Max and Leo Take to the Road
As the tour of The Producers gets ready to launch, Mel Brooks discusses his earlier theatrical ventures.
Mel Brooks started to talk about "the show I loved from the tip of my toes to the hair on my head. I felt, with this show, we were bringing such goodness and happiness to the world." I said, 'They're going to dance in the aisles and we'll sit on the top of the world."
While that's certainly true of Brooks's current mega-hit, The Producers, he wasn't speaking of that one at all, but of his first Broadway musical, Shinbone Alley -- which, he said, happened "maybe 30, or 25 years ago." Alas, Mr. B: Time does take its toll. Shinbone Alley opened more than 45 years ago, on May 9, 1957. "Is it that long ago?" he asked me, genuinely surprised when I brought it up. "What I do remember is that we got not one good review. Not one. We closed in a week."
Well...he's wrong there, too. Shinbone Alley -- a musical about a cockroach named Archy and a cat named Mehitabel, based on a book by Don Marquis -- got two good reviews (plus five not-so-good) and ran six weeks. Five years later, Brooks took another shot at the Broadway musical; the show was All-American, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams. Legend has always had it that when the show was in terrible trouble in Detroit, Brooks wondered what would happen if a producer decided to purposely mount a flop, raise much more money than he needed, and pocket what he didn't use because no investor would expect anything back, anyway -- and those musings inspired Brooks to write a movie with such a plot. Yet, for years, my buddy David Wolf has been saying that he remembers reading that Brooks was readying a play called Springtime for Hitler long before All-American was a gleam in anyone's eye.
"That's absolutely correct," Brooks told me. "I conceived a play without music called Springtime for Hitler before I worked on All-American. And then I went to my first choice of producers, Kermit Bloomgarden," he said, referring to the esteemed producer who gave the world both dramatic classics (Death of a Salesman, The Diary of Anne Frank) and musical ones (The Most Happy Fella, The Music Man) -- not to mention everyone's favorite cult flop, Anyone Can Whistle.
But neither Bloomgarden nor anyone else was as enthusiastic about Springtime for Hitler as Brooks had hoped. "They all said there were too many different scenes and sets," he recalls. "'Can't you set the whole thing in one office?' they kept asking. No, I couldn't. Sidney Glazier was the first one to say it was a movie. We got a bite at Universal. Lew Wasserman loved it but wanted me to make it Springtime for Mussolini, but I held out for Hitler. Finally, Joe Levine loved it and said he'd do it as is. Ever since then, I've been on the fast track."
Well...yes and no there, too. Let's face it: In the '80s and '90s, Brooks's Hollywood career wasn't too brilliant, so he eventually made a move that made him the toast of another world 3,000 miles away. And was he ever in grand spirits on Wednesday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey, where the national tour of The Producers was rehearsing and teching before heading out to Pittsburgh for an opening next Tuesday night.
Lord love him, Brooks didn't come to the press conference acting coolly preoccupied, and he never looked at his watch to signal how busy he was and how he wished the whole thing could be over. He's still having the time of his life, saying lines like: "Movies, no matter how good they are, leave the theaters in a couple of weeks. I can still drop in and see a whole audience of people who love what I've done." He was in a playful mood and told the assembled reporters and critics: "Before each of you asks a question, give your name, your affiliation, and whether you're straight or gay." Damned if every one of us didn't do just that.
While I wouldn't call him a babbling Brooks, he was certainly bubbling over with enthusiasm. Over the last 10 months, he's seen one or two Broadway musicals eclipse his show as the hottest ticket in town; but now the excitement is starting all over again, as critics and reporters from all over the country assembled in this function room in Newark to pay homage to the enormous hit of 2000-2001. So Brooks, co-librettist Tom Meehan, and director-choreographer Susan Stroman happily answered questions about what they originally cut in rehearsals or during the Chicago tryout. They brought up the original opening, "Hey, Nebraska!" -- "an obvious rip-off of 'Oklahoma!'" Brooks said, before Stroman added, "And, don't forget, I was bringing in Oklahoma." They went on to mention the sequence where Leo goes to Rio and, in a restaurant, feels so guilty that everyone he sees -- the hat-check girl, the waitress -- looks like Max Bialystock to him. Brooks also gave credit to Glen Kelly for coming up with the "Unhappy" section of "I Want to Be a Producer" and to Stroman for insisting that "Springtime for Hitler" not be just a carbon copy of the movie sequence.
Lewis J. Stadlen -- the road Bialystock -- admitted that he didn't have high hopes for The Producers when it was first announced for Broadway. "When Nathan Lane told me he was going to do this show," he remembered, "I told him, 'Don't do it!' When I saw it four days before it opened, I went backstage to see him, got down on my knees, and said, 'Lewis J. Stadlen was wrong again.'" Stadlen also claimed that Lane called him and asked if he'd be interested in taking over in New York. "I told him, 'No, because that would be just replacing you and your brilliant performance. I'd like to start with a whole group of new people who realize they have the best job in the theater, and begin anew." This was before he knew that Brooks, Meehan, and Stroman would be on hand and that the production wouldn't just be entrusted to a stage manager; said Stadlen, "They made it feel as if there had never been a Broadway production."
The tour's Leo is Don Stephenson, a talented guy who's getting his biggest break so far. Stephenson admitted that he had his eye on playing Leo ever since he heard the show would happen: "I had done a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Gary Beach, who had just done a reading of this new show, The Producers. He told me he thought I should go out for Leo, but when I heard they were getting Matthew Broderick, I thought it was a done deal and I wouldn't get the chance. But then I got to audition for this company -- and, the day before I was supposed to go in, I was in a restaurant where a waiter said to me, 'Hey, you look like Matthew Broderick.' I thought that was a good omen." Apparently so!
I asked Thomas Meehan if collaborating with Brooks on this property was difficult, given that Brooks had had that big movie success without him. "It's his bat and ball," replied Meehan, who's nevertheless very glad now that he wrote a TV special for Anne Bancroft -- Mrs. Mel Brooks -- in the '70s. "Back then," he recalled, "Mel said he'd like to work on a movie with me some time, but it wasn't until after I wrote the book to Annie that he actually did call."
When Meehan was writing that 1977 mega-hit, he made Annie's birthday October 28 -- the very same date that his own daughter was born, now almost 33 years ago. I asked him if he put an inside joke into The Producers as well, and he admitted that he did: The address he gave Nazi Franz Liebkind is actually his own address. "And my wife gets so upset when I tell people that," he added.
I next spent a few minutes with Stroman, who told me that she fell in love with Broadway musicals when she saw the touring company of Seesaw in Wilmington in 1975 --"when I saw Tommy Tune and all those balloons and girls" in "It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish." Given that we almost always see Stroman with a baseball cap on, I asked if she really is a fan of the game. "Yes -- a big Yankees fan," she admitted. I told Stro, as she's chummily known, that she really should root for Houston since its baseball team, the Astros, is often called "the 'Stros." She laughed and admitted that, when she glances at the sports page and sees a headline that begins "Stros do this" or "Stros do that," she wonders "what I've done wrong now." (In fact, very little.)
Even though Stroman came to The Producers with a Tony-laden pedigree, I wondered if she had difficulty working with Brooks, and she answered by making a good point. "Don't forget, he's used to collaboration because he comes from those Your Show of Shows TV shows where everyone sat around a table and pitched in. I did worry that he's spent his life making fun of women, as well as every other minority; that he might be difficult. But he treated me with the utmost respect because he was coming into the world of the theater, in which he knew I'd had success."
I returned to Brooks to ask him one last question. Given that Shinbone Alley was a musical that involved a cast of cats, was Brooks a little miffed by another show about cats that did, by many accounts, bring lots of "goodness and happiness to the world," caused some people "to dance in the aisles," and certainly allowed its creators to "sit on the top of the world?" "Yeah," he said in a voice that suggested it only miffed him a little. To be sure, he has nothing to be jealous of now.