old, I'm talkin' old Bavaria"; sure enough, the blind Hermit in the woods builds his song about needing companionship to a fever pitch and exclaims "Oh, Lord, we're talkin' lonely here!" What turns these moments into infractions is that they swap out character for gimmick and generic routine.
Perhaps even more distressing than those are the songs that celebrate famous lines and explain the jokes. Frau Blcher has her famous exclamation about Frederick's grandfather, "Yes! Yes! He was my boyfriend!!!" Then the music kicks into Kurt Weill mode and she sings a song called, you guessed it, "He Was My Boyfriend." (Musical Theatre 101: if you're going to make a thing of a reveal, the reveal comes within the song, the sung refrain should be the first time the audience hears it. But of course, then you'd have to conceive the song to actually lead up to it with substantive context, to make it both a payoff and a premise in which what the Frau is really doing is justifying her behavior in her lover's memory—but that would mean dealing in subtext, rewriting the scene before it and losing a Favorite Movie Moment and nahhhh, too much work.) Then there's the moment in which Frederick's fianc Elizabeth bids him farewell as he's off to Transylvania, and as he leans in to kiss her, she pulls away and says "Lipstick!" Okay, we get this. She's a tease, utterly self-absorbed and frigid. A few variations of the gag are repeated ("Hair!" "Taffeta!"), and the movie leaves it at that. But in the musical, after Frederick leaves, she launches into a song, titled, right again, "Please Don't Touch Me!" (Musical Theatre 101: The song you should sing here is about her obsession with image over "messy" passion, and what's at stake for her if she sacrifices the one for the other—because you're setting her up to be [happily] ravaged by the Monster mid-Act Two and transformed into a sex-hungry predator...but no, Mr. Brooks intentionally attenuates a one-joke gag and unintentionally so cheapens the character that a bloated stroke of detail substitutes for genuine inner life. Exactly where musicals are supposed to add depth, Brooks subtracts it. Adding only er, um, call it thinth.) Then there's the big, scary nightmare ballet in which Frederick is haunted by his ancestors who go into a hora entreating him to "Join the Family Business"...I mean, look, ain't nobody saying the original film didn't wink at us all the time, but it winked at clichs of the old Monster Movie genre—it didn't wink at its own winking! Which of course is only a form of wanking.
And in overall consideration, the score is finally as evanescent as an Alka Seltzer tablet. Familiar and forgettable, because none of it is really rooted in character and story or genuinely meaningful musical profile (i.e. upon meeting, Frederick and Igor do a showbiz specialty number called "Together Again for the First Time"). Even "musical supervisor" Glen Kelly, who so brilliantly found the "educated" musical heart and soul of Mr. Brooks's hummery in The Producers hasn't, here, found a cohesive musical language to keep it from sounding like a hodgepodge grab bag of arbitrary song types.
In the book, Mr. Brooks—again with Thomas Meehan, who likewise guided him through re-envisioning The Producers—are less inventive than previously in truly renovating their source material for the stage; but they have made that material agreeably stageworthy, in replicating its structural spine in theatrical terms, so the evening holds together coherently. Not an easy task to have pulled off.
The design team (scenery: Robin Wagner, costumes: William Ivey Long, lighting: Peter Kaczorowski, and many noble others) have done a splendid job of making YF fun to look at, from the Transylvania village to the baroquely ominous lab to the lecture hall that becomes a burlesque stage.
As to the cast...well, they're divided into two groups; those who manage to make the roles their own and those who, largely due to the insufficiencies of the material, are in the shadow of the film. In the first category, the seemingly indestructible can-do-no-wrong comedienne Andrea Martin (Frau Blcher) is joined by the similarly redoubtable Sutton Foster (Inga) and, if not re-defining Igor then agreeably paraphrasing him, Christopher Fitzgerald. In the title role, Roger Bart is manic and amusing, sometimes a little shrill, but never gets close to the thrill of genuine insanity threatening to explode, mixed with a tempering sweetness and befuddlement, that informed Gene Wilder. Megan ("Please Don't Touch Me") Mullaley can't compete with Madeleine Kahn because she's saddled with a problem previously described. As for the Monster of Shuler Hensley: when he has to do exactly what Peter Boyle did, you think of how Peter Boyle did it. When he has moments that are newly created—such as the extensions to his primal scream rendition of Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz"—he's his own creature. (Oh, yes, that "Ritz" moment. Musical Theatre 101: Never quote in your show, much less use in its entirety, a famous song by a writer who's a lot more talented than you are, because it'll put every song you've written into the harshest possible relief.) And dual-cast Fred Applegate (a former Broadway Bialystock) falls into both camps: He holds his own against Gene Hackman's Hermit, but not against Kenneth Mars' Inspector Kemp.
As if to put the capper on everything, Brooks also provides us with a little goodbye song (just as he did for The Producers) in which the cast gleefully teases us with the suggestion that Blazing Saddles might well be next. Oh, that it has come to this: the desire to have us leave a musical humming the trademarks...