Like his good friend (and frequent colleague) Nathan Lane, who created the role of Max opposite Matthew Broderick's Leo in the musical based on Brooks's 1968 film of the same title, Stadlen is of the old school -- a master in the high art of low comedy. The younger Stephenson's guileless look and sharp timing make him ideal for the role of the accountant who dreams of "lunch at Sardi's every day."
At the start of rehearsals, recalls Stadlen, "[Director-choreographer] Susan Stroman said, 'We have a very specific way of doing this; we have a formula for success. Just learn it.' But once she realized that we really understood the world of the play, then she gave us the license to do our own characters." According to Stephenson, "Stroman was very good about letting me do the part my way and not necessarily the way that Matthew Broderick did it. If I thought of something, I could do it -- as long as it was funny. And, from the first day, Mel Brooks couldn't have been nicer. He said that I was most like Gene Wilder [who played Leo in the movie]."
Says Stadlen, "I love working with Don. He and I are political junkies and history buffs; we have a lot in common, and a lot to talk about besides the theater. We've done the show so much, it's almost a melding of a single performance." Stephenson agrees: "It's like a comedy team, like Hope and Crosby. This show is really a love story between these two guys. When Nathan Lane came to Newark to see a dress rehearsal of the national company, he told Lewie that the key to doing The Producers is to love your Leo."
Max Bialystock was played unforgettably by Zero Mostel in the movie of The Producers, and Stadlen freely admits to "channeling" Mostel in his performance: "I'm stealing as much as I can from Zero, Nathan, Bob Hope, W.C. Fields, Jimmy Durante -- anyone who made a positive effect on me." He adds, "Mel's been extremely generous; I very, very much enjoyed working with him this time around." (Stadlen was in Brooks's 1983 movie To Be or Not to Be.)
Observes Stephenson. "Mel says that Max is the motor that drives the show, and Leo is the heart of the show. Leo's a surrogate for the audience; they see everything through his eyes. If you're not careful, you could make Leo a shticky nerd, a kind of caricature. I try to make him a real guy who may have some small hang-ups. Who doesn't?" As to keeping the performance fresh, he says, "It's a challenge. It reminds me of how, in Titanic [the Broadway musical], we had to have awe and wonder on our faces as we looked up at that gigantic ship. You can't do something like that hundreds of times without tricks. You know, 'Today, the ship has pink elephants!' In a long run, you have to trick your brain in order to keep it fresh for yourself and for the audience."
"Max Bialystock is a man with absolutely no guilt," declares Stadlen. "He just moves forward trying to accomplish his immediate needs. I'm a person who has a lot of guilt, but when I'm onstage as Max, I leave Lewis Stadlen in the wings. It's a nice experience to have eight times a week. Nathan asked if I'd like to take over for him on Broadway; he didn't have the power to rubber-stamp it, but he wanted to put me out there. I said, 'No, but I'd be very interested in playing Max in the national company.' He asked me why, and I explained: 'First of all, I don't want to be just the person who replaces Nathan Lane, and I don't want to rehearse with a stage manager [in place of the director]. I want to have a complete rehearsal process where I can discover the role on my own.' Now I'm in the Broadway company, but I know what I'm doing."
It was Gary Beach who first told Stephenson about the show. "I was playing Hysterium to Gary's Pseudolus in a regional production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," he relates. "During a break one day, Gary said that he'd just done a reading. 'They're trying to do The Producers as a musical and you should do Leo Bloom.' Then they signed Matthew, but it was Gary Beach who first suggested that I do the part." Beach, who won a Tony Award as Roger de Bris, has joined the national tour for the Los Angeles engagement (in which the Stadlen-Stephenson roles are played by Jason Alexander and Martin Short) but will return to the Broadway company in September. "So we'll eventually get to do the show together," enthuses Stephenson, who has signed on for 15 months
Stephenson considers Leo to be "the most physically and vocally demanding role I've ever done -- and I've played Hamlet! Underneath our clothes, Lewie and I wrap ourselves like football players. Our knees and elbows are padded. There's all that slapping, falling, flipping over the back of the furniture, banging into doors. In the first scene, you're screaming, and in the final scene, you have to sing this beautiful ballad. Early on, Stroman said, 'You have to figure out a way to get through it.' It took me months to learn to protect myself."
Tagging along with Stephenson on the tour of The Producers were his wife of 12 years, actress-singer Emily Loesser, and their 18-month-old daughter, Hallie Jane. "When we started the tour, the baby couldn't even roll over," Stephenson tells me. "Now, she's walking and talking. It was Emily's idea for them to come with me. Otherwise, I would have missed all those important things. But it's good to be home now. The baby's at an age where she needs stability, and Emily has her own career." Stephenson met his wife in a production of The Secret Garden and they honeymooned while playing in a tour of Where's Charley? with his mother-in-law, Jo Sullivan Loesser, as Donna Lucia. (The score of that show was written by Emily's late father, Frank Loesser.) Don and Emily have appeared together on Broadway in Titanic and By Jeeves.
Among Stadlen's many and varied roles, those that have given him the most satisfaction include "Nathan Detroit, Trigorin in The Seagull, Harry the Hoofer in The Time of Your Life, Ben Silverman in The Sunshine Boys, all the Neil Simon roles -- and I certainly love playing Max Bialystock. I'm signed for eight months [on Broadway]. After the national company leaves Los Angeles, I'm going to rejoin them and play it through Washington, D.C. That would be August 2004. Then I'll probably call it a day."
Stephenson thinks of The Producers as a gift: "To be doing such a great show, to be home and have my family -- I hate to say it, but I'm like the guy who has everything." His sentiments are shared by his co-star. "When I was a young man," says Stadlen, "I had a desire for celebrity status. Now, I'm very proud of the fact that, although my fame is extremely rarified, I've managed to obtain what stars have. I have star billing and a very good salary, I play great roles, yet I don't have to commit myself to being a symbol for thousands of people. I don't care about that. I just want to be respected by my friends."