It's springtime for MEL BROOKS again, as he brings his film classic THE PRODUCERS to Broadway. An inside look at how he did it
By RICHARD ZOGLIN
Mel brooks is sitting near the back of the almost deserted St. James Theatre a couple of hours before curtain time. A reporter is at his right, yet Brooks stares straight ahead at the empty stage while he talks, as if he can't quite believe what will soon be born there. Most people with a big Broadway show about to open would be busy making fixes, rewriting lines, fighting anxiety. Brooks is mainly feeling recharged, in the way 74-year-old comic legends rarely are. "I haven't been this happy since I did my first sketch on Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar," he says. "I'm back doing what I was born to do. And I love it."
What's not to love? The Producers, a musical based on Brooks' 1968 movie, opens on Broadway this week with the kind of rapturous buzz (and $13 million in advance sales) not seen since The Lion King. Start with a presold audience, lovers of the classic comedy (the first film Brooks directed) about a schlocky Broadway producer who connives with his nervous accountant to raise money for an awful Nazi musical so they can abscond with the funds when the thing flops. Add the best-possible modern substitutes for stars Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder-Nathan Lane as producer Max Bialystock and Matthew Broderick as nebbishy Leo Bloom-and Broadway's hottest musical director, Susan Stroman (Contact, The Music Man). Support them with a gaggle of Broadway backers so eager that one producer had to hold a lottery to decide which of his investors got the privilege of putting money into the show. "I told them we're all fools," Brooks recounts. "We should have a secret meeting in the cellar of the St. James Theatre, raise $25 million, put on a million-dollar failure and split it up. I don't know why, at the last minute they all backed out."
Smart guys; they've seen the show. The Producers is, first of all, one of the best translations of a beloved movie to the stage ever. Most of Brooks' famous lines and bits are here, including the memorable Springtime for Hitler production number, staged by Stroman with goose-stepping pizazz. The new songs-Brooks wrote the music and the lyrics-are a sprightly retro pastiche, ranging from mock Fiddler on the Roof, to mock Astaire and Rogers, to mock Bavarian beer hall. There's a chorus line of old ladies with walkers, a flock of pigeons doing the Nazi salute and more gay jokes than have crossed a stage since Liberace. The show delivers such a wealth of vaudeville exuberance that the few quibbles (a rather lumpy second act) are likely to fade away. Even if you don't think it's great entertainment, you gotta admit: it's great entertainment value.
People had been bugging Brooks for years to turn The Producers into a musical. But he resisted them all until 1998, when DreamWorks exec David Geffen talked him into giving it a try. "He was a pit bull terrier," says Brooks. "He was on my pants cuff, and I couldn't shake him." It helped that Brooks' movie career was in a slump (his last feature, 1995's Dracula: Dead and Loving It, had flopped) and that Geffen had-"unbeknownst to David Geffen, but knownst to me"-tapped into a longtime dream of Brooks': to write a Broadway score.
Though he has played drums since age 9, Brooks has little musical training. Yet he had written songs for most of his movies, and he got a major nudge from his wife Anne Bancroft. "She always loved my songs," he says. "She thought it was a really big part of my work that was not cultivated. She said, You have to write this score. It's your next great challenge. It will keep you young.' "
Brooks is what is known among music professionals as a "hummer": an unschooled composer who comes up with melodies and leaves it to others (on The Producers, it was arranger Glen Kelly) to translate them into notes, chords, arrangements. Brooks found that writing new songs for The Producers-like Where Did We Go Right?, playing off Bialystock's line when he discovers that Springtime for Hitler is a hit-came relatively easy. Harder was the task of reshaping the movie into a cohesive Broadway show. For help with that, he turned to an old pal, Thomas Meehan, writer of Annie and a collaborator on several Brooks films, who helped structure the show, suggested spots for music numbers and pitched in with jokes.
Brooks' search for a director landed him at the doorstep of Mike Ockrent (Crazy for You) and his wife, choreographer Stroman. "I opened the front door," Stroman recalls, "and he launched into That Face, one of his songs from the show. He danced down the hallway and wound up on top of the sofa. Then he said, I'm Mel Brooks.' " The performance won them over, but not long afterward Ockrent became ill with leukemia (he died in December 1999). After a few months' hiatus, Stroman resumed working on her own with Brooks. "I needed someone to make me smile," she says. "Who better than Mel Brooks?"
Once a week in her apartment, over bagels, cream cheese and whitefish salad, they continued to work. By the time the show was ready for a staged reading last April, Geffen had reluctantly dropped out owing to other commitments, so a new chorus line of potential backers was invited. By the intermission, Rocco Landesman, head of the Jujamcyn theater chain, said he was in. Others followed quickly. Broderick and Lane (who played Bialystock at the reading) were cast, though it took some convincing. Lane wavered because he felt his character had too little to do in the second act; he stayed only after Brooks promised to write a new number for him, which ultimately became an Act II showstopper called Betrayed.
By all accounts, Stroman and Brooks were a smooth-running team, the old Catskills tummler deferring to the surehanded Broadway director-though Brooks attended every rehearsal and made constant suggestions. "He's totally attentive, watching like a hawk," says Broderick. "And he picks up even the subtlest things." The cast got used to the occasional Brooksian outburst-"No, no, you're ruining my masterpiece!" he yelled on arriving at one rehearsal-and to his barrage of (sometimes bad) ideas. In one scene Brooks urged Lane and Broderick to try a bit of physical shtick when they exit the door at the same time. They tried it, then turned around to see what the master thought. "Stinks!" he shouted. They moved on.
One of the toughest parts for Brooks was cutting some favorite bits from the movie. The character of the hippie actor hired to play Hitler (Dick Shawn in the film) was junked as too dated. (Hitler is now played by the show-within-a-show's gay director.) And the movie's ending, with Bloom and Bialystock in prison, has been altered, so that the pair end up winners. What, you were expecting Kafka?
For the real-life Broadway crowd, The Producers is a gift from the show-biz gods. For years, most of the street's big musical hits have been operatic British imports. The Lion King was a great homegrown boost, but Disney and Julie Taymor were, and still are, outsiders. The Producers is a product and a celebration of the kind of musical-comedy showmanship that doesn't exist much anymore. "It's as if this is that one last musical from the 1950s, and everybody forgot to produce it," says one of the show's producers, Tom Viertel. "And now here it is."
For Brooks, the show is about more than that. This onetime combat engineer in the German theater in World War II is still satirizing Hitler, without apologies. "You can't compete with a despot on a soapbox," he notes. "The best thing is to make him ludicrous." And now he may be seeing more of himself in the wacky show-biz satire he wrote more than 30 years ago. "It's the story of a caterpillar who becomes a butterfly-that's Leo Bloom," says Brooks. "And that's me. A little kid from Brooklyn who finally made it across the vast East River to Manhattan, to Broadway. That's a journey that is as great as from the Alleghenies to the Rockies." You made it, Mel.
-With reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner/New York