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The Producers 

Is there a bigger Broadway show in L.A. right now? No, but thanks for asking!

Thursday, Jun 5 2003
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Can the L.A. production of Mel Brooks’ musical version of The Producers — a show that single-handedly resurrected the word boffo — be the box-office golden child it was on Broadway? Will Jason Alexander, as fast-talking, scheming, tux-renting Broadway producer Max Bialystock, live up to the uniformly gaga reviews and audience adoration received by Nathan Lane? Will wily Martin Short, playing second banana as naive, starry-eyed accountant Leo Bloom, endear himself to audiences without invoking his Jiminy Glick and Ed Grimley characters? Or will his rubbery physicality and fetching grin shift attention away from his co-star? And more important, will Mr. Short ever show up to be interviewed for this story? (Alexander waffled on an interview, then bailed at the last minute.)

The truth is, none of the above matters, because The Producers is a show featuring horny little old ladies who kick up their heels in a dance number with walkers. Gary Beach, as fop director Roger De Bris, makes his entrance in an $18,000 gown designed to look like the Chrysler Building. Later, as a giddy Hitler, he perches on the lip of the stage in a pin spot à la Judy Garland and sings, “Heil myself/Watch my show/I’m the German Ethel Merman, don’tcha know!” And, of course, there’s “Springtime for Hitler” (“He’s got those Russians on the run/You gotta love that wacky Hun!”).


Alexander: Too busy to be
interviewed for this story


It’s broad and crass, with many, many elbows in many, many ribs. And the whole thing just reeks of Mel Brooks. You can almost see his puckish mug in the shadows onstage.

The only question that remains to be answered, it seems, is: Where can a temporarily transplanted New Yorker go to get a drink after the show? “Sam Harris came to the show last night, and we were trying to find a place to go have a drink. It’s impossible. Musso and Frank closes at 11, isn’t that weird?” asks Beach, sitting in a refurbished backstage lounge with bronze veneers and overstuffed couches. (Beach won both a Tony and the Outer Critics Circle Award for his role.) A delightful man with dimples and sparkling eyes, Beach asked the producers early on that if the show ever went to L.A., could he trade coasts for a while? They couldn’t say no, so here he is with temporary digs in Century City, visiting old friends (he starred in L.A. productions of Beauty and the Beast and Les Misérables). He can afford to be confident, having been on board with The Producers since the first read-through; he still recalls that Tony night with the joy you’d expect. “There were headlines in Peking! It was the most exciting night of my life,” he recalls. “We opened on April 19; the reviews came out on April 20 — do you know what day that is? Adolf Hitler’s birthday!”

Roger De Bris’ key scene is “The Townhouse Scene” (technically “The Living Room of Renowned Theatrical Director Roger De Bris’ Elegant Upper East Side Townhouse on a Sunny Tuesday Afternoon in June”), but everybody calls it “The Gay Scene,” wherein Bialystock and Bloom try to talk De Bris into directing Springtime for Hitler, their sure-to-flop musical that’ll make them rich. De Bris and his superswishy assistant, Carmen Ghia, are played with every limp-wristed stereotype, fluffed-up and pouffy as a French poodle. “This is not Mel Brooks lite. It’s comedy with a point of view. Mel Brooks is the gayest person I’ve met. We came upon the idea very early on not to do anything halfway, because then it becomes meaningless. If you don’t go that far, then I think it’s offensive.” Has anyone objected? “I think one guy did,” Beach says, “but he writes for The Advocate or something.”

 

But is there a danger to all this success? “That’s where we are now,” says Beach. “When people come to see the show, they do come with a certain ‘Let’s see how funny this really is.’ I just hope Mel Brooks isn’t nervous, because he’s impossible to be around when he’s nervous.”

Nobody associated with the L.A. production of The Producers appears to be nervous at all. That includes star Martin Short, who shows up half an hour late for a 45-minute pre-show interview, citing traffic from Pacific Palisades. With a Tony of his own (for Little Me), Short has extensive stage experience on Broadway and in his native Canada. Taking the Leo Bloom role in the city he calls home was a natural. Brooks talked to him in 1999 about doing the part in New York, but Short ‰ didn’t want to be away from his wife and three children. With a hit Comedy Central show, Primetime Glick, and a big-screen career, does he really need to do the song-and-dance thing for eight, sometimes nine shows a week? “I think it’s because one of the better things that I do is to perform on the stage,” he explains, looking 12 years old and sounding very professorial. “Because I’m in Los Angeles, the opportunity isn’t endless, so it was hard to say no to.”

And what about the inevitable comparisons to his stage predecessors, Matthew Broderick, Roger Bart, Don Stephenson? How is he filling their shoes? “I’m the wrong person to ask,” replies the right person to ask. And will L.A. theatergoers fork out the big bucks to make Mel Brooks even richer?

“The show’s unstoppable, because of all the creative and visual impact,” says Short, feeling tall. (Of course, that’s what they said about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which bombed at the Henry Fonda, and The Lion King, whose L.A. run was a mere hiccup compared to its engagements in New York and London.)

Short smiles and shakes hands, before a publicist ushers him out to his dressing room.

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