The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Mamma Mia

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Producers

December 16, 2005, Universal/Columbia  135 min.
Tho The Producers didn't resurrect Musical Comedy on Bway entirely on its own, it sure seemed like it. Such was the fuhrer--er, furor for the show--a last happy gasp before 9/11; and an even more welcome balm afterward--that it single-handedly changed the concept of premium seats at premium prices (thereby scalping the scalpers) that has, unfortunately become ubiquitous along The Street, pushing Bway Theater evermore into a luxury pursuit. Thus the ultimate legacy of The Producers is, ironically, a real boon to all Bway producers.

That the show was a smash was no surprise to me, having investigated nabbing rights-- oh, ye of youthful penniless idealism!--to Mel Brooks' original 1968 movie back in 1978--with a friend, Bill Waters, from my days at the Cherry Lane. Despite my love of musicals, I was wholly uninspired then in conceiving new or original tuner ideas, except for such obvious adaptations of films like this and Some Like it Hot. But I had definite ideas about how to do them, and in my estimation, no one could write a cheerier, bubblier, more apt score for The Producers than Charles Strouse & Lee Adams--my conviction not entirely based their shimmering vaudeville turn for Jack Cassidy in Superman, "You've Got What I Need"--which, with nary a lyric change could serve as the song Bialystock hooks Bloom into partnership--Cassidy's character is even named Max! But having written two original songs for the movie, including the peerless "Springtime for Hitler," why shouldn't Mel Brooks write the whole score?--even if no one would ever mistake him for Rodgers, Sondheim, or Strouse. But Bway also had no shortage of successful one-fingered tune-tinklers. Perhaps in deference to the musical task at hand, Brooks brought in help on the book; the man who gave Annie its coherence and focus, the veteran Thomas Meehan. Tho Brooks won an Oscar for his original screenplay (which he also directed) the film moves briskly, rather recklessly, masking large gaps in plot and logic. A full scale Bway evening needed some filling out.

It took the length of Jesus's entire life before Brooks finally got around to turning his first pot of gold into a Bway musical. By then he had cycled thru his entire film career (eleven features in 23 years; the signature farces of the early classics giving way to less popular fare over the years, rendering him retired by the turn of the Millenium. Among the last of the vaudeville scribes, Brooks cut his teeth in the legendary writer's room of Sid Caesar's TV variety show--the final refuge of what had been the great Bway revues. One of the last, New Faces of 1952, marked his Bway debut. Five years later he wrote the book for the Archy & Mehitibel musical, Shinbone Alley (improbably filmed in animation many years later); and in 1962 a collegiate musical, All American--which did him no favors (nor he it) and brought low both Ray Bolger and Joshua Logan, but left unscathed a lovely sophmore score by Strouse & Adams, as a follow up to Bye Bye Birdie. (Another teaming might have benefited all concerned.) 

I had considered the musical's tryout as an excuse to go visit my friend Ed in Chicago, but by the turn of the century I had resumed my annual visits to NY, which in conjunction with my indirect access to the R&H office, put me in house seats for their Encores! productions--timed perfectly in late Spring with the April Bway openings that thrive in latter day seasons--much as Oscar-bait movies open at year's end. The Producers was paramount on that list for me, and it was still in previews on my first 2001 visit; attended  by a  whole coterie of  friends and 42nd St. 
Moon contacts, all of whom--it seemed to me--were more in thrall with the show than I. No question this was a Mel Brooks production, but so much of the humor was facile if not puerile, and only cheapened by its vulgarity. Yet the audience ate it up. Still, there was much I admired about the production; it's varied visual pleasures and career-high performances. But I wasn't over-the-moon enthusiastic like most of New York; that is before I returned two months later (to see Encores! Hair) and in an online fluke--or a Gift from the Gods--scored a front row seat off the right side of the orchestra, literally touching the stage. As it turned out, another middle-aged fanboy had clicked the single next to me--as gaga as I over our unlikely good fortune--our pair its own private row. Turning around was a view tantamount to being on stage. I feasted on thoughts of the St. James' enchanted history: the  historic  first runs 
of Oklahoma! Where's Charley? The King & I, The Pajama Game, Li'l Abner, Flower Drum Song, Do Re Mi, Subways are for Sleeping, Hello, Dolly!--lingering ghosts of their vibrations left behind. I first entered these portals in 1970; to see Merman no less, in Dolly. Later, Two Gentlemen of Verona; the impeccably reconstructed 20th Anniversary My Fair Lady; the rollicking first preview of On the 20th Century. And now at the first smash hit of the 21st Century: the resurrection of Musical Comedy itself: The Producers. The audience hyped and waiting in electric anticipation.

My interest had another component as well, as there were a number of parallels with my own long-aborning musical, When Stars Collide--not the least being set in the same era (1959/60) and Shubert Alley environs. Visually The Producers did not disappoint, nor in the opening jingle, leading to Max's star entrance, revealed--like Dolly Levi--from behind a newspaper. His opening gambit "The King of Broadway," is surpisingly good, not only in Susan Stroman's characterful staging but in Brooks' Russian-infused melodic line. An encouraging start to the show, but 
short-lived as "We Can Do It" and "I Wanna Be a Producer" reveal the more prevalent Brooks product; simple, pleasant utilitarian tunes--with jokey lyrics that often turn sophomoric ("I just gotta be a producer/Drink champagne until I puke"). I confess I've never much enjoyed the whole Franz Liebkind sequence. Brooks obviously relishes making morons out of Nazis; but I don't get much from "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop" or the whole gag with carrier pigeons. What if Springtime for Hitler had been authored by a looney mental patient instead?--someone who'd be more likely to accept Roger DeBris' campy staging, without complaint. Not that Franz objects either--but wouldn't he? Surely I digress...


Attempting to turn Leo & Ulla into Fred & Ginger for a second act opener is really just more filler--especially with a tune as facile as "That Face." After that we're rushing toward the musical's apotheosis, so it's all the more surprising that Brooks pulls off one of his better numbers with "You Never Say Good Luck on Opening Night." But the entire show has been leading to the moment "Springtime for Hitler" sweeps us away in its outrageous exuberance; and knowing this, Brooks and Stroman wisely extend the production with the addition of a lengthy middle section, essentially another song, "Heil Myself," which serves to turn the shocked and offended audience in on the joke--even if that isn't Max & Leo's intention. It's an inspired addition, with a hilarious mid-song solo (at stage edge ala' Judy Garland) for DeBris, who, despite filling in for the stricken Franz at the last moment, plays the scene as if he'd been doing it all along. Which begs the question of how Leibkind ever tolerated such direction, never mind wrote a lyric for Hitler such as "I'm the German Ethel Merman, don'tcha know." But logic is a slippery slope, and why carp with a number that delivers? And they made sure it wouldn't disappoint. Beginning with folksy Bavarians, the stage gives way to a Zeigfeldian stairway and a bevy of showgirls in overblown costumes depicting German cuisine (pretzels, sausage, beer); and the world's blondest tenor in SS chic--all as intro to the man of the hour. But this Adolph is more Green than Hitler--extolling "Ev'ry hotsy-totsy Naxi stand and cheer!" to a nightclub bongo beat, and a born-in-a-trunk confessional. Circling back to the main refrain, the curtain rises on a line of Stormtrooper Rockettes dancing in swastika formations for an artillery-heavy finale. There's really nowhere to go from here, but the story plays out with Leo & Ulla escaping to Rio while Max stews in jail. This gives him a potential tour-de-force number, "Betrayed" which is marred by a needless recanting of the entire show's bullet points (including its intermission--the one good gag) in a rapid litany--which only makes the evening seem longer. The story ends in court, a trope that goes back to our start with On the Town and includes more than a few Bway musicals, including Hello, Dolly!--which The Producers parallels with more than common tenancy at the St. James--running six years, respectfully just shy of Dolly's original marathon. But "'Til Him" is "It Only Takes a Moment" with a lesser tune, and the show races to an unlikely conclusion of Bialystock & Bloom's future portfolio: (High Button Jews, South Passaic, Maim, A Streetcar Named Murray--are these titles really funny to anyone?) And yet the end result renders such nit-picking irrelevant--thanks more to Stroman and the cast.

Nathan Lane hasn't the cartoon face and body of Zero Mostel, who dominates the original movie, but it is inconceivable anyone but Lane could've landed this show on Bway with such thunderous impact. He'd been working up to this for years, alternating plays & musicals; re-inventing lead roles in Guys & Dolls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. (again of Mostel's  original imprint.) Like the legendary clowns of Bway yore, Lane was a huge box office draw as well; proving himself a bigger star than the show--which his replacements (including Henry Goodman, Richard Kind, Tony Danza) made clear. I don't know how to factor Matthew Broderick into this equation. He's a passable song & dance man, a restrained comic actor with none of the quirky energy of Gene Wilder (who got the film's other Oscar nomination), yet he rode the show's success in tandem with Lane. (Their pairing brought a box office stampede for a 4-month return later in the run, when reciepts were falling.) But it's hard to say Broaderick was equally essential to the show as Lane. To my estimation a much better fit would've been Martin Short, who did play Bloom on the road, opposite Jason Alexander--who wasn't a bad Max, but their pairing was more of a clash than a meld. Gary Beach (as Roger DeBris) and Roger Bart (as assistant Carmen Ghia) made a meal of their supporting roles, which lead both to Tony nominations (and win for Beach) and leading parts in future shows. Cady Huffman got her own Tony for Ulla--and Brad Oscar a nom for Liebkind, but unlike the quartet above neither were signed for the movie.

Understandably, Hlwd couldn't ignore a hit of such magnitude, yet still the need was felt to split the risk between two studios: Universal and Columbia. If Brooks was first approached to direct (and why wouldn't he be, given his experience), he was wise to defer to Stroman, who elevated the stage musical above its cruder, cheaper instincts. Nor was there any question of anyone for Max & Leo other than Lane & Broderick--who by then were as inseparable as Lunt & Fontanne (They were reteamed as The Odd Couple on Bway at the time of The Producers film release.) Beach &  Bart were also retained, but Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell were marquee concessions. Uma doesn't bring much more than her imposing height to improve on Huffman's Ulla--certainly not her musical skills. But Ferrell's sentimental Nazi was entirely within his demented range. Stroman calls in a good deal of Bway talent for cameos thruout--including, most prominently, Andrea Martin & Debra Monk as two Little Old Ladies;  Karen Ziemba as an opening nighter, and an atomic blonde John Barrowman as the lead tenor for "Springtime."

If Stroman doesn't stray far from her Bway staging, she sure revels in the lushness of the scenery, pumped up for the screen in what feels like old-fashioned saturated Technicolor. The movie opens with a zoom in on a model of mid-century Times Square, coming to a jaw-dropping soundstage reconstruction of West 44th St. at the southern end of Shubert Alley, with the Shubert Theater across from the Astor Bar (A landmark I was never to see, for my first visit to NY was just after the great Astor Hotel had been replaced by the monstrosity that is One Astor Plaza which laid its unwelcoming concrete backside to Shubert Alley, altering its ambience forever.) The set expands along the street showing Sardi's, the NY Times truck dock, the Broadhurst, St James, and Lunt-Fontanne Theaters (tho the last is relocated from 46th St.--the clue to its misplacement is how it's framed in the film's last shot, with just the bottom of the blade sign visible "--anne," a nod to Brooks' wife, Anne Bancroft). It's the kind of set you can't get enuf  time eyeballing;  so astonishing in its detail;


The movie cuts from "Opening Night" to Max's office and the arrival of Leo--revealing Lane for the first time from under a pile of newspapers. I'd forgotten how good the scenes are, full of rapid-fire exchanges and quicksilver emotional swings. The flatness of the on-the-nose, "We Can Do It" is smoothed by dividing verses into locales; moving from office to street, to taxi, to Central Park. Even the otherwise filler tune, "I Wanna Be a Producer" has me in its corner with Stroman's expansion into movie musical territory--and  full  soundstage  neon  marquee  madness. 

If "Along Came Bialy" on stage was a vaguely annoying excuse to have a Geriatric Chorus Line tapping walkers in unison, the number makes even less sense on screen. Leading a parade of dozens down Fifth Avenue, Max lines them up and collects their checks. But it's his personal (and presumably private) attention to each one that earns him his backing, not a uniformly dressed social club. And given the sharply delineated characters of the film's ensembles thus far, it's all the more jarring that these Little Old Ladies aren't given their own individual dressage; but instead lined up and knocked down like a row of dominoes. Oh, I get it--its metaphoric! But no--it's idiotic, and a real wrong turn in the film. A further detour follows with "That Face," an unconvincing romantic interlude for Leo & Ulla. Here's what should have been cut from the movie; the long verse of the song is a snooze, tho it does perk up in the dance--but Fred & Ginger allusions do no one any favors. Once we get to the Hitler auditions the show is back on track (tho one wishes another two or three actors were seen) and here Will Farrell earns his keep with his demented vaudeville rendition of "Haben Sie Gehort Das Deutsche Band?" In Brooks' first film they cast a stoned hippie Dick Shawn as their Hitler. But the musical made a choice of economy that also makes more sense, having Franz reveal himself born to the role.

And yet by opening night Franz is disposed with to give Roger DeBris his Ruby Keeler moment, and deliver a performance of such camp as to pivot the show into a hit. (Tho, in fact, the material goes a long way to help him--you can't get much sillier than "hotsy totsy Nazi.") As the moment we've all be waiting for, "Springtime for Hitler" fortunately pays off, but with a tinge of disappointment that even this has been trimmed, needlessly, in Roger's "Heil  Myself"  section.  The  production  looks  spectacular 
with showgirls topped by a towering Uma Thurman; a magnificently Aryan tenor in John Barrowman and a chorus line of precision stormtroopers (which begs the question of why it's put together so professionally if what they were going for was disaster?) "Where Did We Go Right" is reduced to one line of dialogue, and the ensuing post-opening morning in the office turns into a scene of chaos and comics and again I'm puzzled why Franz would be screaming heresy when he surely sat thru the rehearsal and saw the show unfold? Was it simply Roger's campy performance? And if the show is now a smash, couldn't they just pay back the backers and start collecting on a robust box office? I know, I'm asking for the moon. Maybe it would irk me less if I could love the score better. Leo & Ulla escape to Rio, and Max is put in jail--giving him a potential tour-de-force in "Betrayed," which is betrayed by not cutting its needless plot summary middle section. And as many musicals do, it seems only fitting to end in a courtroom with a song--but in this case an underwhelming plea by Leo in defense of Max, "'Til Him"--which might as well be a lullaby for all the energy it has. They both get sent to the Big House nonetheless, where they openly resume their fundraising scheme (prisoners have money?), and lickety split are pardoned for bringing joy to jailbirds in Sing Sing (but they're still rehearsing the show which hasn't yet opened!) and Back on Bway--for the gag filled marquee backdrop (Katz; Death of a Salesman On Ice). And here I must chide myself somewhat, for why do I keep dwelling on the flaws in reality and rationale? Am I being unfair to The Producers because I saw my own version so many years ago? As it were, Brooks was the right tonic at the right time, and Bway was in many ways better for it.

As a Bway phenomenon The Producers didn't translate to national wildfire. The movie was released on December 16, 2005, positioned for both holiday crowds and award visibility. It didn't get much of either, grossing a very hum-drum 19 million domestically, and nearly the same internationally. Combined with the underachieving Rent, released almost in tandem, Hlwd was looking at Bway again with caution if not skepticism. The Producers lasted at the St. James until April 2007--long after the movie become available to one & all on DVD. Happily, the disc offers much of the deleted material, especially "King of Bway" and a very funny bit in the Astor Bar with a drunk. A feature length commentary track by Susan Stroman sounds promising, but alas is more than simply disappointing, it's vapid. ("Matthew is so strong, he had no trouble lifting Uma off the desk--several times!") Instead of juicy insights about the show's creative process, technical info or details of the actors, Stroman describes the actions, gags or even breaks down the jokes, while we're watching them!--all of which we can easily discern for ourselves. Unfortunately this sort of thing takes up most of her commentary--which I might understand if she did the whole thing off the cuff. But these seem to be prepared notes. Still, all aside, Susan Stroman's movie is a valiant preservation of the Bway musical with some regrettable (tho not major) cutting, but with a number of nostalgic mid-century New York sets as some compensation--and the pic's one major advance on the stage show. I first saw the movie at a screening on November 18, two days before I saw Rent--which was released at Thanksgiving. Neither met their full potential, tho with The Producers, it was often the material that didn't rise to the high style of the production, while with Rent it was the other way around.

With the start of a second depressing term of Bush/Cheney & Co. there was ever more reason to dig deeper into my cultural studies of film, theater, music & TV. On the creative front I was putting the finishing touches on When Stars Collide for an initial presentation, at the expense of time spent with friends, but there was no lack of amazing entertainment to be had on the tube: Carnivale, Six Feet Under, Rome, Huff, and gulp, yes, the first few seasons of Grey's Anatomy. There were great comedies as well, like Arrested Development, The Office, and Little Britain--with two of the Maddest Hatters England ever produced: Matt Lucas and David Walliams. By now I no longer went to the cinema except for a few screenings at year's end, courtesy of my emeritus status with the WGA. Aside from the rarity of having two new movie musicals that season, much attention was lavished on Brokeback Mountain, which I found mostly annoying for overdoing its hate card--making me embarrassed to be an American. Around the same time I discovered an unheralded gem called Big Eden--in which a gay man returns home from NY to Montana, and falls into a love affair with a straight man that's everything but the sex. It's a sweet, lovely story that always makes me cry, and stars one of my secret loves, Tim DeKay--as the halfway hetero. (Fun fact: he made local fame playing Fagin in his high school's Oliver!) For sheer clueless cultural appropriation, nothing could top my year's find: an Elvis Presley Xmas vehicle from 1965, Harum Scarum; an unbelievable OPEC adventure with a chorus of BevHills Jewesses playing Persian harem gals (You can hear them thinking: What's the diff?--they're all hairy you know) and about every insensitive cliche one could make about the Middle East. Good fun.

Better fun was my Spring trip to NY, one of the very best, and not only for the robust joy and quality shows that season: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Monty Python's Spamalot, The Light in the Piazza and William Finn's Spelling Bee. This quartet was a full banquet, but somehow I remember Spamalot the most affectionately, for it's black light/day glo sets, Sara Ramirez, and the "hey!" joke that propelled me into the most explosive, longest sustained laugh I ever had in a Bway theater. Luckily we were in standing room--because I needed some space! As if that wasn't enuf, the centerpiece of the week was Encores! The Apple Tree, Bock & Harnick's whimsical triptych of a musical; a curious and particular favorite of mine, done with the only possible contemporary successor to Barbara Harris: Kristen Chenoweth. Tho cited by many as the best of the three episodes, the Adam & Eve segment didn't thrill as it should in Chenoweth's hands--but she doesn't play poignancy well. Passionella was happily all I could hope for, but the big surprise was how good Lady & the Tiger was too. The best Encores! show I'd seen since my first--Do Re Mi. On that Sunday's matinee I left another mediocre parody show (Musical of Musicals) to sneak back into the second half of Apple Tree for a personal encore, this time in the orchestra. It was a week of good or lucky choices. Larry Rubinstein rented us a business apt. near Penn Station with a 35th story view of downtown (now sans Twin Towers) that was so blindingly white as to suggest a booby-hatch, but gave us view of a spectacular fireworks show over the Statue of Liberty. We had a fabulous time. Prior to NY I landed in Boston to see Laura for the second year in a row, and enjoy the city from the Lenox Hotel. But alas, yet again there was no show in Boston to catch in tryout for NY.

Thruout these years I was blessed to continue my association with Gary Bell and harness our two-man team thru the dozens of building projects for which we secured permits; not least for the liberal holidays we allowed each other, his frequent excursions to Egypt and South Africa; my Spring East Coast jaunt. Upon my return there was one inticing prospect awaiting me in SF, the tryout of a new musical based on The Mambo Kings--a flawed but charming movie whose Cuban-flavored soundtrack I devoured and looked forward to seeing it expanded and staged. Alas, it never caught magic or fire, and never made it into NY. Another original tuner, The Haunting of Winchester (the rifle heiress of the San Jose manor under eternal construction) was an excuse for an excursion to San Jose with my newly relocated pal, Michael Paller--now suddenly hired from NY as dramaturg to SF's American Conservatory Theater. Haunting wasn't. Michael immersed himself in the varieties of his new position. A steady job in theater--something I'd have coveted in younger days. Concurrently he was enjoying the release of his Tennessee Williams bio: Gentlemen Callers, which approaches the playwright's work thru his homosexual lens--and now sells for collector's prices on Amazon.

My autumn holiday kept me on the West Coast, with a lot more driving.  First to LA to pick up Larry and see Reprise! On the Town (jolly), then off to Vegas, primarily to see the new Cirque de Soleil show, Ka (on par); followed by a stop in Palm Springs (which I hadn't been to since leaving LA in '95) before winding up in San Diego (meeting Karr) and going to see Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life at the Old Globe. We sat dead center in the third row, and I still swear she did the whole show staring directly at me. Then it was back to LA for a lively Rosh Hashanah at Tommy's before heading home. The broadest legacy of the trip, however, was my reawakened desert longings--keyed to the surprise that Palm Springs had retained its sleepy resort vibe and not exploded into the suburban sprawl that swallowed LA. I was 53 years old. The lights of Bway were still in my eyes, but the velvet comforts of the Mojave were in many ways more alluring. With Bway alighting with Musical Comedy again in the century's first decade, I had high hopes that my own entry would hit the sweet spot. I wasn't ready to retire my theatrical ambitions just yet. The gleaming example of The Producers--notwithstanding its runaway success--gave me fuel.


Next Up: Dreamgirls

Report CardThe Producers
Overall Film:  B+
Bway Fidelity:  A- (some cuts only)
Songs from Bway:  14
Songs Cut from Bway:  3
Worst Omission:  "The King of Broadway" 
       (filmed, and viewable in Bonus tracks)
New Songs:  2: "You'll Find Your Happiness in
       Rio" (seen in brief) and "There's Nothing
       Like a Show on Broadway"
       (heard only in end credits)
Standout Numbers: "Springtime" (of course)
               "You Never Say Good Luck on
               Opening Night" "Keep it Gay"
Casting:  Bway with a couple of  marquee
               upgrades, numerous famous cameos
Standout Cast: Nathan Lane, Gary Beach
Cast from Bway: Lane, Broderick, Beach, Bart
Direction:  Fluid, nicely opened-up
Choreography:  Funny, flashy, characterful,
Scenic Design:  Best Bway sets ever?
Standout Sets: West 44th St/Shubert Alley
Costumes: Period & character perfect
Titles: Cast photos in end credits, long scroll
Oscar noms: None

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