Oh, boy! When things go right ! Mel Brooks’ The Producers at the St. James Theatre on Broadway is, quite simply, the best time you could ever wish for at the theater. The laughs, for one infectious, glorious thing, might leave you literally rolling in the aisles. The show actually liberates us from the blight of political correctness. Small wonder the entire cast looks as if it’s having a ball. We all are. From manic start to blitzkrieg finish, the inspired Susan Stroman production succeeds joyfully at every conceivable level, spiraling traditional musical comedy to delirious new heights.
But I understate. For those of us who’ve seen Mr. Brooks’ original 1968 film The Producers a million times and can recite more or less every hallowed line as purest poetry, the musical version is a great achievement. The torch has been passed from the iconic Bialystock and Bloom of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder to the perfect partnership of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. The role of the deranged shyster Max Bialystock, the first producer ever to do summer stock in the winter, could have been made for the comic genius of Nathan Lane, and Mr. Lane has never been better. Leopold Bloom, the nebbishy, neurotic accountant with the comfort blankie cradled under his chin, is played with charmingly repressed terror by Matthew Broderick, and the understated Mr. Broderick is a triumph, a quiet riot to Mr. Lane’s irresistible hysteria.
Scholars in the field will be pleased to note that the best of the original lines from the movie are hilariously in place. “We find the defendant incredibly guilty!” “That’s it, baby, when you got it, flaunt it! Flaunt it!!” “I want … I want … I want … I want everything I’ve ever seen in the movies!” Or the stormtrouper’s bouncy lyric from the “Springtime for Hitler” show stopper, “Don’t be stupid / Be a smarty / Come and join the Nazi party!” That line, incidentally, is lip-synched in the show to the unmistakable voice of Mel Brooks, no less. It’s a neat tribute to himself, which is only right.
His fingerprints are all over the place–in his love of showbiz and Busby Berkeley and great Broadway musicals, in his inexhaustible high energy and gleefully bad vaudevillian jokes. (The first joke of the evening involves a blind violinist.) Mr. Brooks is believed to be 75 years old going on 15.
True, subtlety isn’t his forte.
I always had the biggest hits,
The biggest bathrooms at the Ritz,
My showgirls had the biggest tits!
I never was the pits in any way!
That’s our Mel! But his score for the show is so right and catchy and, above all, such fun, we’re happily swept along. There are musical homages to Gypsy, Oliver , Florenz Ziegfeld, Cole Porter, Jule Styne, Richard Rodgers and Gershwin. (Whoever said Mr. Brooks doesn’t have good taste?) It’s no coincidence that The Producers is set in 1959–the end of the golden age of musical comedy, from the supreme Guys and Dolls in 1950, to The Pajama Game in 1954, to the 1956 Bells Are Ringing that’s currently revived on Broadway.
Our pleasure in the show is increased all the more by certain sublime references to other shows. There’s one, for example, to 42nd Street , when the campy Roger DeBris takes over the role of Hitler at the last minute and his common-law assistant, Carmen Ghia, encourages him with the immortal words: “You’re going out there a silly hysterical queen and you’re coming back a great big passing-for-straight Broadway star!” Roger Bart is hissy Carmen and Gary Beach is the cross-dressing worst director in the world, Roger DeBris, and both are terrific.
In the scene to end all scenes, “Springtime for Hitler,” Mr. Beach enters at the top of a lit staircase gaily playing the Führer, who’s about to sing “Heil myself.” But he first takes on a ludicrous pose that looks like an unhinged candelabra. This is because Mr. Beach played the candelabra in Beauty and the Beast . But you don’t have to know that to appreciate the insane moment any more than it’s essential to get the good Mr. Beach’s reference to Judy Garland when Hitler coyly curls up on the edge of the stage mouthing to us the unspoken words: “I love you.”
Then again, the work of the first-rate design team of Robin Wagner, William Ivey Long and Peter Kaczorowski couldn’t be finer (or wittier). The inspired lunacy of “Little Old Lady Land” is a valentine to the fabled “Loveland” sequence in Follies . But the sight of Max Bialystock’s devoted investors, the nymphomaniac little old ladies tap-dancing on their walkers, is something to behold–a historic first in its way, ending with their synchronized collapse like the Rockettes’ Chocolate Soldiers. The nod to the famous mirror sequence in A Chorus Line during the “Springtime for Hitler” sequence is the sweeter for Mr. Wagner having designed A Chorus Line in the first place. But the fantastic staging and racing pulse of Ms. Stroman’s choreography–”Come on, Germans–go into your dance!”–bring the audience to explosion point anyway.
As the breezy Mel Brooks lyric goes, “The thing you gotta know is / Ev’rything is showbiz.” The Producers is Mr. Brooks’ love letter to old Broadway (and a hilarious poison-pen letter to the man he calls Adolf Elizabeth Hitler). The plot of the show, of course, is one of the great comic inventions. Leo the nerdy accountant casually notes as he’s going over Max’s books, “You could raise a million dollars, put on a hundred-thousand-dollar failure, and keep the rest for yourself.” In other beautiful words, you could actually make more money with a flop than a hit.
And so it came to pass that the newly formed partnership of Bialystock & Bloom produces a sure-fire disaster entitled Springtime for Hitler, A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgade , written by a neo-Nazi nutter, playwright and pigeon fancier in a German Army helmet named Franz Liebkind. It’s “the mother lode.” They’ll be rich ! Except the anticipated bomb turns out to be a monster hit. Hence the title of Max’s song, “Where Did We Go Right?”
The stage-struck Franz, played by Brad Oscar (a Forbidden Broadway alumnus) can deliver a Broadway belter with the best of them, like an Al Jolson crossed with Jimmy (Schnozzola) Durante. Even his lieblings , the neo-Nazi pigeons on the roof of his Jane Street apartment, dance and coo along to his Bavarian hoedown, “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop.”
Silliness is another Mel Brooks specialty, and we are glad. Note the posters in Max’s office celebrating the titles of his Broadway shows: The Breaking Wind, When Cousins Marry and The Kidney Stone . His last fiasco was a musical version of Hamlet entitled Funny Boy .
The secret to this heady, utterly carefree production is its cast of terrific character actors–including, lest we forget, a super performance from Cady Huffman as the Swedish hotsy-totsy, “secretary-slash-receptionist” Ulla Inga Hansen Bensen Yonsen Tallen-Hallen Svaden-Svanson. “Your goodies you must push,” sings the lovely Ulla. “Stick your chest out / Shake your tush ….”
But the masterstroke is the brilliant adaptation of the original movie by Mr. Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Mr. Meehan (who wrote the book of Annie and collaborated on the screenplays of Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs and To Be or Not To Be ) has helped to top what I imagined was writ in stone. The script is now a total riot. The opening of the show is merely a comic set-up while we settle down. (“Who produced this schlock?/ That slimy, sleazy Max Bialystock!”) But the second number, “The King of Broadway,” throws down a surprise ace and all but stops the show with its intoxicating klezmer music and hora in Schubert Alley performed by Broadway bums and dancing nuns carrying Playbill s from The Sound of Music . Leo’s fantasy burlesque sequence, “I Wanna Be a Producer,” is another stunner, its internal accountant’s dirge to drudgery turning into an “Old Man River” lament. (“Oh, I debits all duh mornin’….”) The audition scene has always been side-splitting. (“I would like to sing ‘A Wandering Minstrel, I.’” “If you must ….”) The show’s hymn to Broadway theater, “Keep It Gay,” has us all helpless again.
“Keep it light, keep it bright/ Keep it gay!” We can all agree with that, particularly when Mel Brooks is in control–or out of control. I’ve run out of space and superlatives. The Producers makes us kvell because it brings to such joyful life that great, lost tradition, the all-American show . A comedy tonight! A musical comedy forever! Perhaps without knowing it, or intending to, Mr. Brooks et al. have taken us magically back to the future.