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The Producers Go North

Filichia reports on the Toronto production of The Producers and muses about the 2001 Broadway phenomenon. logo
Seán Cullen and Michael Therriault in The Producers
(Photo © Cylla von Tiedemann)
While I was in Toronto I saw The Producers. This was my first experience of the Mel Brooks musical since I saw it in New York at the press preview on April 17, 2001, just a few days before it received all those raves. At the time, I had problems with the show, so I wanted to get a second look, not with a Broadway company that may or may not be fresh but with a newly assembled cast just rarin' to go in front of an audience that, for the most part, hadn't seen The Producers with megastars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Maybe that would make a difference.

Though I attended a preview more than a week before the show's official opening, I can tell you that Toronto has a first-class production. Seán Cullen is an excellent Max who isn't doing a Nathan Lane imitation. He may have a voice like Michael McGrath's, a corpulent body that's part Zero Mostel and part Jackie Gleason, and a face that incorporates both of them plus a little-known actor named Eugene Roche, but he's playing the part as if he never saw anyone else attempt it. That's also true of the Leo of Michael Therriault, who resembles Gene Wilder and Harpo Marx but paves his own way.

And the show itself? Nothing much has changed for me. As producer Joe Josephson sings in Merrily We Roll Along when he doesn't approve of a musical that's put in front of him, "Maybe it's me." Perhaps I've just too literal a mind. When Max says that he pioneered "theater in the square: Nobody had a good seat," I find myself thinking that every time I've gone to Arena Stage in Washington -- a theater in the square -- I've always had a good seat. When Max tells Leo that he used to have the biggest name on Broadway at "13 letters," my mind immediately goes to Alfred de Liagre (14 letters) and Kermit Bloomgarden (17 letters), both of whom were active producers in 1959 when the show is set. I guess I just don't respond to such Mel Brooks nonsense -- though I certainly love the original film of The Producers, which doesn't go overboard with issues such as these.

But it's not just that. Max sings, "My shows were always filled with class," but the one he's in now sure isn't. What he and Leo sing about Springtime for Hitler -- "It was so crass and so crude" -- is a good description of The Producers. I once again shook my head when I heard, "I always had the biggest hits; the biggest bathrooms at the Ritz; my showgirls had the biggest tits." Brooks's music still strikes me as simplistic, his song titles dull, and his lyrics not only predictable but also inevitable. (When I hear "top," I know I'm going to hear "flop" before long.) I still hate it that so many characters say or sing Broad-WAY instead of BROAD-way and that "Argentine" is pronounced as "Argentyne" and is then asked to rhyme with "Brilliantyne" and "Listeryne." (If it had been pronounced as "Argenteen," then "Brillianteen" and "Listereen" would have been just right.)

But most of all, I was once again bothered by the severe lapse in logic in the book that Brooks wrote with Tom Meehan. It began when they dropped Lorenzo St. DuBois (L.S.D.) -- the character who played Hitler in the original film -- and replaced him with Franz Liebkind, the Nazi sympathizer who wrote the play Springtime for Hitler. In the musical, after Franz interrupts a German auditionee to show him how a Rhineland song should be sung, Max cries out, "That's our Hitler!"

Franz takes the role of Hitler and though he doesn't wind up playing it -- he breaks his leg just before curtain -- he has obviously seen that director Roger De Bris has made his play into a travesty. After all, Franz has had to learn every line and lyric. So why in rehearsals didn't he rail at, "I'm the kraut who's out to change our history" and "Every hotsy-totsy Nazi..." and "I'm the German Ethel Merman?" He's read and said it all -- so why does he show up the next morning, furious, and yell: "You made a fool out of Hitler!" In the movie, we were able to accept his shooting those who ruined his precious and sincere script, even though that would mean Franz had never sat in on one rehearsal, for some authors have been known to stay away from their shows until opening night. (Not many, but some.) But how can the musical's Franz be upset at the new dialogue and lyrics when he was there for four weeks of rehearsal, accepting Roger De Bris's every idea? I might have been assuaged if Bialystock had avoided a gunshot and cried out, "Franz, why didn't you say anything before?" -- allowing Franz to look embarrassed and meekly answer, "Vell, you know, it looks different when you see it from out front!"

Seán Cullen, Sarah Cornell, and Michael Therriault
in The Producers
(Photo © Cylla von Tiedemann)
How did the capacity Toronto audience take to the show? If you closed your eyes, from the applause you heard, you would have assumed that there were 150 people in the house. Not until Franz Liebkind showed up did they really start laughing, especially when his mechanized birds began flapping -- but they gave out an offended "Oooh!" when Franz produced the swastika armbands. They laughed at Roger De Bris and Carmen Ghia, but I was fascinated at what happened when the latter character made his first exit: When Roger sent him from the room, Carmen's body exited quickly but his extended right arm did not. As he left, he waved it ever so slowly behind him, only inching it away long after the rest of his body was out of sight. It's the type of move that always gets applause, yet here it didn't. Okay. But after Carmen re-entered, he exited one more time and did the same gambit again. Surely, he would get applause this time, especially considering that he milked the bit even more. But the public wasn't having it; they chuckled, yes, but didn't laugh loudly or applaud.

Something similar happened after the big entrance of Scott, Roger's resident choreographer. Scott came out, held his arms akimbo, and posed to show off his astonishingly overstuffed crotch. Here was another moment engineered for applause, but none came. A full hour and 14 minutes passed before the audience applauded a line: It happened when Ulla did her erotic dance and Max told her, "Even though we're sitting down, we're giving you a standing ovation." The only other time the crowd clapped was when the dancers formed a swastika that was reflected in a tilted mirror upstage.

Was there a standing ovation at the end? Certainly; but a number of people used it to get their coats on. After the orchestra finished playing the last note of the exit music, literally two people applauded. As I filed out, I saw some faces that displayed contentment at best, others that showed great disappointment. "It's okay," said one woman. "It's funny," said a man, but he said it unenthusiastically and with a shrug of his shoulder. "This won 11 Tonys?" said another as he sauntered up the aisle. He was even more aghast when I told him that the number was actually 12.

In a way, I feel bad that I'm kicking a show when it's down. The Broadway production has run out of steam and the Los Angeles production has proved to be a disappointment. These days, when Leo tells his imaginary chorus girls, "Don't forget the balcony," one thinks, "Why not? There's no one up there anymore!" Of course, there will be in three weeks, when Messrs. Lane and Broderick return. But what happens when they leave? Don't be surprised if, by this time next year, the St. James is taking a booking for a new musical.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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