Springtime for Broadway
Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Mel Brooks and company on The Producers, the most wildly anticipated new musical of the season.
Lane is talking about the biggest show to hit Broadway this season. After a sold-out run in Chicago, The Producers opens officially on April 19 at the St. James Theatre. Insiders can't remember the last time a musical received such glowing notices during an out-of-town tryout, and the buzz during previews in New York has been equally ecstatic.
The Producers is, of course, based on the 1968 film that won an Oscar for director-writer Brooks' original screenplay. Both the film and the stage musical tell the story of down-on-his-luck theatrical producer Bialystock and the nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom, played on Broadway by the ever-lovable Matthew Broderick. Together, these two hatch the ultimate scam: Raise more money than you need for a sure-fire Broadway flop by bilking unsuspecting old ladies out of their savings, then pocket the difference when the show folds. The musical within the musical is called Springtime for Hitler, and it's classic Brooks satire, right down to the rubber chickens.
"Mel is a legend," Lane continues. "He's a hero. And doing this show is a journey I wanted to make. There's nothing harder than putting together a new musical. It's like an athletic event! It's like going to war! But, when it coalesces, it's the greatest thing in the world."
At 74, Brooks is, indeed, a legendary writer from the golden age of television and the creator of some of the funniest film comedies of all-time: Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, etc. He has written both the music and lyrics for The Producers and co-authored the book with Tony Award-winner Thomas Meehan (Annie). Throw three-time Tony-winner Susan Stroman into the project as director-choreographer and you can see what all the hysteria is about.
No stranger to Broadway, Brooks wrote sketches for Leonard Sillman's New Faces... revues of 1952 and1957. With Joe Darion, he wrote the book for the musical Shinbone Alley, starring Eartha Kitt. The last show for which he wrote the book was All American, directed by Joshua Logan and starring Ray Bolger, in 1962. So, Brooks says, bringing The Producers to Broadway is a dream come true for him. "I had to come back from Hollywood with some power to make my statement," he explains. "Broadway is thrilling. Look--when it's good, it's the best. When it isn't, it stinks. This is great! I've always adored Broadway."
For Brooks, the challenge was how to turn The Producers into an exciting, new stage musical without losing the flavor of the film. "You can say so much in a movie with close-ups, with just expressions," he notes. "The stage is head to toe; you have to say everything within a proscenium arch, and you have to say it boldly. You can't be too smug or too smart. Musicals are frank, and you risk a lot when you're frank. You risk being sentimental--but you've got to risk it! This is a love story about these two guys, Bialystock and Bloom, the ego and the id. It's not easy to do that on the stage. But when you have Stroman directing and you've got Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, you're lucky."
The original idea for the film of The Producers came out of Brooks' true-life experience. "I can't give you his name," says Brooks, "But I worked for a sleazy Broadway producer who was screwing a lot of old ladies on their way to the cemetery. He would raise money from them and they would want to write the name of the play on their checks. They would say, 'What's the name of the play?' He'd say, 'Cash,' and they'd write it out to Cash. Then they would say, 'That's a funny name for a play.' He'd say, 'So is Strange Interlude,' and he'd take the money. I put that line in the show."
Originally, Brooks had brought the idea of a stage adaptation of The Producers to Susan Stroman and her husband, director Mike Ockrent. After Ockrent's death in 1999, Stroman took over as both director and choreographer. "Mel came to the house," Stroman remembers, "and I opened the front door to say hello. Instead, he launched into a song called 'That Face,' which opens Act Two. He sang all the way up and down my long, New York hallway and ended up on top of my sofa. Then he said, 'Hello.' I fell in love with him immediately. And, right away, I started working on how to structure the show into a musical...which is difficult!"
Stroman thinks it's terrific that the man who created these characters is now making them sing. She points out that, "In all of his movies, Mel pays homage to musicals. He has the Frankenstein monster doing 'Putting on the Ritz' [in Young Frankenstein], and he and Anne Bancroft do 'Sweet Georgia Brown' in To Be or Not To Be. Not only has The Producers been the greatest script to work on, but it also has the most wonderful music, and the lyrics are very funny." Stroman is equally generous in praising stars Lane and Broderick. "They have great chemistry," she says. "And I think, in this musical more than in the movie, you really do care about them and want them to succeed as producers, want them to succeed as friends. Maybe that's because they sing their emotions, their wants and their needs. Whenever you sing your emotions in a musical, they're heightened."
Matthew Broderick, the Tony-winning star of Brighton Beach Memoirs and the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, is thrilled to be involved in The Producers. "It's really fun to come to work," he says simply. "Mel Brooks is an idol of mine, so just to get to meet him was fun. He's very creative, very smart, and very helpful."
The actor notes that his role of Leo Bloom is somewhat different than the character played by Gene Wilder in the film version of The Producers: "In the movie, he's an accountant, a boring guy. In the show, he secretly has this desire to be a producer; it's sort of his dream, and he comes up with the scheme of how to make money off this flop show. So he has a little more ambition from the start than he had in the movie." Broderick says that the show is definitely keeping him on his toes, in more ways than one. "It's been a lot of steps to learn," he laughs. "Susan is very step-happy, which is great. I had a lot of dancing in How To Succeed, but that was more athletic. This is a little more tippy-tappy."
Nathan Lane, himself a Tony winner (for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), takes on the role made famous in the film of The Producers by Zero Mostel. As Lane sees it, "Max Bialystock wears his thievery on his sleeve. He doesn't think so much about the moral complications of what he's doing. 'What? We could make a couple of million dollars if we did this? Then let's do it!' He doesn't think twice, because he's desperate. Zero [Mostel] was one of a kind. It's inevitable for both Matthew and I, in this case, to be compared to [Mostel and Wilder]. But The Producers is such a great story with such great characters that I think people will get beyond that."