George, Ira and Mel- Sssh! The Secret Art of ‘Second Acting’

Although it’s a little unfair to Hershey Felder, I couldn’t help feeling a certain yearning for my favorite “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” song from The Producers as I went to see his solo stage biography of George Gershwin.

Mr. Felder, a Canadian concert pianist and actor who also wrote his rousing tribute to Gershwin, is appearing in George Gershwin Alone at the Helen Hayes Theatre–right next door to the St. James Theatre, where The Producers , greatest show in the history of the whole wide beautiful world, is packing them in.

I’m glad to say that Hershey Felder is doing all right, too. Or so it seemed when I took in a recent matinee of his show, which he describes as “a play with music.” I love matinees. They’re like playing hooky from school. An interviewer asked Gershwin one time, “Didn’t you play anything when you were a boy?” “Only hooky,” he replied.

Take it from me. It’s never too late to start. But there! At exactly the same time as I was going in to catch the matinee of George Gershwin Alone along with a rather solemn crowd–a serious crowd, like a respectful audience at a public memorial service–uproar was going on next door as the overexcited mob jostled its way in to see The Producers , thrilled out of their minds to have scored a ticket. Naturally, I felt a pang. I hadn’t seen The Producers in at least two entire weeks. But what use was that to Hershey Felder?

Besides, he turned out to be a relaxed, very likable performer in his Broadway debut, although he’s clearly more at home at the piano than when, strictly speaking, he’s acting. Mr. Felder not only plays Gershwin, he looks like him. His script, however, is a pretty conventional, reverent narrative, taking the great man’s life and music from young prodigy discovered by Al Jolson, to misunderstood laureate of the Jazz Age, to early death at 38.

“It was 1919. Woodrow Wilson was still President …,” Hershey Felder informs us at the start, before segueing into “Swanee” on the Steinway, followed by Gershwin’s greatest hits, though not all of them. (There wouldn’t be time.) George Gershwin, I learned, was born Morris Gershovitz. Then again, Mel Brooks was born Melvin Kaminsky. Forgive the digression, but I can’t resist: One day Mel Brooks was visiting London, and English friends of his decided to take him for dinner to the exclusive, venerable old gentleman’s club called Brooks. When the waiter came over to his table, Mr. Brooks asked him: “What did this place used to be called before?” And the waiter explained, “It’s always been called Brooks, sir.” “Not me,” he replied cheerfully. “I used to be Kaminsky!”

No disrespect to Hershey Felder, but Mel Brooks has more in common with the Gershwin family than is widely supposed. George’s Russian-immigrant father is surely a kindred spirit. He used to refer to Rhapsody in Blue as “Rhapsody in Jews.” There’s also a surprising link with George’s brother, Ira–who was among the poetic geniuses of colloquial sophistication in the pantheon of great American lyricists. In an intriguing part of Mr. Felder’s show, he demonstrates how Ira substituted dummy lyrics to “I Got Rhythm” until inspiration struck. So the unforgettable words to the unforgettable melody first went:

Roly poly

Eating solely

Ravioli

Better watch your diet or bust!

Mel Brooks writes dummy lyrics, too–except he keeps them!

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! Though Hershey Felder doesn’t mention it, I believe the Gershwins kept a dummy lyric only once–and famously. It was, of course, “Blah, Blah, Blah,” the ballad from their 1931 Delicious , explaining how a theme song is rhymed:

Blah, blah, blah, blah, moon,

Blah, blah, blah, above;

Blah, blah, blah, blah, croon,

Blah, blah, blah, blah, love.

Mr. Felder performs unmiked, which could be unique on Broadway today. His George Gershwin Alone might not set the world on fire, but it’s a pleasant, heartfelt tribute to the genius who composed the 1924 jazz anthem “Oh, Lady Be Good,” the 1935 folk opera Porgy and Bess and the 1924 concerto masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue . It’s a modest show, even so, performed without intermission and lasting only 90 minutes.

As I came out of the Helen Hayes Theatre, the audience next door at The Producers was having a cooling drink during intermission. “How can they possibly top the first act?” a couple was saying animatedly on the sidewalk outside the St. James Theatre as I headed home. But something drew me back.

When I confess to you what happened next, you will scarcely believe that a fellow in my exalted position would even contemplate it, let alone stoop to such a thing. But there’s a long and honorable tradition in theatergoing known as “second acting.” You “second act” by mingling innocently with the audience as it returns for Act II after the intermission, thereby seeing the rest of the show for free. Actors and other impoverished fanatics have been doing it for years. There are people who’ve “second acted” The Phantom of the Opera and don’t even know why he’s wearing a mask. And there’s usually a good empty seat available at most theaters, or even a box. But they can spot you in a box.

“How can they possibly top the first act?” I heard myself confiding excitedly to no one in particular as I mingled with the audience returning for the second act of The Producers . Thank goodness I noticed I was still carrying my Playbill for George Gershwin Alone or the jig would have been up.

I was hoping to stand at the back of the theater, for surely no seats would be empty. (They weren’t.) The million producers of The Producers provide 18 standing-room seats for each performance at $25 each–except Friday, Saturday and Sunday, when out of the kindness of their hearts the price goes up to $30. But the tickets for standing room sell out every day, although I didn’t know that at the time.

The standing-room-only crowd know two big things about life, however. The first is that, for an exuberant, take-no-prisoners Broadway show like The Producers , standing room can be the best seat in the house. The electricity that comes from a happy audience actually rolls down to the stage from the back of the house. It’s the most amazing thing. You don’t just sense it. You see it, this wave–why, of love, of course.

The second big thing this band of brothers in standing room knows is that there’s a first time for everyone. And so they don’t fuss, making room for kindred spirits. True, I had missed Franz’s Act I Bavarian hoedown with cooing neo-Nazi pigeons, “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop,” but there was the compensatory delight of Franz’s lusty second-act tribute to Jimmy Durante, “Haben Sie Gehört Das Deutsche Band?”

V’ere sayin’

Haben sie gehört das deutsche band

Mit a zetz, mit a zap, mit a zing ….

We scholars in the field are ever alert to Mel Brooks’ musical sources. Only recently Anthony Tommasini, the distinguished music critic of The New York Times , made the connection between the show’s riotous klezmer number, “The King of Broadway,” and Fiddler on the Roof. If it’s Jewish, it must be Fiddler –right? Wrong! The influence here is actually Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Mr. Brooks’ sources–or musical valentines–are always in excellent taste, including his homages to Jule Styne, Kander and Ebb, and Richard Rodgers. But what of the Gershwins?

Thanks to Hershey Felder, I knew instinctively the inspiration for the second-act opening ballad, “That Face.” The Gershwins wrote the most memorable film scores during their Hollywood phase. Think Fred Astaire (“They All Laughed,” “A Foggy Day,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”). So “That Face” is Mr. Brooks’ romantic Fred-and-Ginger number for Leopold Bloom and the lovely Swedish tease, Ulla Inga Hansen Bensen Yonsen Tallen-Hallen Svaden-Svanson.

And the rest of the second act? Not bad, not bad at all. Plus, it was free!

This has been the season, and possibly the century, of The Producers . As I go off for a summer break, let’s put it this way about the show of shows, with special thanks to the Gershwins:

In time, the Rockies may crumble

Gibraltar may tumble

They’re only made of clay

But our love is here to stay.

See you soon, everyone!