Where Did They Go Wrong? Dynamic Duo Returns to Save the Day

I think I made a mistake when, in my understated way, I originally described The Producers as “the greatest show in history.” It is the greatest show in history-as long as you know who are in it.

The very welcome return engagement (until April 4) of the great Nathan Lane and the forever 14-year-old Matthew Broderick not only reveals how much we’ve missed them. It’s telling us that the producers of The Producers have never been able to replace them in the first place. But how hard have they tried? And who are Fred Applegate and Don Stephenson?

Mr. Applegate and Mr. Stephenson were the previous Bialystock and Bloom. No disrespect to either of them, but their Broadway experience before taking over the starring roles in The Producers was small, and no one would claim, surely, that they’re marquee names. When Messrs. Lane and Broderick first left the show in 2002, I saw their replacements: Brad Oscar-Mr. Lane’s understudy and impersonator-as Max, and the TV-sitcom actor Steven Weber as Leo. I wrote then of my favorite show that you can’t go home again and left it at that.

It seemed to me that the producers of the best-received Broadway musical in history were blowing it. Would you pay a top ticket price of $480 to see understudies and semi-knowns? Dips in audience attendance have since turned the blockbuster into a run-of-the-mill Broadway hit with an uncertain future. The return of the original stars smacks of desperation-as if they’re now saving a show that seems perversely designed to fail.

Or, as Max and Leo sing with tears streaming down their faces, “Where did we go right? ” The problems of The Producers apart, let me firstly say that with the return of its original stars, this sparkling show remains a joy from start to finish.

Nathan Lane is now making Matthew Broderick laugh almost as much as me. Understatement has never been a word in Mr. Lane’s vocabulary, but if anything, he’s even better than before: looser, improvising off the book, a riot. But look at the extraordinary talent in the engine room of the show: Gary Beach as Roger DeBris, the cross-dressing worst director in the world, and Roger Bart as his common-law assistant, Carmen Ghia, form the other perfect partnership in the show.

Once again, I must tip my hat to the immensely gifted Mr. Bart for conjuring up a great campy role out of thin air. There’s also a super contribution from John Tracey Egan as the manic neo-Nazi nut Franz Liebkind, and another winner in Angie Schworer as the new Swedish “secretary-slash-receptionist,” Ulla. The Producers is still the best and funniest show in town.

Until April, that is, when the stars leave the show, having carefully deposited what Max Bialystock calls “the checkies” in their heavily guarded bank vaults. In a recent interview with Time Out , Mr. Lane, concerned about the $480-a-head “premium seating,” accused his producers of a “new kind of greediness.” Coming from Mr. Lane-who, along with Mr. Broderick, is earning a record $100,000 a week-that’s rich. I think he should give back $50,000 a week immediately. Which he surely will, just as soon as time permits. But the $480 ticket, or legitimized price-gouging, isn’t the whole story.

We’ve forgotten now that the $100 ticket was once a record. And who set it? Why, the producers of The Producers , who upped the price of admission as soon as the rave reviews came in. They were the community-minded sweethearts who introduced the so-called Broadway Inner Circle that began selling the $480 ticket shortly after 9/11. Your 100 smackaroos no longer guarantees you a great seat, particularly as the Inner Circle also offers a $225 seat for those who can’t afford the $480. But what it amounts to is that the best seat in the house that you thought you were buying is now the third best.

There are “good seats” on sale for much less than $100, of course. But they are believed to be in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Bridge. (Binoculars may be rented.) Now, though tourists will pay practically anything, it seems, to see the original stars in The Producers , the public ain’t dumb. That’s why the “Welcome back, Nathan and Matthew, once-in-a-lifetime (positively our final offer!)” $1,500 ticket for the New Year’s Eve performance of the show didn’t sell. People weren’t buying it-just as they won’t rush to see this once-golden show when it’s “starring” Fred Applegate.

“I’m going to be blunt,” Rocco Landesman, the lead producer of The Producers , told The Times about the declining sales. “The show is good, the audiences are bad. It never occurred to me that this show was pitched too high for a Broadway audience.” May Mr. Landesman live to be 120, but “the show is good, the audiences are bad” will no doubt be written on his tombstone. There are no bad audiences, only bad shows. The notion that the notorious low comedy of Mel Brooks is somehow above anyone’s taste is stunning news. After all, The Producers opens with a joke about a blind violinist and goes on from there to the historic first of little old ladies tap-dancing with their walkers.

It’s true that the tourists and out-of-towners-H.L. Mencken’s “swinish multitude”-who are now The Producers ‘ audience no longer get all the insider showbiz jokes. On the night I attended, the send-up of the most famous line in 42nd Street , for example, was no longer greeted with its usual belly laugh. “You’re going out there a silly, hysterical queen,” Carmen Ghia orders the faux stage-shy Roger DeBris, “and you’re coming back a great big passing-for-straight Broadway star!” A few of us were on the floor, but it passed the Japanese, among others, by.

The rule of thumb is that a Broadway show runs through its New York audience after eight months. From then on, it has to appeal to poor old tourists. New Yorkers get the jokes out-of-towners don’t. It’s why musicals with symbols-waifs, phantoms, puppets-do best with tourists. Yet for all that, you can’t help thinking that Mr. Landesman and his merry men behind The Producers thought they had it made. They raised the price of admission to unheard-of heights, and they paid the price. When things went wrong, they blamed the audience.

Mel Brooks-who’s another of the opportunistic producers of the show-has now sold the film rights. Before long, everyone will be able to see Nathan and Matthew in the film version for 10 bucks. Meanwhile, it’s been announced with a desperate fanfare that Kelsey Grammer of Frasier and Cheers is in negotiations to take over the role of Max Bialystock when Mr. Lane is done. Aren’t you thrilled?

At least they’ll have to pay him real money. Unless he’s paying them. (Mr. Grammer largely financed his own production of Macbeth on Broadway, in which he briefly starred.) But when was the last time he appeared in a musical, I wonder, or sang in the bath? I saw him when he played Macbeth-and, as a cruel colleague reminds me, he was quite funny. But will his Max be as funny as his Macbeth? Mr. Grammer is an actor who made his name playing a neurotic introvert on television, and now he wants to play the biggest extrovert on Broadway. Good luck to him! But for me, it’s best to quit while we’re ahead and bid a fond farewell to The Producers .