When I first heard there was a Broadway musical adaptation of Mel Brooks' riotous 1968 comedy The Producers in the works, I cringed. Coming from a musical theater now as bankrupt of original ideas as the Hollywood studios, this was news akin to discovering some moron was launching a remake of Duck Soup — pointless, unnecessary, and insulting to the sui generis original.
Then came more reassuring intelligence: the composer/lyricist was to be Brooks himself. While not a trained musician (neither were Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and Frank Loesser), Brooks has written a wildly inventive series of parodic songs for his own films — not only the original Producers' "Prisoners of Love" and its juicily infamous "Springtime for Hitler" (the original title for The Producers) but such Brooksian hummables as "Blazing Saddles," "I'm Tired" and "The French Mistake" (Blazing Saddles), "Look for the Best, Expect the Worst" (The Twelve Chairs), the faux-Sinatran "High Anxiety," and the aquatic Inquisition ballet and the immortal "Jews in Space" (History of the World — Part One). Not to mention a Polish rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown" (To Be or Not To Be) and that hardy perennial anthem of the 2,000 Year Old Man, "Let 'em all go to hell/Except Cave 76!"
There was one last obstacle impeding my full acceptance, however: the movie, released in 1968, featured an acid-blasted character called LSD so of the moment he probably dated the film a month after it debuted. The solution, by Brooks and his gifted co-librettist Tom Meehan, both resolved the issue and gave the authors a perfect hook on which to hang their new-fashioned old-fashioned musical. By retrofitting the scenario to the late 1950s, Brooks the composer was free to indulge in the kind of lush, traditional Broadway melodies of his youth, making The Producers the best-musical-of-1959-that-wasn't-written-until-2001.
That's no exaggeration. It's fairly safe to say at this juncture that The Producers boasts the most insistently tuneful, instinctively melodic Broadway score by an amateur since Frank Loesser pounded out How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Mel Brooks is a great admirer of juxtaposition — think of Peter Boyle slurring the elegant lyrics to "Puttin' on the Ritz" like Boris Karloff with a lip full of Novocain. The crowning irony is that Brooks' ingratiating tunes are wedded to a perfect set of outrageously vulgar, irresistibly offensive lyrics. (I like to think the show's record 12 Tony Awards® were given in acknowledgement of the dozen rhymes Brooks comes up with for "nights" in the opening number's on-rushing mazurka-like climax.)
Mel Brooks' musicality is doubtless innate. All great comedy (and most great writing) depends on rhythm, and Brooks is to American comedy what Louis Armstrong is to American jazz. To listen to his peerless albums with Carl Reiner is to experience a great improvisatory talent in full cry. You can almost hear, in these impromptu sets, the sound of Mel Brooks' mind clicking madly after some inspired turn of phrase only it could articulate, or imagine. At their best, Brooks and Reiner bounce off each others' thought-waves like Billie Holiday and Lester Young — anticipating, meeting, blending, and surpassing each other to form a series of comedic riffs unique in the annals of post-war national culture. Like Joseph Heller in Catch-22, Mel Brooks works best without a net. (He's also, to those who pay attention, refreshingly literate, and The Producers makes reference to James Joyce and Dostoyevsky.)
Which probably goes a good league toward explaining why The Producers spins on the axis of a book that ranks as one of the three funniest in American musical comedy. That the other two — A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and City of Angels — are the work of Brooks' old "Caesar's Hour" colleague Larry Gelbart is surely no accident: that writers' room housed and nurtured the people, Woody Allen and Neil Simon among them, who shaped and defined an entire epoch of American comedy.
I won't belabor the plot of The Producers here. It's too well known already; and if by some miracle you're uninitiated, I'm loath to spoil your surprise. But it's a classic farce scenario, and suffice it to say that it involves a search for the worst musical ever written; an unreconstructed Nazi playwright; a director who could make Liberace look butch; a sex-bomb receptionist who not only cannot speak English, but doesn't need to; a production number of sublimely surpassing awfulness; and a central figure who is a demented amalgam of Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Danny Kaye, David Burns, Paul Ford, Bert Lahr, W.C. Fields, and Zero Mostel, reduced to making love to elderly patrons for his meager survival.
Mostel, who created the role of Brooks' impecunious producer Max Bialystock, hovers over The Producers like a benign demon. Even Nathan Lane, the splendid progenitor of the musical version, owed part of his acclaimed performance to that great, strutting, sweating egomaniac. As does Lewis J. Stadlen, the Max of the national tour presented by Broadway Series South Nov. 2-7 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts.
Stadlen started his career assaying the young Groucho in the musical Minnie's Boys, all but single-handedly kept the perpetual-motion machine that was Hal Prince's 1974 edition of Candide running in place, and has latterly churned up superlatives as the sexually frustrated alta kaka Senex in Forum and the Harpo-inspired Banjo in The Man Who Came to Dinner (both as co-star to Nathan Lane). His distinctive vocal pattern, which segues from a rich baritone in its lower registers to a slightly strangulated nasality in the upper, neatly separates his Bialystock from all others. (It may or may not be an in-joke, but the fulsome mustache he sports makes him a dead ringer for that late, unlamented Broadway producer prototype David Merrick.) Stadlen gives us Bialystock whole: the greedy wheeze, the outraged geshrai of the fallen idol who knows he deserves better than the best, the unrestrained lust for gold and glory that is its own form of comedic grace, and the hilarious despair of the narrowly thwarted.
If Alan Ruck is slightly less impressive as Max's sheep-like co-conspirator Leo Bloom it's only because the accountant-cum-hotshot is not as showy a role. (And anyway, no one has yet quite channeled Gene Wilder's nonpareil turn in the original film. Mostel constructed Max out of the brilliant Borscht-Belt shtick he'd honed for decades; Wilder was a True Original.) As the linguistically challenged Ulla, Charley Izabella King is utterly sensual and somehow supremely innocent. The gyrations she commits during "When You Got It, Flaunt It" constitute the most arresting display of erotic athleticism since Anita Morris got banned from the Tony broadcast in 1982.
Michael McCormick gives a robust performance as the Nazi dramatist Franz Liebkind, and Harry Bouvy minces his way to comic glory as the marvelously named Carmen Ghia. But the greatest glory among the supporting cast is that grand old hand Lee Roy Reams. As Roger De Bris, the musical stager who "never realized that the Third Reich meant Germany," Reams not only gets to show off his patented Broadway belt, but turns a delicately perched "faggot" stereotype into a thing of comic beauty, whether gathering up his gown with distracted panache or sitting on the edge of the stage invoking Judy Garland at the Palace.
William Ivey Long's scrumptiously outlandish costumes, like Doug Besterman's Jule Styne-esque orchestrations, could scarcely be improved upon. (Glen Kelly, who is credited with the show's musical arrangements and supervision, is the genius who transcribed Brooks' unwritten ditties.) The evening's highest praise, however, goes to the two individuals, aside from Brooks himself, who make The Producers the unforgettable experience it is.
One: the great Robin Wagner, whose scenic designs provide the perfect palette with which Brooks & Co. paint their indelible portraiture. If I had the gifts of a Byron, I would write odes in praise of Wagner's ingenuity. From his bubbling champagne bottle served via water cooler and the red heart projections that blossom into twin bouquets to his neon-lit jail cell, Wagner has imagined The Producers Mel Brooks intended: a great big, acid-tinged Valentine to the Broadway of his dreams.
And two (but really One Squared): Susan Stroman, the show's irreplaceable director and choreographer. The Producers boasts the most consistently, insanely, profligately, extravagantly brilliant and inventive staging of a musical since the heyday of Bob Fosse. An SS officer executes a slapstick schuhplattler in one scene and a Jolsonesque mazurka in another; hilariously articulated pigeons flap and coo out a chorus of "Deutschland Über Alles"; a wounded ham makes the longest exit in theatrical history using only his arm; two lovers dance a blithely romantic hommage to Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds; prisoners in Sing-Sing emulate Fred Astaire with his Blue Skies cane; trying to sabotage his own show, Max pulls in everything from a ladder under which the actors must pass to a black cat thrown into the dressing room (its insulted screech provided by Mel Brooks). The only thing Stroman didn't come to grips with was how to replicate that great master-shot of the audience reacting to "Springtime for Hitler" in the original film — a moment as achingly funny today as it was in 1968. (She doesn't try.) But she has found a way to evoke Brooks' hilarious Busby Berkeley overhead crane shot of the living swastika, so we're more than amply compensated.
A final word here, about taste. Brooks' alleged lack of it is a shibboleth that has dogged him for decades, often without merit. Rather amazingly, his parody of Nazism in The Producers (as was the case in 1968) is still a source of public outrage, as if to satirize Hitler were the same thing as trivializing, or ridiculing, the Holocaust itself. It's a specious, or at least overly sensitive, position. I could more easily understand a gay protest at the unrestrained nellyness of the show's 1950s-era homintern, or a feminist outcry at the bubble-headed Ulla. That there has been none is a testament to Mel Brooks' skill as a satirist; he slays his serious dragons (i.e., Hitler) with savagery; everyone else is skewered with affection.
So, a caveat: if you're unhinged by the sight of chorines topped by knockwurst headgear, a bevy of pigeons sporting SS armbands, a black accountant singing his woe in the cadences of an old Negro spiritual (and, later, turning up as a very Irish cop), a production team resembling an anachronistic gathering of Village People archetypes, or a chorus-line of old ladies tapping out a number with their Zimmerman frames — stay far, far away. For everyone else: run to Papa.
Broadway Series South presents The Producers Thursday-Friday, Nov. 4-5, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 6, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 7, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $34-$84. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates (for groups of 20 or more): 919/857-4565 or http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2004-2005/group.html. Broadway Series South: http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2004-2005/broadway.html#produce. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/Show.asp?id=10510. Internet Movie Database (1968 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063462/. The Offical Broadway Site: http://www.producersonbroadway.com/. The Tour Site: http://www.producersontour.com/.