The Producers

at the Cadillac Palace Theatre

By Albert Williams

“Hope for the best, expect the worst!” bellows a Russian male chorus in The Twelve Chairs, Mel Brooks’s finest but perhaps least known film. I approached Brooks’s new stage version of his 1968 movie The Producers with that sentiment in mind. The writer-director who’d given audiences the giddy and outrageous Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein seemed to have lost his touch in increasingly unfunny films like Silent Movie, High Anxiety, Spaceballs, and the execrable Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Would Brooks’s attempt to resuscitate his early hit prove that he was a comic has-been? Could Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane fill the shoes of the movie’s stars, Gene Wilder and the late, great Zero Mostel? And could anyone, no matter how good, translate Brooks’s nearly perfect film to the stage?

The answers: maybe, sort of, and yes. Most definitely yes. The Producers–finishing its sold-out Chicago tryout this weekend prior to opening this spring in New York–is a ferociously funny valentine to the musical comedy form as defined by such legendary Broadway producers as Florenz Ziegfeld, David Merrick, and Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, as well as Hollywood’s Arthur Freed. If Lane lacks the volcanic power of Mostel, and Broderick falls short of Wilder’s unique blend of sweetness and repressed hysteria, they bring to the stage their own distinctive ironic humor, snappy timing, and engaging talents as song-and-dance men.

As for Brooks, I don’t know whether he’ll ever create a new work as richly funny as his early classics, but that’s irrelevant here. With the help of coauthor Thomas Meehan (best known for the script of Annie) and endlessly inventive director-choreographer Susan Stroman, Brooks is at the top of his game. This rewrite of his Oscar-winning script is even ruder and raunchier–a retro romp peppered with sight gags, showbiz in-jokes, and a steady stream of racial and sexual stereotypes meant to skewer every sacred cow. And Brooks’s score–he penned both the music and lyrics–wittily salutes and steals from the work of such songwriters as Jule Styne, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, Lionel Bart, and Jerry Herman.

Set in 1959, this Producers tells pretty much the same story as the film. Max Bialystock (Lane) is a Merrick-like megalomaniac (“Entire Production Conceived, Devised, Thought Up and Supervised by Max Bialystock,” proclaims the billboard for his latest effort, a musical version of Hamlet called “Funny Boy”). Once the biggest name on Broadway (here pronounced “Broad-way” in the old-fashioned manner), Max has had a string of failures. The only thing that keeps him going is his ability to wring money from his stable of investors–horny little old ladies who cough up checks in return for Max’s stud services. (One sex-starved senior demands Max join her in a game called “The Virgin Milkmaid and the Well-Hung Stable Boy.”) Tired of being a gigolo for geriatrics, Max is at the end of his rope until the arrival of Leo Bloom (Broderick), a nebbishy accountant. Leo and Max concoct a scheme to produce a surefire flop, overselling shares in the show and absconding with the cash (since no one will expect a return on her investment, no one will wonder where the money went). The property they’ll produce is “Springtime for Hitler”–“a new neo-Nazi musical” written by one Franz Liebkind, a demented German storm trooper who insists he “vas only following orders” during the war. To Max and Leo’s chagrin, “Springtime for Hitler” is taken as camp satire and becomes a monster hit; the pair end up in prison for fraud. Even so, Leo achieves an emotional victory: in a sentimental courtroom climax, he proclaims that his friendship with the madcap Max has brought him out of his shell and given him the confidence and happiness he’s long wished for.

Brooks and his collaborators have eliminated some elements from the movie and expanded others. The hippie actor Max and Leo cast as Hitler (played by Dick Shawn on-screen) is gone. Instead Brooks borrows a plot device from 42nd Street: Franz himself is set to play Hitler but takes all too literally the showbiz admonition to “break a leg”; the show’s flamboyantly gay director, Roger De Bris, is drafted to replace Franz, and his fey interpretation of Hitler is part of why the show becomes a hit. (At one point Roger’s Hitler sits on the edge of the stage and sings directly to the audience, like Judy Garland warbling “Born in a Trunk” in A Star Is Born.)

Brooks has also beefed up the role of Ulla, a minor character in the film. A leggy Swedish sexpot, Ulla is hired by Max as his secretary; but in the new version, she falls for Leo. Indeed, she has more to do with Leo’s emotional liberation than Max–she and Leo take the money and flee to Brazil, leaving poor Max to face the music alone. Of course Leo returns to give himself up, joining Max in prison to coproduce the jailhouse hit “Prisoners of Love.”

When The Producers came out in 1968, it seemed a comic commentary on the state of Broadway in the 50s and 60s. It was an era when no subject seemed too grim for musical treatment: juvenile delinquency (West Side Story), the persecution of Russian Jews (Fiddler on the Roof), World War II (The Sound of Music), even Nazism: if Harold Prince could produce and direct Cabaret, a hit show about the rise of the Nazis, then a musical about Hitler himself seemed the absurdly logical next step.

But in the years since the film’s release Broadway has undergone a sea change: rock musicals like Hair and the dark, experimental works of Stephen Sondheim seemed to kill off the tuneful musicals Brooks loved. Spectacular pop operas like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables emerged in Europe, apparently signaling the end of the musical as a distinctly American form. More recently, though, the old-fashioned style has made something of a comeback–in revivals and “revisals” of shows like Anything Goes, The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Kiss Me, Kate and in pastiche pieces like Stroman’s earlier hit Crazy for You, which framed old songs by George and Ira Gershwin with a new script. Now comes The Producers, a revisal of a pastiche parody that melds an anachronistic sensibility with an anarchic contemporary attitude. The show even proclaims itself “the new Mel Brooks musical,” echoing the promotion of Crazy for You as “the new Gershwin musical.” Everything old is new again.

What makes The Producers different is its barrage of politically incorrect, perhaps even socially irresponsible jokes. Nazi jokes, black jokes, Irish jokes, Swedish-sex-kitten jokes, handicapped jokes, senior-citizen jokes, ugly-girl jokes, fat jokes, and–especially–Jewish jokes and gay jokes flow with a disarmingly irrepressible, even infantile energy. Some observers may be taken aback by Brooks’s treatment of homosexuality: while the subject was only a side theme in the movie, here it’s placed front and center in the character of Roger and his flitty “common-law assistant,” Carmen Ghia. (Franz, of course, is incensed by any suggestion that Hitler was homosexual: “The fuhrer vas butch!”)

Yet the show’s most outrageous and pervasive stereotype is that of Jews: Max and Leo are venal, moneygrubbing con artists who’ll stoop to anything for a shekel–schtupping elderly women, flirting with faygelehs, even donning swastika armbands to join Franz in an idiotic folk dance, “Der Gutten Tag Hop Clop.” Little if any overt reference is made to the producers’ Jewishness, but that identity is crucial. Max’s surname is derived from a Polish town–perhaps the birthplace of his ancestors–while the name Leo Bloom is of course an allusion to the Irish-Jewish hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses. (This reference had an added resonance in the film, since Mostel played Bloom in the off-Broadway production Ulysses in Nighttown.) By emphasizing Leo’s passion for the ur-shiksa Ulla, Brooks plays off a tradition of anti-Semitic propaganda that Hitler himself might have heartily approved. And in the tempestuous yet hit-making relationship between Max, Leo, Roger, and Carmen, Brooks pays tribute to the musical as a form shaped largely by the sometimes uneasy collaboration between Jews and gays–a reality that for years was kept as a dirty secret for fear of offending straight mainstream audiences (not to mention right-wing cultural commentators, who wielded undue influence in the 50s and 60s). Everything you ever thought about us was true, Brooks seems to be saying. Or, to quote the show’s most famous line: “When you got it, flaunt it!”

The show’s political and cultural subtext is carried out in Stroman’s witty, flashy staging, especially the wacky production numbers: a hora led by a blind violinist (a nod to Fiddler on the Roof), a pas de deux for Leo and Ulla that evokes the films of Gene Kelly, a hilarious “Little Old Lady Land” fantasy featuring elderly women tapping their walkers in synchronized rhythm. And of course there’s the song “Springtime for Hitler,” a Ziegfeldian parade of goose-stepping chorus boys and voluptuous Valkyries that’s given far more extravagant treatment here than in the film. The only thing that could top it does: Max’s solo “Betrayed,” a jailhouse lament in which he reenacts the entire show up to that point–including the intermission.

Along the way there are more than a few nods to Brooks’s own oeuvre. “It’s good to be the king!” declares one character, for no apparent reason except to call to mind Brooks’s turn as Louis XVI in History of the World–Part I. “Vat nice guys,” sighs Franz about Max and Leo–an echo of Madeline Kahn’s comment about Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles. And that’s Brooks’s recorded voice interrupting the music in “Springtime for Hitler” with the couplet: “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty / Come and join the Nazi party!”

Stroman and Brooks have assembled a state-of-the-art company, both onstage and off. Robin Wagner’s sets, lit by Peter Kaczorowski, are splendidly silly–among them Roger’s perfectly pansy penthouse, complete with a framed portrait of J. Edgar Hoover on the foyer table. William Ivey Long’s costumes are lavish and ludicrous at once; Glen Kelly’s musical arrangements and Doug Besterman’s orchestrations are brash and brassy in the classic Broadway style. The cast is top-notch. The portly yet nimble Lane, with his brazen bray, pyramid eyebrows, and whiplash timing, plays perfectly off Broderick, whose hunched shoulders and squinty smile recall Peggy Cass’s nerdy Agnes Gooch in Auntie Mame. They’re more than matched by the cartoonish supporting players: Gary Beach as Roger, Roger Bart as Carmen, and Cady Huffman’s smart and sexy Ulla. Brad Oscar, filling in for the ailing Ron Orbach on opening night, was a marvelous Franz.

The Producers ends with Max and Leo, recently released from prison, entering a new era of success and eyeing a skyful of billboards advertising their hits to come: “South Passaic,” “A Streetcar Named Murray,” “High Button Jews,” and, inevitably, “Katz.” It’s as if Brooks had decided to change history, creating an alternate showbiz universe that never heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Stephen Sondheim. In a way, he succeeded: certainly “Springtime for Hitler” is one of the most hummable show tunes in memory. The Producers proves Brooks to be one of the best tunesmiths on Broadway circa 1960. So what if he’s 40 years late?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Kolnik.