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Last Laughs

The stage musical The Producers ends with Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom walking together into the sunset, a theater producer and an accountant bound by larceny and a love of Broadway. For some, their receding silhouettes might recall the two tramps from Waiting for Godot and, with them, the memory of Zero Mostel, who famously played both Estragon onstage and Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ 1968 film version of The Producers on which the musical is based. Perhaps it’s a stretch to see this moment as a sweet homage to an actor and the period he represented, but there’s no doubt that the show itself is a kind of homage to its creator, Mel Brooks, and the tail-finned, drinks-at-Sardi’s era he was so much a part of. His Broadway smash, now running at the Pantages Theater, is so refreshingly out of step with today’s refined artistic sensibilities and political allergies that it provides a safety valve for that most primal of urges, the need to laugh at — not with — other people.

For those who have been in a cryogenic deep freeze, The Producers is about Bialystock (Jason Alexander), a onetime Broadway macher whose touch in choosing plays has gone from Midas to Braille, a man who now must seduce aged widows to gain backing for his flops along the Great White Way. Into his decrepit office steps Bloom (Martin Short), a timid accountant who proposes a scheme by which a producer could make a fortune by overselling investment points for a guaranteed bomb. Such ordnance is provided them by Springtime for Hitler, a mash note written to the Führer by a former Wehrmacht soldier (Fred Applegate). After signing up swishy director Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) and casting his ESL-speaking secretary, Ulla (Angie Schworer) as Eva Braun, Max works overtime in the sack generating capital. Unfortunately for our producers, Springtime, presented as a kind of campy, historical revisionist view of the Third Reich, is so bad it’s a hit, consigning both to prison when their cooked ledgers are discovered.

Comparisons to the film are not only inevitable, but necessary. Unlike the movie, the musical is set on the Broadway of 1959, and begins as Max has laid his latest egg, a musical version of Hamlet titled Funny Boy. “Opening Night” and “The King of Broadway” are two rollicking numbers, athletically choreographed by director Susan Stroman, that instantly establish The Producers’ L’age Dior period (veteran costume designer William Ivey Long’s creations are a show unto themselves). After some top-hatted and bejeweled swells storm out of Funny Boy, a roll call of “characters” takes the stage to commiserate with Max: Diner Waitress, Streetwalker, Theater Seamstress, Beat Cop, etc.

This parading of stereotypes extends deep into the cast, whose queer figures are so flamboyant during the malarial “Keep It Gay” scene that fire extinguishers should be placed in Roger De Bris’ lavender-appointed pad. Likewise, the Anita Ekberg–ish Ulla is so explosively sexual that the smitten Leo would be well advised to call in the bomb squad before attempting to lay a finger on her. Perhaps one of the reasons for the show’s phenomenal success is that it deftly handles these atavistically familiar figures by making them so obvious that they never become offensive. Which, of course, runs counter to the current trend to retrofit musicals like Damn Yankees! and Flower Drum Song by making their women characters more assertive and intelligent than they originally appeared in the pre–Betty Friedan 1950s.

Brooks’ lyrics and music (Thomas Meehan co-wrote the book) for the show’s post-film material are mercifully anachronistic and thus free of the blues-rock sludge that fills up so many contemporary musicals. Stroman’s direction of a radiant cast makes the nearly three-hour night sail by with few lags. And, if Alexander’s Max lacks the physically intimidating presence that Mostel brought to the film, Short compensates by outnebbishing Gene Wilder. In the exhilarating “I Wanna Be a Producer” scene, set in Leo’s accounting firm, Short’s a man literally struggling to free himself from his baby blanket. This fantasia alone, in which showgirls emerge from wooden file cabinets and a water cooler becomes a giant champagne bottle, would be enough to justify most musicals — Robin Wagner’s scenery design is deliriously imaginative, right down to a coop full of pigeons giving the Nazi salute. But, of course, we’ve mostly come to The Producers to see the film’s famous “Springtime for Hitler” production number, with its Bavarian chorus girls in pretzel or sausage headgear, and Busby Berkeley–like choreography, and this monument to political and artistic vulgarity doesn’t let us down.

 

Contrary to the L.A. Times’ quibblesome review, The Producers’ disappointments are relatively minor. Brooks and Meehan only make a superficial effort to paper over the film’s big plot hole — if Leo is able to control the “good” and “bad” sets of books on Springtime for Hitler, and the little old lady backers keep getting some dividends, how could anyone ever get wise to Max and Leo’s crime? Also, the stage version has no Dick Shawn character (a druggie-thespian named L.S.D. recruited to play Hitler) and lacks the awful moment, set in a bar during Springtime’s opening night, when it dawns upon Max and Leo that their show is doomed to be a hit.

The biggest difference between the film and the stage musical, however, is the context in which they are experienced. In 1968, Nazi satire (and I don’t mean the kind of Hogan’s Heroes slapstick then in vogue) remained verboten — nearly a quarter-century after WWII. Brooks’ genius lay in his brash ability to present what then would have been considered the most tasteless form of comedy, albeit in the only format acceptable — an intentionally tasteless musical imbedded within a conventional comedy film. Today we laugh at the “Springtime for Hitler” number because we remember how shocked the film’s postwar (and presumably heavily Jewish) theater audience members were as they sat in their seats and savor the memory of their petrified expressions. Thirty five years ago, we were that audience.

In other words, Brooks has it both ways thanks to a fluke in historical timing. On the one hand, his film appeared on the very eve of the women’s and gay movements, and so could get away with its Dumb Blond and Screaming Fag stereotypes. On the other, these and other sendups not only remain in the musical but are amplified, to audience delight as hoary artifacts of a bygone era.

Brooks’ very historical synchronicity, however, also proved to be his writing’s biggest limitation. At the time of the film’s 1968 release, Brooks represented a transitional figure in New York–based comedy, a link between Grossinger’s and the Village Vanguard, between Second Avenue and Fourth Street. While then primarily a writer and not yet an actor, the erudite Brooks nevertheless occupied a middle ground separating the Henny Youngmans of the old shul and the Lenny Bruces of the new demimonde. Although capable of moments of black comedy, Brooks, for whatever intellectual reasons, never made the evolutionary leap into existential humor achieved by the younger Woody Allen, with whom he and others co-wrote Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows television program. Like another Caesar alumnus, Neil Simon, he never could quite let go of shtick, which is why the laughter they created never made it higher than the 23rd floor. At its most refined, Brooks’ comedy celebrated the neuroses of America’s educated suburbs, but it always came with a whoopee cushion and a double entendre or two about knockers. With The Producers musical, he has managed to make the risqué seem nostalgic and the shocking, harmless.

THE PRODUCERS | Music and lyrics by MEL BROOKS Book by BROOKS and THOMAS MEEHAN | At the PANTAGES THEATER, 6233 Hollywood Blvd. | Runs through January 4, 2004

BROUGHT TO YOU BY

Clear Channel Entertainment, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications, is the second credited producer of The Producers tour. Clear Channel Communications owns 1,250 radio stations and 39 television stations in the United States and has equity interests in over 240 radio stations internationally. Clear Channel’s media holdings will undoubtedly grow now that the FCC, in a somewhat compulsive and clandestine move on Monday, removed yet more restrictions on corporate strangleholds of media markets. For those with a short memory and/or no Internet access, Clear Channel Communications was largely credited/blamed for having staged the “patriotic” (pro-war) rallies across the nation, and then sending its journalists to report on them. Meanwhile, it banned the Dixie Chicks from its airwaves after they expressed disdain for the actions of President George W. Bush. (Tom Hicks, Clear Channel’s biggest shareholder, is a close friend of the president.) The company credo (“It’s What We Believe!”) includes the “core values” of “respect for the individual” and “honest, open communication.” According to Clear Channel Entertainment’s bio, in 2001, more than 66 million people attended approximately 26,000 events promoted and/or produced by the company, and “Recent Broadway producing credits include The Producers, Hairspray, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Graduate, Movin’ Out and Sweet Smell of Success.”

—Steven Leigh Morris