Springtime for Mel Brooks (and Broadway)

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Nathan Lane reads a fax of the New York Times review of 'The Producers'

Act One

A New York theater lobby, springtime 2001

No one walking into New York's St James Theatre for the Thursday night premiere of Mel Brooks' stage musical of his cult movie "The Producers" was smiling. The minimum facial expression in view was a beam. And many were grinning from ear to ear. While Brooks' 1968 film was a commercial disappointment on its initial release, it has grown to considerable stature in the past 30 years and has been recognized as a comedy classic. Dialogue from the film has entered the vernacular, particularly among the entertainment community. "When you've got it — flaunt it!" "Money is honey" and of course the now familiar term "creative accounting."

So the beams, grins and giggling were because the first-night audience was full of anticipation for a night of communal celebration of their shared delight in the movie and eagerness to experience how the glory would be transformed into a stage musical.

The crowd was well-heeled, well-coiffed and in several instances well-caped — a nod to the flamboyant old Broadway garb of the show's hero, Max Bialystock, as portrayed by Nathan Lane. One man said he'd been waiting for years for a premiere worthy of his cape. David Schneider, an opthalmologist from Cincinnati who had already seen the show in its pre-Broadway run in Chicago, said he was so inspired by Lane's scarlet-lined cloak that he got his own.

The crowd seemed to range in age from the young and hip to the old and hip-replaced. Several elderly ladies bore a strong resemblance to the sex-crazed grannies of "Little Old Lady-Land" — the source of much of Max Bialystock's money and practically all of his weariness. But the vast majority were in their solid baby-boomer prime.

And the crowd certainly included a splurge of stars. Singing celebs included Paul Simon and wife Edie Brickell (and I guess you could count Kathy Lee Gifford in that category.) Acting celebs ranged from Alec Baldwin and Mary Tyler Moore to Michael J. Fox and wife Tracy Pollan. And Sarah Jessica Parker in an elegant white gown.

Then there were the TV host celebs... Larry King accompanied (or, strictly speaking, towered over) by his young and vibrant fourth wife; Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace looking remarkably like Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace. Columnist celebs included the ubiquitous Cindy Adams, refuting any trace of little old lady-dom, and Variety's Army Archerd.

The stars mingled. The Michael J. Foxes chatted with the Mary Tyler Moores. Alec Baldwin — who had that svelte, getting-trim-for-market look of the newly separated — greeted old friends merrily. And then there were the brand of celebrities celebrated in the show itself — producer celebs. There was famed film producer David Brown ("Jaws," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Chocolat") accompanied by wife Helen Gurley Brown. And two of the key producers of "The Producers," the Weinstein brothers. Having recently branched out into theater (winning a Tony Award as coproducers of "The Real Thing"), Harvey and Bob had invested heavily in Mel Brooks, and it looked as if the investment might pay off.

As Harvey and Bob Weinstein gazed at the surging crowd, my mind flashed to the moment in the film when Max Bialystock adds the icing to the disaster cake he thinks he's baked with "Springtime for Hitler." The producer hands the New York Times critic his tickets with a hundred-dollar bill wrapped around them. "It's no mistake," he tells the outraged critic. "Enjoy the show." I see no evidence of that scene being replayed in this lobby. Certainly my ticket envelope is uncontaminated by anything resembling even a single dollar bill.

My quick trawl through the acknowledgments in the program whetted my appetite for the show to come. How often does one read credits for a Broadway show that include: "Stormtroopers fabricated by Entolo" or "Schmeisser machine guns by Costume Armour" or even "Tanks and pigeon puppets designed by Jerard Studio"?

With the stragglers cantilevered into the packed auditorium and the cries of the paparazzi and red carpet reporters fading into the distance, attention turned to the orchestra tuning up. Then the lights went down, the crowd burst into anticipatory cheers and the curtain swooped upward to reveal.... INTERMISSION!

Act Two

A large chintzy ballroom. Later that night.

As the cast took its final curtain call to thunderous applause and cheers, the moment the crowd had been waiting all night for occurred. Flanked by cowriter Thomas Meehan ("Annie") and director/choreographer Susan Stroman ("Contact," "Crazy for You") Brooks took the stage and thanked the cheering audience.

For friends, family and the numerous producers, it was now on to the after-show bash. This is a treasured part of Broadway fable, where cast and crew mingle with the backers, flacks and hacks (investors, publicists and journalists) to celebrate the night and, most important, wait for that all-important first review.

A show with the credentials of "The Producers" — star names (Lane and Broderick), sensational advance publicity and record-breaking box office advance ($13 million and bookings into the fall) will not live or die by that New York Times review. But as Joe Lieberman says of his mother's chicken soup, "It can't hurt." And having invested so much time, craft and cash, everyone involved is keen to see what the theater critics will say.

The party has been lovingly set up as if it was a bar mitzvah in Brooks's hometown of Brooklyn. Though his own celebration would have been in 1939, the mood was that of 1959, the year in which the stage version of "The Producers" is set. The guests swoop by the bar and then to two long tables where good kosher-style nosh is being heaped onto plates before your mother can tell you that "you're all skin and bones already."

One loving touch for buffs of the original movie is the presence of a Sabretts hot dog stand — the al fresco dining experience that Max Bialystock uses as foreplay to his seduction into chicanery of Leo Bloom. Not everyone is in on the joke. I bite into the genuinely delicious hot dog and tell the server "Kindly tender my compliments to the chef" (Max's line) but the server refuses to growl "Kindly tender a quarter" in response. He merely promises to pass on my expression of appreciation to the hot dog cook. (These youngsters...!)

I wander the room and see most of the stars who'd been squeezed into the theater lobby. Larry King says the show is "simply wonderful." Everywhere are audience members whooping it up and toasting the show with gusto and other spirits. Fortunately the bar mitzvah theme has not extended to the bar, and no one is forced to drink Manischewitz.

The walls and tables are decorated with artifacts from the fabled production team of Bialystock & Bloom. On the walls are posters for such Broadway disasters as "South Passaic," "Katz" and "Maim." The table centerpieces include framed Playbills from shows such as "She Schtupps to Conquer," "A Streetcar Named Murray" and the "Springtime for Hitler" program, with a litho of the Führer surrounded with flower petals.

Roger Bart, who is a fabulous Carmen Ghia (the director's outrageously camp "common-law assistant") is breathless and jazzed about the show. He is photographed, interviewed and processed through the line of assembled media tucked behind a velvet rope in the ballroom lobby. Then Matthew Broderick arrives, resplendent in a white suit as would befit a colonial British governor of the Bahamas.

Suddenly there's a flurry of activity around Harvey Weinstein. Though the newspapers have not yet hit the streets, he has managed to obtain a fax of an advance copy of the eagerly awaited New York Times review. He looks at it and, breaking into a big smile, he immediately scurries over to share it with Nathan Lane.

Lane reads as Weinstein beams. The review is beyond a positive. It's a total unreserved rave. Lane reads down to the end of the scroll. He looks up at Weinstein gratified that the show has been so appreciated. They share a few warm words, and Weinstein moves on to Sarah Jessica Parker. Sarah whoops with excitement, accidentally sets the fax on fire as the top of it grazes the centerpiece candle! Friends extinguish the little flame and the now scorched fax is read to the end.

Now Weinstein wants the show's creator to savor this moment. Weinstein's assistant spots Mel and moments later Weinstein puts the scorched, well-thumbed curling scroll of fax paper into Mel's hands. Brooks reads and savors every word. His eyes twinkle. This little kid born into a poor immigrant family in Brooklyn in 1926 as Melvin Kaminsky has reached a new height in his life. He is literally the toast of Broadway.

The joyful smile and summation of the evening comes from David Brown, who said the show will "last a thousand years!" knowingly twisting Adolf Hitler's boast about the Third Reich and applying it to this show that has demonstrated that Jewish humor and resilience have far outlasted Hitler and his diseased beliefs.

I walked one block over to Broadway with a skip in my step. And as I ambled down the street the tune just crept into my mind and before too long I was singing "Springtime for Hitler." But as I reflected on the success of the 75-year-young Melvin Brooks (né Kaminsky) I discovered myself singing "Springtime for Melvin," and I found myself marching to a faster pace...