The first option cited above is, of course, the scenario presented in Mel Brooks' 1968 film The Producers. The second option is the one that has been taken by Brooks and his confreres in adapting that screamingly funny, semi-musical film for presentation as a bona-fide Broadway tuner also titled The Producers, starring the dazzling Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, directed and choreographed by three-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman, co-scripted by Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Perhaps the most delightful surprise of the show is that it features a full score of infectiously hummable melodies and witty lyrics by Brooks, whose previous songwriting experience was limited (however successful the result).
Based quite closely on the film The Producers, yet boundless in its originality, the Broadway version retells the story of Max Bialystock, a once-great producer fallen on hard times due to his having foisted upon the public shows with titles like The Breaking Wind and When Cousins Marry. (Posters for these and other stinkers adorn the walls of his ratty office.) Now seemingly unable to produce anything but complete disasters, Max is intrigued when the stupendously neurotic accountant Leo Bloom points out to him that a dishonest producer could theoretically make more money from a flop than from a hit, as detailed in scenario #1 above.
So the disgraced producer and the unfulfilled P.A. (Bloom is so insignificant that he isn't even a C.P.A.) form an unholy alliance. Soon they find a play guaranteed to close in one night, if not sooner: an ode to Hitler, penned by a crazed ex-Nazi now living a low-profile existence in Manhattan by way of Argentina. To insure the success (i.e., failure) of the enterprise, Bialystock & Bloom hire a garbagey director appropriately named Roger De Bris, who suggests that this "gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgarden" must be turned into a musical. Max then goes about raising money by screwing, both literally and figuratively, a large cadre of little old ladies. All the pieces would seem to be in place for a financially remunerative flop of epic proportions. But when Springtime for Hitler (as the appalling travesty is called) opens on Broadway, it is hailed as a satiric masterpiece that will run for years.
Though Mel Brooks' radiantly irreverent sensibility is evident in every aspect of The Producers, the auteur has wisely hired the best-of-the-best among theater artists to help bring his vision to the stage of the St. James, a theater which won't be hanging up a vacancy sign until well into the 21st century. Thomas Meehan (whose terrific book for Annie is underrated, as far as I'm concerned) has helped Brooks structure the piece tightly while allowing every one of the show's ten millions laughs to land. Including intermission, the running time of The Producers is nearly three hours, but I would estimate that at least 20 minutes of that total is taken up by actors waiting to deliver their lines while audience members almost literally roll in the aisles.
From the opening set (a catty-corner view of the Shubert Theatre) to the final image (a riot of Broadway marquees emblazoned with the titles of such Bialystock & Bloom extravaganzas as South Passaic, High Button Jews, and Death of a Salesman on Ice), Robin Wagner's sets are as droll as the show's book and lyrics. Ditto William Ivey Long's costumes (the showgirls in the Ziegfeldian "Springtime for Hitler" number wear gowns adorned with pretzels, beer steins, and wursts).
Though the disappointing lack of humor in Susan Stroman's Broadway directorial debut, The Music Man, might lead one to believe that Brooks himself actually guided the joyously relentless comedy of The Producers, Stroman no doubt made a great contribution in terms of general stage know-how; and her choreography is to die for, never more so than in the gloriously offensive Act One finale set in "Little Old Lady Land." Stroman and company have even devised an ingenious way to recreate the single most famous shot from the film of The Producers: that side-splitting moment when Springtime for Hitler's dancing storm troopers form a circling swastika which is then seen by the audience from above, Busby Berkeley-style.
In the same way that the Broadway Producers is respectful of the movie without slavishly imitating it, so does Nathan Lane recall the irreplaceable Zero Mostel in the outsize role of Max Bialystock without offering a carbon copy of that performance. Though a comic genius in his own right, Lane has occasionally been criticized in the past for his highly presentational style; he has sometimes seemed to comment on roles rather than inhabiting them. But even this perceived failing is an asset in The Producers, an entertainment so unabashedly theatrical that (1) the show's intermission is referred to by the characters (twice), and (2) when Matthew Broderick as Leo Bloom dejectedly begins to wander listlessly at one point in the second act, his love interest--the Swedish bombshell secretary Ulla--asks him, "Why do you walk so far downstage right?" The Producers doesn't just break the fourth wall; it obliterates all memory of it.
If Broderick is no Gene Wilder (the actor who unforgettably partnered Mostel in the movie), he is most assuredly Matthew Broderick, employing a slight variation of the same cartoonish voice we last heard in the disastrous Taller Than a Dwarf but with infinitely greater success here. He is adorable in this role, and the fact that he's such a fine singer is greatly appreciated.
The members of the supporting cast are so excellent that one can only wish the Tony Awards would allow multiple winners this year. As the ridiculous Roger De Bris and his "common-law assistant" Carmen Ghia, Gary Beach and Roger Bart give performances so far over the top that the top is no longer even in view. Cady Huffman is simultaneously sexy, sweet, and hilarious as Ulla. And Brad Oscar, a former understudy who inherited the role of the crackpot Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind during the show's tryout engagement in Chicago, is a new Broadway star.
You'll have to look very hard to find anything remotely wrong with The Producers. Yes, a few of Brooks' lyrics are pedestrian--the word "producer" has been rhymed with "you, sir" before, most notably by Stephen Sondheim--but most of them are wonderfully witty. The show's melodies might be called "derivative," but only in the general sense that they are written along the lines of the great showtunes of the golden age of musical theater, and what's wrong with that? One could argue that no gay man living in 1959 (the year in which the action is set) would dress or behave as Roger De Bris, Carmen Ghia, and their circle do. But who cares? When you're laughing so hard that your stomach hurts, it's hard to quibble.
A friend told me that he cried at several points during The Producers. His tears were brought on not only by uncontrollable laughter but by his realization that this show could well spark a resurrection of the genre that it so magnificently represents. Whether or not The Producers leads to a new golden age of musical comedy, the show itself is the best thing to happen to Broadway since the half-price TKTS booth--a place where, you can bet your life, tickets to The Producers will not be available for a very long time.