If the folks at Sony (which devoured Columbia Records years ago) had a little more wit, they might have stuck the old Columbia logo on the Sony Classical original cast CD of The Producers--the one of an LP on a microphone stand. They might even have hawked "360 Stereo Sound" and emblazoned a gray, 1960s label on the disc itself, for this is a recording of a determinedly recherché musical comedy. In fact, alphabetization aside, the cast album is one that you wouldn't feel uncomfortable filing between A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Barely two weeks into its official run, The Producers is already a phenomenon, the kind of thing Winchell would have called a "smasheroo." Really, Broadway hasn't seen anything quite like it in 40 years: a musical comedy with an emphasis on the latter, one that creates an atmosphere so charged that the costumes are funny, the dances are funny, the orchestrations are funny, even the ions are funny. Audiences walk out deliriously happy, and, yes, humming the songs. Well, at least they're humming "Springtime for Hitler," which we all know from the 1968 movie about two producers scheming to overcapitalize a surefire money-loser (why don't they just produce Follies?) and flee to Rio with the backers' millions.
And the songs? As it turns out, they're the least of it. This is not a serious flaw; it's frequently the case in comic musicals, where the emotional investment isn't deep and the musical numbers are often respites from the comic mayhem of the book. Daringly, 74-year-old Broadway Baby Mel Brooks elected to write his own songs for the show (after Jerry Herman passed). As he admitted a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times, Brooks is not the most musically literate composer; and the result is a tuneful, unambitious score not only set in 1959 but, some profane lyrics notwithstanding, seeming to date from that year.
Brooks steals from everywhere--sometimes intentionally and sometimes, one suspects, not. "The King of Broadway" is so close to "Reviewing the Situation" from Oliver! that it's a good thing Lionel Bart isn't still around to sue, while the opening bars of "Opening Night" are identical to those of New Faces of 1952 (for which Brooks wrote some of the sketches). And is he aware that "Keep It Gay" is also the (unironic) title of a Me and Juliet production number? As for Brooks' lyrics, they're basic, predictable, and not a little vulgar: When Max Bialystock (the wonderful Nathan Lane) longs for the good old days of "hits" and "class," you can pretty much guess what the rhymes to those words are going to be. Throughout, the approach is "hit 'em hard and make 'em laugh," and Brooks bats about .500. "Goose-step's the new step today" is funny and displays a clever internal rhyme, but "Your goodies you must push / Stick your chest out, shake your tush" is merely convoluted and crass.
That's not to say there aren't gems here. "That Face" is a sweet fox-trot duet for Matthew Broderick and Cady Huffman (too bad the CD can't duplicate Susan Stroman's graceful, parodistic choreography). "Springtime for Hitler" is cleverly elongated from the movie, with Gary Beach's riotous "Heil Myself" solo. The Act I finale, "Along Came Bialy," ingeniously weaves together several earlier themes, much like the Act I finales of West Side Story, Candide, and Les Miserables. And Broderick's 11 o'clock number, "Till Him," is appealingly sincere and direct--until Brooks can't resist tagging on a jokey choir of little old ladies.
The other good news is that the album preserves much of the rampant comic energy on view at the St. James. It's gratifyingly complete, with an extended overture, the rudely funny curtain call, and large swatches of dialogue. The booklet contains all the lyrics, a generous sampling of color photos, and a perceptive, appreciative essay by John Weidman. Best of all, even without all the visuals, the CD allows the performers ample room to shine. Huffman, Beach, Roger Bart, and Brad Oscar all have choice musical moments, smartly dressed in Doug Besterman's brassy orchestrations. Broderick's vocal characterization of Leo Bloom is a little one-note in its nasal nerdiness, but he partners well with Lane, who is in a class by himself. Like Encino Man, striding the earth with thousands of years of burlesque DNA in him, Lane is one of our last links to the great clowns of Broadway history. There may be no other man alive who can do what he does quite so well.
With The Producers' advance box-office sales in the jillions and rapidly rising, the CD may be the closest you can get right now to experiencing the retro hilarities of the show itself. Your enjoyment of the album will depend largely on your appetite for old-fashioned musical comedy, devoid of the harder-to-absorb chords and erudite lyrical brilliance of a Sondheim. Me? A few quibbles aside, I like it just fine. Can't wait for the LP to come out!