Taking a Breather from The Producers on 42nd Street

I went to see Mel Brooks’ The Producers again the other day.

Jealous? Jealousy is a terrible thing, as my momma used to say, whacking me over the head with a soup ladle. My tickets–row E, center aisle, as usual–were perfect. Two were necessary, of course. We might grieve alone at the theater, but we laugh together. And wisdom like that got me where I am today.

You will understand, I’m sure, that it is my solemn duty, as a serious drama critic and scholar, to return conscientiously to certain shows on your behalf to see how they’re doing. Work, work, work. It never stops.

I can confidently report, however, that only a month after The Producers opened on Broadway, it certainly looks like a hit to me. True, it did in the first place, when I declared it to be the greatest show ever . But, you know, people can be so cruel. An indignant letter flooded into my mailbox sarcastically wanting to know how I could find The Producers the greatest show in history when I wasn’t there 2,000 or 3,000 years ago for the Purim Plays.

I was, actually. I was there in spirit, and so is this great show that dances on the grave of the monster now known as Adolf Elizabeth Hitler. I’ve figured out that if I can spare the time to see The Producers every Saturday night without fail from now on, I can drop the yoga relaxation class. I’ll be a happy fellow. Plus, the tickets to the show will only cost me $10,000 a year, not counting baby sitter and dinner for two, and provided I don’t take in a matinee. As you can tell, I love this show as no other. You will, too, just as soon as you can get in.

Wait! Don’t leave me. I don’t mean to rub salt in the wound . It’s just that I’ve never known anything like The Producers , where the audience is so giddy going in they’re like overexcited children who’ve been allowed to stay up late for a special treat. They sure get one. The uncanny thing is that the entire cast seems on a manic high itself, as if enjoying the show as much as everyone else. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick take the plaudits, of course. But look at the terrific cameo performance of Roger Bart as the hissy Carmen Ghia, the common-law assistant to the cross-dressing Roger DeBris. On paper, there’s nothing much there for Mr. Bart. But he’s doing nothing much to the point of comic genius. This good-natured performer, who’s been nominated for a Tony, actually has the audience on the floor with laughter just by standing there.

The cameo roles, performed with such assurance by supreme character actors like Roger Bart, keep The Producers on the boil, maintaining its fantastic racing pulse. My single reservation is that I’m not so sure I should be going around all day singing the show’s Bavarian hoedown, entitled “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop.” People have begun to notice. It’s almost as bad as falling asleep at night to its rousing hymn to showbiz, “Keep It Gay.” (“Keep it light, keep it bright / Keep it gay!”)

It brings me, alas, to the current shadowy revival of 42nd Street , which keeps it heavy, keeps it deadly, keeps it fey. As I see it, leaning down from Mount Parnassus, it’s absolutely everything The Producers ain’t, including the gift store in the lobby. The cavernous anonymity of the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, on newly corporate 42nd Street, itself is about as thrilling to visit as any civic center or assembly hall anywhere. But here we’ve the perfect match of a perfectly bland, perfectly anonymous production of a legendary musical living a pseudo-life for a while. What a pity the show that declares “the most glorious words in the English language” are “musical comedy” should be so noisily humorless this time around.

For myself, the most glorious words in the English language could be “What happens next?” But “musical comedy” is up there with the best of them, when it works irresistibly. The legendary American musicals are often backstage stories and tributes to the intoxicating lullaby of Broadway, like 42nd Street , like A Chorus Line or Follies . The Producers is a backstage story and love letter to old Broadway, too. But truth be told, the retro 42nd Street of 1980–which was based on the vintage 1933 movie musical of the same name–became a legend when its brilliant director-choreographer, Gower Champion, died the day it opened on Broadway. Its opportunistic producer, David Merrick, famously held the curtain after the opening-night performance to announce Champion’s death from the stage to a stunned audience (and a horrified cast). Cameras were on hand to record the historic moment.

I saw the original production, and for all its achievement–particularly with Champion’s last, scintillating choreography–it never quite caught the buoyant innocence and charm of the classic movie (a perfect rainy-Sunday movie). The show has always hovered uncertainly between sincerity and the camp of pastiche. The shaky libretto, by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble (Mr. Bramble is the director of the current revival), was described in the Playbill –insultingly, though accurately–as “lead-ins and cross-overs.”

Its original Harry Warren-Al Dubin score, made irresistible by the raid on their song catalog, is a dream. The titles alone make us nostalgic for an entire era we never knew. The “naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty” title song, “42nd Street,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “We’re in the Money,” “Keep Young and Beautiful,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”–one glorious hit song after another! Those were the pre-Lloyd Webber days.

What do you go for,

Go see a show for?

Tell the truth, you go

To see those beautiful dames.

That’s the ticket! The opening of the show itself is a legendary moment, when the curtain lifts a foot or so and stops so that we see the tap-dancing feet of the entire ensemble. (“Come and meet those dancing feet,” goes the renowned lyric.) Gower Champion created the thrilling opening by accident. They were beginning a full rehearsal when, wanting to correct the orchestra, he yelled out “Stop!” But only the stage manager heard him. So the curtain was stopped just after it began to rise, but the orchestra kept playing, the dancers kept dancing and Champion was struck by the best idea of his showman’s life.

But when the curtain rose this time, on a huge cast tap-dancing its tail off, something was horribly wrong. The sound, usually as clear and sharp as a pistol, was thunderingly unrecognizable. The huge stage of the Ford theater has been miked beneath its surface, making the show’s fabled tap-dancing sound as metallic as clattering horse hooves on cobblestone.

The lyric does not go: “Come and meet those dancing over-miked feet.” The outcome is anonymous gunfire, tinny, programmed, charmless, emotionally remote, delivered by rote, like the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Everything feels depressingly secondhand, for tourists only. There are echoes of Champion’s original choreography, Day-Glo versions of Robin Wagner’s original signature set designs, a borrowing from Theoni V. Aldredge’s 1980 rainbow costumes. Christine Ebersole as the narcissistic star, Dorothy Brock, can deliver the song but not the diva. Unfortunately, Kate Levering as the sweet, adorable ingénue Peggy Sawyer would kill us with her fiercely smiling, irrepressible energy. Michael Cumpsty as the jaded director-dictator Julian Marsh looks worried, as if inventing the Heisenberg Principle. Mr. Cumpsty doesn’t seem comfy. He can sing “42nd Street” about as well as I sing “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop.” I’m getting better. But is Mr. Cumpsty?

He delivers the immortal line “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” as if dutifully chanting “Let’s go, Mets.” He punches the air like someone going through the motions, like someone vaguely remembering another version of the same show. This mediocre 42nd Street sings the wrong lullaby of Broadway, The Producers the irresistible one.