That Old Feeling: Brooks to Broadway: Get Happy

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BARLOW HARTMAN/PAUL KOLNIK/AP

'What's the word?' Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in 'The Producers'


(Roger De Bris, Broadway director:)
"The theater's so obsessed
With dramas so depressed,
It's hard to sell a ticket on Broadway.
Shows should be more pretty,
Shows should be more witty,
Shows should be more — what's the word?"
(Max Bialystock, Broadway producer): "Gay?"


— "Keep It Gay," from the new musical "The Producers"


It's easier to get a night in the Lincoln Bedroom, a Cubs-Red Sox World Series, or a straight answer from Gary Condit than it is to secure tickets to Broadway's biggest hit, "The Producers." Scalpers, not content with getting $500 a ticket, are now demanding actual scalps. But if you do manage to beg or buy your way into the St. James Theatre (I did both, by promising the show's publicists I would be reviewing it for TIME.com, then paying $200 for the privilege), you’ll see what all the kvelling's about.

Mel Brooks' zingy musical adaptation of his 1968 film comedy — the one about an unscrupulous impresario who puts on a musical called "Springtime for Hitler" in the hopes it will flop — performs a crucial civic service: it absolves audiences of the cultural guilt that has been epidemic in theatergoing for years. It convinces them that it's not a crime to have a good time at a show.

Me, I had a pretty good time. I watched "The Producers" with an amused detachment. I wasn't overwhelmed. Just... whelmed. Perhaps five months of ecstatic word-of-mouth made me expect too much, but I didn't think that the show was as plotz-till-you-see-spots hilarious as the rave reviews indicate, or that it quite deserved the record-smashing 12 Tony awards it picked up this June.

But I'd happily nominate "The Producers" for a special citation in its own category: not Best Revival of a Musical — that went to "42nd Street," which I'll get to next week — but Best Revival of THE Musical. The show points an endangered popular art form back in the right direction. As the harried director in "42nd Street" tells the youngster who's about to come back a star, "Think of 'musical comedy,' the two most glorious words in the English language." Mel Brooks sure did.

Like so many blockbusters in other media, it's important less for what it is than for what it reveals about the yearnings of its audience. People love "The Producers" because it reminds them of old, terrific, happy musicals that were unburdened by the preoccupations of the modern ones: death, misery, minor chords and the look and feel of brown drabness.

The show's success has to be seen as a reproach to the alterkocker insiders of the Broadway musical — Stephen Sondheim and Kander and Ebb and Cy Coleman and all those 50s holdovers who have latterly devoted themselves to painting a glum face on song shows — and to the Brits who think the only appropriate sources for musicals are Dostoievski novels. To these serioso gents, the huge box office and the truckload of Tonys for "The Producers" say one thing: "You see what Mel did? Do that!"

Note that it took an outsider to put the comedy back in musical comedy. Brooks, the Catskills tummeler who wrote manic, desperate TV sketch comedy for Sid Caesar, hadn't been on Broadway since he wrote the book for "All American," a fairly tame college musical that yielded the minor-classic ballad "Once Upon a Time" back in 1962. That happens to be the year when Stephen Sondheim and Larry Gelbart, another alumnus of Caesar College, teamed for "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum," one of the last defiantly comic musical comedies; and when Neil Simon, yet another Caesar writer, and Cy Coleman did a musical adaptation of the star-bio parody "Little Me," with eight fat roles for the sublime Sid.

Maybe Sondheim and Coleman were writing bright tunes simply to get through the door. Once inside, they had to act like grownups: get solemn, pull the melodic hooks out of their songs and compose "modern" music that sounded less like pop jingles and more like operatic recitativos. However honorable their ambitions, the results were depressing musicals - Sondheim's "Passion," Coleman's "The Life" - that made Broadway a prison of its dour pretensions.

The Americans were joined, and for a while overrun, by British musicals, most of them by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the Franco-British "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon." Lloyd Webber, in fact, brought us the crowning moment of serioso musicals, in 1979, with the first-act climax of "Evita": a hymn to fascism, "A New Argentina," the stage dominated by huge flags of Peron's dictatorship. It was "Springtime for Hitler" come early to Broadway, and no one was laughing.

For the most part, no one's been laughing along with Broadway musicals for the succeeding two decades. Songwriters and book-writers choke on their strained seriousness. And because it has become the standard, it has forced old-time practititioners of perky musicals to toe the line. Even Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who confected "Singin' in the Rain" for Hollywood and "Bells Are Ringing" for Broadway, got the glums a while back, writing a musical sequel to Ibsen's "A Doll's House." And in 1993, when Simon collaborated with Marvin Hamlisch on the clever, beguiling, resolutely old-fashioned musical of "The Goodbye Girl," the show lost the Tony race to not-light, not-bright but très gay prison show "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

Over the decades, there were clear signs the audience wanted something else. Chipper pastiches of fine old tunes — shows like "42nd Street," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "My One and Only" and "Crazy for You" — ran for years. Brooks, in a dry spell of flop movie comedies, may have looked at these shows, been reminded of his own Broadway-musical movie from 1968, and asked himself, "Hey! Why not put 'The Producers' on Broadway?"


(Roger De Bris, after "Springtime for Hitler" opens:)
"Have you seen the lines at the box office? It's a torrent. It's an avalanche. It's the biggest hit on Broadway!"

— from the 1968 movie "The Producers"


The Broadway "Producers" opens with an opening night: we're outside the theater where "Funny Boy," Max Bialystock's musical version of "Hamlet," is about to open and close. On the theater marquee we see the nicely pompous legend "Entire Production Conceived, Devised, Thought Up and Supervised by Max Bialystock." Brooks could have applied that phrase to himself on this show: he composed its music and lyrics, he wrote the book (with Thomas Meehan) from his own movie and he is, yes, one of the producers. Indeed, the show's official title, as read dozens of times at the last Tony ceremony, is "The Producers: The New Mel Brooks Musical." Modesty was never among Mel's sins.

This is a shamelessly retro show, full of references to earlier pearls of pop culture. And many of these are Mel Brooks movies. Max: "I used to be the king." Blind musician standing nearby: "It's good to be the king!" (from "History of the World Part I"). The fabulously effeminate Carmen Ghia to Max and Leo: "Walk this way, please" (from "Young Frankenstein"). Franz is referred to as that "Teutonic twit" (a mild variation on "Teutonic twat," the epithet for Madeline Kahn's character in "Blazing Saddles"). And - this is a toughie - Leo pleading to Max about actors: "They're not animals. They're human beings" (from David Lynch's "The Elephant Man," which Brooks produced).

And yes, that's Brooks' voice here (as in the movie) when a chorus boy sings, "Don't be stupid, be a smarty/ Come and join the Nazi party!" Director-choreographer Susan Strohman also drops in a couple of allusions to her Tony-winning "Contact": a girl on a swing, a sexy woman in a red dress. The creators wink at the audience; the audience genuflects in recognition.

In TIME's preview of the show this April, one of the producers of "The Producers" said, "It's as if this is that one last musical from the 1950s, and everybody forgot to produce it. And now here it is." The year is 1959; visible from Max office is a Manhattan skyline of landmarks that have since vanished: the Astor Roof, Lindy's, the Morosco Theatre, a billboard for the Doublemint Twins. The show itself is a hymn to jolly, jazzy 50s musicals like "The Pajama Game" and "Damn Yankees," as well as to the granddaddy of serioso musicals, the 1957 "West Side Story."

Perhaps you noticed the obeisance to the "West Side Story" waltz "I Feel Pretty" in the "pretty" and "witty" and "gay" references in the opening lyrics to "Keep It Gay." If not, Brooks makes sure you get the point when, in the same scene, a doorbell chimes out the first eight notes of the Bernstein-Sondheim song. (One more 50s showbiz connection: the drummer in the "Producers" orchestra pit is Cubby O'Brien, once the cutest Mousketeer on "The Mickey Mouse Club.")

Brooks' original movie, when released in the Vietnam years, was itself a throwback to earlier traditions. Though the film makes strenuous use of Manhattan locations (Central Park, the zoo, the plaza fountain at Lincoln Center), it seemed less like a real film than a very faithful version of a play we had never seen; most of the scenes are set in Max's office or on a Broadway stage.

In tone, too, it shouted, as if trying to sell its jokes to the last row of the balcony, from the closeups of its hyperventilating cast to the whimsical underscoring, with kitschy harpsichord and farting tuba. Brooks always wanted to be heard, understood, laughed at and loved. At least here, his comic exuberance was too grand and grotesque, too theatrical, to be safely contained by a movie screen.

So was the performance of Zero Mostel as Max. Mostel must have one of the largest heads ever stuck on a large body, and one of the most assertive acting styles. He preens and prances and shouts and snorts (all of which made him just the fellow for the title role in Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," which he played on Broadway a few years before his career-topping turn as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof").

The whole movie was like Mostel: a huge main breathing garlic at close range. And why not? As Mostel bellows out of his office window when he sees a man get into a limousine), "That's it, baby! When you got it, flaunt it!"

The movie's plot is virtually identical to the musical's. Max, desperate to make money after a series of flops, gets a can't-miss scheme from the mousy accountant, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), who has come to examine his books: find the worst play in the world, raise much more cash than you need to produce it and then, when it closes on opening night, you keep the extra money you've raised. Of course if it's a hit, and you've raised 25,000 percent of your budget, you'll go to jail because you could never pay off all your backers.

The "worst play" they find is "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden," written by one Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), a neo-Nazi who confidentially proclaims, "Not many people know it, but the Fuhrer was a terrific dancer. He could dance the pants off Churchhill." The worst director is the effulgently effeminate Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewitt), who has the inspiration to make it a "gay" musical that mixes the SS with S&M. And the worst leading man is a hippie actor named Lorenzo Saint-Dubois, or L.S.D. (Dick Shawn).

The twist, of course, is that L.S.D.'s blissed-out improvs charm the audience and the homage to Hitler comes off as hilarious satire. The show is a hit, and Max and Leo end up in jail, where they produce a show — over-financed, of course — with an all-con cast called "Prisoners of Love."

The movie was not a hit, exactly; and as I said, it wasn't exactly a movie. But it had a lotta laffs and, in Wilder, the perfect foil for Mostel's Vesuvian eruptions. In his first co-starring role (he'd played a memorable bit in "Bonnie and Clyde" the year before), Wilder proves himself a brilliant comic actor. Charm, intelligence, cunning and especially hysteria all play on his malleable face. Near the end he murmurs the suicidal mantra, "No way out, no way out, no way out," with at least as much weird poignancy as Dustin Hoffman managed, with similarly flat inflections, in "Rain Man" 20 years later.

And when Wilder stands on the edge of the Lincoln Center Plaza fountain, screaming, "I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!" and the dormant fountain suddenly spurts to life as he runs giddily around it — well, ladies and gents, that is a movie moment to treasure.

The film has four songs, three of which made it into the show — "We're Prisoners of Love," a sprightly oom-pah number called "Haben Sie Gehoert Das Deutsche Band?" ("Have You Heard a German Band") and, of course, "Springtime for Hitler," which Brooks, in the PBS documentary "Recording 'The Producers': A Musical Romp With Mel Brooks," calls "the biggest and best thing I ever wrote."

The 1968 version consumes only 3-1/2 mins., but they're pretty dazzling ones: a heldentenor Stormtrooper and his comely aides belting out "We're marching to a faster pace/ Look out, here comes the Master Race!" and an overhead shot, Busby Berkeley or June Taylor style, of 16 dancers forming a swastika. Fun-ny!

Hitler? Stormtroopers? Funny? Funny to Mel Brooks? (Recall this exchange from an early episode of "The Simpsons: Lisa is explaining to Homer that there are many Jewish entertainers - Lauren Bacall, Dinah Shore, William Shatner, Mel Brooks - and Homer responds, in astonishment, "Mel Brooks is Jewish?!") Yes, funny, because Brooks cannily twisted the Nazi story. This Hitler is not, at least explicitly, the exterminator of the Jews. He's just a kooky, power-mad Kraut.

"The Producers" makes fun of Germans more than it does of Nazis. Brooks ignores the Holocaust and concentrates on turning Hitler and his gang into pompous comic-opera buffoons who are extra funny, in part, because they have no sense of humor.

Brooks insinuates a subsidiary joke about actors: they are so desperate to get a role, any role, that they don't think twice about playing the leader of the Third Reich. At the open audition, Roger De Bris announces: "Will the dancing Hitlers please wait in the wings? We are only auditioning the singing Hitlers." And from the Dancing Hitlers we hear a disappointed "Awwww."


(Roger De Bris as Hitler:) "The thing you gotta know is Ev'rything is show biz."

—from the show "The Producers"


The look of the show is as bright, and as wittily cluttered, as a panel from a classic MAD comic book. The walls of Max's tatty office are papered with posters of his flop plays: "The Breaking Wind," "When Cousins Marry," "100 Dollar Legs," "Bialy Hoos of '42" and an apparent double bill, "The Kidney Stones" and "This Too Shall Pass." At the end, with Max again in the pink and the black, the stage is a light with marquees for new Bialystock shows: "Katz," "Maim," "South Passaic," "A Streetcar Named Murray," "High Button Jews," "47th Street," "She Shtupps to Conquer," "Death of a Salesman On Ice!" and, what the hell, "Funny Boy 2."

As for Brooks' music, I'd call it high generic. In the PBS documentary he says his favorite movies are the RKO musicals of the 30s, especially the ones with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But his songs can't compare in melodic sophistication with the ones that Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins wrote for those films. They more closely echo 50s Broadway tunes by Jule Styne and the "Pajama Game" duo, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Brooks' signature number, "We Can Do It," which is sung four or five times, suggests a peppier version of Styne's "Make Someone Happy," but it is also reminiscent of the much earlier "I Love a Piano." Virtually every song recalls, in its construction or mood, some older, better tune.

The lyrics are often funny, and have reverberations from the great banquet of versifying. (I liked this Ogden Nash-style scanning: "What did Washington say to his troops as they crossed the Delaware?/ I'm sure you're well aware.") But a lot of the gags can be seen four bars ahead. You know that "hits" will shortly be rhymed with "tits," that "class" is setting up "ass," and that "wrecks" ... well, guess.

In adapting the show to Broadway, Brooks has ripened the role of Ulla, Max's sexy secretary, into a fabulous showcase for Cady Huffman, and cleverly made Ulla Leo's love interest. He has also solved the movie's meandering third act, when Max, Leo and Franz blow up the theater where "Springtime for Hitler" is playing. And he's given the story a happier ending. This is, after all, a show of the oldest, brightest stripe; your heroes are not allowed end up in jail — they must emerge triumphant.

I said that the movie wasn't really a film. But Lordy, is this show a musical comedy! The show is smartly designed and choreographed, and has an energetically knowing lead turn by Nathan Lane. Lane is as assertive, as dominant — as big — an actor as Mostel, but he's on the stage, where size really matters. He sings in a crystal-shattering tenor and adroitly performs every known vaudeville accent, from gibberish Yiddish to sham shamrock Irish. (All right, he is Irish.)

Lane also has an inside joke. In the "King of Broadway" number, Max sings, "There was a time when I was young and gay — but straight!"; Lane raises an eyebrow to an audience that knows that the character may be straight but the actor is not.

All this is swellegant, if not quite elegant. It's a shame, then, that Matthew Broderick's wan take on Leo is a drag on the whole enterprise. Broderick, who's been excellent in other roles on stage and in films, lacks the essential ingredient needed for this show: ham. He's not an effusive actor; he's not a comic. His clumsy presence makes me pine for the pirouetting comic presence of Martin Short, who played Leo in the staged reading in April 2000 (and whose goony Ed Grimley character Broderick occasionally invokes). Well, the show, like "Springtime for Hitler," surely will run for years. Maybe, when Broderick leaves, Short can take over the part.

In the old movie and the new show — and even more in the documentary, where Brooks happily acts as narrator, boss and chief clown — Mel's love for what he's doing is infectious. He is Max, the downtrodden producer who's back on top; he is Leo, the undermensch who found the love of a beautiful woman (his wife Anne Bancroft). At 75, the kid is on top. And he's not content to take his bow and shuffle off; he's thinking ahead. At the end of the documentary, he has an inspiration, Mickey Rooney-style: "We should make a movie of this show!"

"The Producers" isn't the greatest show ever, but, as happy as its makes its audiences, that's how happy Mel Brooks — musical-comedy showmaker resplendent — makes me for Broadway.