Mel Brooks adapted his Broadway musical The Producers from his own 1968 movie of the same name. The film was only a modest success, but it did win the Academy Award for best original screenplay. Over the course of more than thirty years it became a cult classic, with legions of devoted fans who knew the script line-for-line. The musical, on the other hand, was a phenomenon from its beginning. At the 2001 Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Awards, it took twelve statues—the most ever won by any Broadway show. The show sold millions of dollars in tickets before it even opened and continued to sell tickets for dates years into the future. In the months after the destruction of the World Trade Center, when the entertainment world in New York City was devastated by huge financial losses due to audience uncertainty, the unstoppable popularity of The Producers is sometimes credited with saving Broadway.
The story concerns Max Bialystock, a washed-up Broadway producer, and Leo Bloom, a meek accountant who comes to do his books. When Bloom casually notes that a producer could make more money on a show that failed, because the show's investors would never have to be paid back, Bialystock thinks up a plan to gain them millions. They set about looking for the worst Broadway show imaginable, settling on Springtime for Hitler, A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. They then enlist a flamboyant gay producer, assuming that he can make the show even more unbearable.
The Producers is populated with colorful characters and enlivened with witty songs filled with sly cultural references. It also relies heavily on crass and obvious stereotypes meant to offend all equally, with mincing gays, sex-object women, greedy Jews, bubble-headed Swedes, oversexed old ladies, gruff Irish cops, and kick lines of singing Nazis.
Mel Brooks was born Melvyn Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York, on June 28, 1926. He lived in Brooklyn until joining the army during World War II. In the army, he performed in troop revues. When he returned to the United States, he worked as a stand-up comic for a short time at resorts in the Catskill Mountains, where many New York comedians went to hone their skills. Brooks took a job writing for the legendary television program Your Show of Shows, with other writers that included Carl Reiner, Woody Allan, and Neil Simon. He went with the star of the show, Sid Caesar, to his follow-up program, Caesar's Hour. After winning an Emmy award for his writing, Brooks struck out to produce and direct his own works. He and Reiner had some success in the early 1960s with their character The 2000 Year Old Man, which spawned a hit comedy album and led to a series of concert engagements.
In 1964 Brooks married Anne Bancroft, a famous film and stage actress. Their marriage has lasted for over forty years. In 1965 he wrote and produced, along with Buck Henry, the situation comedy Get Smart, which ran on network television for five years.
Brooks's first film was a short independent work called The Critic. His second film, in 1968, was The Producers, for which he won an Oscar for best original screenplay. In 1974 he created what many consider to be his greatest comedy, Blazing Saddles, a spoof of westerns. That began a golden age for him, with a series of popular film parodies: Young Frankenstein in 1974, which played off of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s; Silent Movie in 1977, a tribute to the silent era of film; and High Anxiety in 1977, which parodies the films of director Alfred Hitchcock. Brooks's comedies in the 1980s and 1990s were considered uneven in quality and were poorly received by audiences, although 1987's Spaceballs was so popular that studios considered producing a sequel, but Brooks dropped the idea.
Brooks has also been influential as a producer in Hollywood. In addition to his own films, his production company, Brooksfilms Limited, has backed such critically acclaimed films as 84 Charring Cross Road, Frances, and The Elephant Man.
Brooks has often written songs for his own films, such as the original "Springtime for Hitler" number for the 1968 film of The Producers, but he never considered writing for the stage until David Geffen, one of the founders of Dreamworks SKG studio, urged him to adapt his movie. His work has earned Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Awards for the play's music and for co-writing the book with Thomas Meehan, a longtime collaborator who is best known for writing the book for Annie.
Act 1, Scene 1
The first scene of The Producers takes place outside of the Schubert Theater on Broadway on a June evening in 1959, where Max Bialystock's latest show, Funny Boy!, has just opened. A musical version of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the show is closing that night, reviled by critics who could not even stay to the end. Bialystock sings a song about how famous and successful he once was.
Act 1, Scene 2
Leo Bloom, a mild accountant, shows up at Bialystock's office to do his bookkeeping. One of Bialystock's backers, an amorous old lady, comes in, and Bloom is forced to hide. After she leaves, Bloom finds a discrepancy in the account but decides that it does not matter since the show closed early, and investors will not expect any money back. Bloom idly mentions that a producer could make more with a failure than with a hit, because he could sell unlimited shares and keep all of the money. Bialystock tries to convince him that they should become rich doing just that, but Bloom is too timid to break the law.
Act 1, Scene 3
At Whitehall and Marks, the office where Bloom works, the accountants sing about how unhappy their lives are. Mr. Marks shouts at Bloom for coming in six minutes late, sending Bloom into a fantasy about what it would be like to be a producer, surrounded by beautiful chorus girls. At the end of his reverie, Bloom quits his job.
Act 1, Scene 4
Bloom returns to Bialystock and explains his decision to join in his production scheme.
Act 1, Scene 5
Bialystock and Bloom search through stacks of scripts, looking for one that is guaranteed to be a flop. The winner is Springtime for Hitler, a lighthearted look at the dictator who was responsible for the Holocaust. Bialystock takes out two hats and puts on one, but he refuses to let Bloom wear the other: these are "producer" hats, he explains, and Bloom is not a real producer until the show opens.
Act 1, Scene 6
On the roof of the Greenwich Village building he lives in, Franz Liebkind, wearing a Nazi helmet and lederhosen, sings about how lonesome he is in America, accompanied in his song by the pigeons that he keeps in cages. Bialystock and Bloom arrive to obtain the rights for Springtime for Hitler, which Liebkind wrote. Liebkind is excited about their interest in his play, but refuses to let them produce it unless they take "the Siegfried Oath," pledging their allegiance to Hitler. Bloom wants to leave, but Bialystock convinces him to take the oath and to put on the swastika armband Liebkind gives them.
Act 1, Scene 7
They are let into the apartment of Roger De Bris, a particularly untalented director, by De Bris's assistant, Carmen Ghia. De Bris enters in a gown, which he plans to wear to the Choreographers' Ball. He is hesitant about directing Springtime for Hitler because it is so serious, and asks for advice from his "production team": a group of outrageously gay stereotypes who parade through the living room. Bialystock convinces De Bris that he could win a Tony Award for doing a serious drama, and De Bris agrees to direct the show.
Act 1, Scene 8
Ulla arrives at Bialystock's office. She is a tall, shapely Swedish blonde bombshell with a thick accent that makes her words barely intelligible. Both men are smitten with her sensuality and want to hire her, though the show is not in rehearsals yet. They end up asking her to work as a secretary until the show opens, and she agrees. Bialystock decides that he has to go to his "investors"—a group of little old ladies who give him money for his plays as long as he has sex with them.
Act 1, Scene 9
This scene takes place in "Little Old Lady Land," populated by chorus lines of old ladies with walkers and canes, who Bialystock sweet-talks in song. When he has collected two million dollars, he goes back to Bloom and tells him that they are ready to put the play on. All of the important characters—Ulla, Roger De Bris, Carmen Ghia and Franz Liebkind—come on stage for a rousing song to end act 1.
Act 2, Scene 1
Bialystock and Bloom return to their office to find that Ulla has cleaned it and painted it white, entirely changing its dismal look. Bialystock leaves, and Ulla and Bloom, left alone, dance and sing a duet that shows that they are in love with each other.
Act 2, Scene 2
At the theater, auditions take place for Springtime for Hitler, with a succession of inappropriate actors showing up and performing unlikely material in Hitler costumes. Franz Liebkind finally interrupts to show how it should be done, and Bialystock realizes that, with his over-earnestness, he would be the perfect actor to play the part.
Act 2, Scene 3
Outside of the Schubert Theatre on West 44th Street, the same setting as act 1, scene 1, people are arriving for the Springtime for Hitler opening. Bloom wishes everybody good luck to the horror of all. They explain to him that according to Broadway superstition wishing good luck will only bring bad luck. He asks what he should say instead, and they tell him, "Break a leg." When Bloom says that, Liebkind trips walking to the stage door and breaks his leg. For a moment, it looks as if the show must be cancelled, but Bialystock asks Roger De Bris to take the role of Hitler.
Act 2, Scene 4
The musical production of "Springtime for Hitler" is garishly inappropriate, with glamorous dancers and glorious songs celebrating the Führer.
Act 2, Scene 5
Back at the office, Bialystock and Bloom realize that the show is a hit with the critics and that their plan is ruined. Bloom wants to take the two sets of accounting ledgers he kept to the police and turn himself in, and he and Bialystock fight over the account ledgers. De Bris and Carmen Ghia come in, and then Liebkind comes in, brandishing a pistol, angry because the effeminate De Bris made Hitler look foolish. He fires a few times before the police show up. While arresting Liebkind, the police notice the two sets of books and take Bialystock away to jail as well. But Bloom, hidden behind a door, escapes notice. He leaves for Rio de Janeiro with Ulla and the two million dollars.
Act 2, Scene 6
In jail, Bialystock receives a post card from Rio and feels betrayed, singing a song about all that has happened.
Act 2, Scene 7
Bialystock is about to be sentenced in court when Bloom and Ulla return. Bloom gives back the money, the old ladies admit they did not mind being cheated, and Bialystock and Bloom sing a song about what true friends they have found in each other.
Act 2, Scene 8
In prison, Bialystock, Bloom, Liebkind, and other prisoners sing and dance through a new show, Prisoners of Love. A guard comes in with the news that the governor has pardoned Bialystock and Bloom because of the laughter and joy they have brought to the convicts.
Act 2, Scene 9
In front of the Schubert Theatre again, the marquee says, "Bialystock and Bloom present 'Prisoners of Love."' A large production number takes place, with male and female chorus dancers in prison stripes.
Act 2, Scene 10
Bialystock and Bloom, in tuxedos and their producer hats, come out to sing a song about their success, friendship, and ongoing partnership.
Max Bialystock is one of the two producers referred to in the play's title. As one song points out, Bialystock was once the "King of Broadway." When the story opens, however, he is washed-up, having produced a string of flops so terrible that they regularly do not make it past the first performance. The theater showing his current work, Funny Boy!, even had a special sign made up for Bialystock's works, with "Opening Night" on one side and "Closing Night" on the other, to save time. The only way that Bialystock has been able to put shows on at all is by romancing lonesome old ladies, who invest in his shows in exchange for his companionship. He keeps a cabinet of photos of these ladies, bringing out one at a time, making each woman believe she is special to him.
Bialystock is defined by his crass immorality. When Leo Bloom points out that he can make more money with a flop than with a hit, he does not think twice before setting his scheme into motion. He is so greedy that he is willing to ignore his Jewish background and swear an oath to honor Adolf Hitler in order to secure the rights to Franz Liebkind's play, which he knows will be the worst production ever to hit Broadway.
Late in the second act, Bialystock has a song, "Betrayed," that humanizes him, showing that his loss is more than money and the jail time that he faces—that in fact, he has bonded with Bloom as a friend and mentor, and feels let down. When Bloom returns to testify for him in court, however, Bialystock tells the judge that his friendship with Bloom is the first true friendship he has ever had. Bloom is the first person that he has ever trusted. By the end, Bialystock is the same spirited rake that he was at the beginning; he throws his efforts into producing the show Prisoners of Love, another terrible-sounding musical that is destined for Broadway success.
One of the show's two central characters, Leopold Bloom is the more complex of the two. He is a meek accountant, so frightened by Max Bialystock's natural vivacity when they first meet that he is reduced to cowering on the floor, fondling the small blue blanket that he has retained from childhood. Bloom's fear is offset, though, by his deeply-held desire to be a Broadway producer. After being exposed to the show business life during his visit to Bialystock's office, Bloom returns to his office at Whitehall and Marks and notices how acutely unhappy he is as an accountant. He then decides to join Bialystock in his illegal scheme.
Bloom's fascination with show business is reinforced when he meets Ulla, the gorgeous blonde bombshell who comes to work for Bialystock and Bloom as a secretary before taking her place in the show Springtime for Hitler. Bloom is smitten with Ulla, so much so that when he and she have a duet at the beginning of act 2, he throws his security blanket into the garbage. His interest in her is sweet and romantic, as he sings about her beautiful face. This is contrasted with Max Bialystock's reaction to her, which is clearly steeped in lust.
When the plot to defraud the investors is found out, Bloom proves to have become the man that Bialystock urged him to be, running away to Rio de Janeiro with the beautiful girl and the ill-gotten loot. Bloom has a conscience, though, and returns before Bialystock is sentenced. In the song in the courtroom, Bloom acknowledges the changes that Bialystock has made in his life, taking him from a glum and borderline-tragic life to one filled with joy. The case for their close friendship is made so convincingly that the judge sends them to jail together.
The name Leopold Bloom is taken from James Joyce's novel Ulysses, a fact that is referred to in act 1, scene 4, when Bloom asks, "When's it gonna be Bloom's day?"—in Joyce's novel, "Bloom's day" is June 16th, the date that the program gives for the events in The Producers.
Roger De Bris
De Bris is a pretentious, flamboyantly gay director. His apartment is filled with eccentric show-business people, each a different homosexual stereotype. When Bialystock and Bloom first approach De Bris (pronounced like "debris"), he is wearing a flowing evening gown, which he explains is his costume for the Choreographer's Ball. He is hesitant to direct Springtime for Hitler because he finds the subject matter too serious: as De Bris explains in a song filled with double entendres, he feels that the key to a successful Broadway hit is to "Keep It Gay." This point is made again when his usual associates, such as his set designer, choreographer, and lighting director, come out, each a more outrageously gay caricature than the last.
- The movie that The Producers was based on was only a moderate success when it was released in 1968, but it has gone on to become a cult classic. It stars Zero Mostel as Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Bloom. The film is available on a special edition DVD from MGM/UA.
- The original Broadway cast album of The Producers, starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Brad Oscar, and Cady Huffmann, was recorded in 2001 and is available from Sony Classical.
- Recording "The Producers": A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks is a DVD documentary that follows the in-studio recording of the Broadway cast album, featuring Brooks and all of the members of the original line-up. It was released by Sony Classical in 2001.
The producers count on De Bris's natural bad taste to ensure that their musical will be a failure: as Bilaystock explains to Bloom as they are hiring him to direct, "This guy couldn't direct you to the bathroom."
When Franz Liebkind breaks his leg and cannot perform in the show, De Bris steps in to play Hitler. The result is a truly effeminate Hitler, who seems enraptured with the public's attention.
Carmen Ghia is Roger De Bris's "commonlaw assistant" and is as openly gay as De Bris is. In the play, Carmen Ghia functions to explain De Bris's more antic notions and to give the director another gay character to argue with cattily. It is Ghia who knows De Bris well enough to suggest that he would know all of the words to the starring role in Springtime for Hitler and would have a secret desire to step into the part when Liebkind is incapacitated.
Gunter is a Nazi assistant to Franz Liebkind, who drops Franz off in front of the theater on the night of the Springtime for Hitler opening.
Hold Me-Touch Me
Hold Me-Touch Me is the most obvious of the little old ladies that Bialystock romances in order to secure backing for his show. While Hold Me-Touch Me's scene with Bialystock is longer, her personality is not distinguishable from the other ladies, such as Lick Me-Bite Me, Kiss Me-Feel Me, or Clinch Me-Pinch Me.
Liebkind is a Nazi who lives in New York City, in Greenwich Village. He has written a play to lionize his hero, Adolf Hitler. Bialystock and Bloom determine, after reading dozens of plays, that Liebkind's must be the worst play ever; it is certain to fail.
As if the subject of his play were not enough to prove Liebkind's mental instability, the play has great fun with his delusions. For one thing, he dresses in lederhosen and wears a Nazi helmet. In addition, Liebkind is so enthusiastic about having his version of Hitler's life seen by the public that he does not recognize the contempt that Bialystock and Bloom, who have obviously Jewish names, have for him and for Hitler. Liebkind makes them put on swastika armbands and swear their devotion to Hitler. Liebkind claims to know little-recognized, highly unlikely facts about Hitler, such as the fact that he could paint an entire apartment in an afternoon—two coats!—and that he was a good dancer, and that his middle name was "Elizabeth." Before he is approached by the producers, Liebkind is on the roof of his apartment house, singing about how much he misses Bavaria. He is alone but is backed up by a chorus of singing pigeons, indicating the extent of his separation from reality.
After an extensive audition process, Bialystock realizes that Liebkind is the perfect choice to play the starring role in Springtime for Hitler, ensuring that the play will be a flop. On opening night, though, after the cast has explained to Bloom that Broadway superstition requires saying "break a leg" instead of "good luck," Liebkind actually does slip and break his leg, and has to be replace in the show.
After the play, Liebkind goes to Bialystock and threatens to kill the producers. His gun goes off, summoning the police, and they all end up in jail together.
Leo Bloom's boss at the accounting office where he works, Mr. Marks is described as "a short-tempered, cigar-chomping little tyrant." His petty badgering makes Bloom decide to quit the accounting business and try his hand at being a producer.
Ulla Inga Hansen Bensen Yonsen
One of the more obvious jokes in the script is that, after introducing herself with a nine-word-long string of names, Ulla announces that is just her first name. Bialystock declares that they do not have time to hear her last name, too.
Ulla is a voluptuous blonde who shows up at Bialystock and Bloom's office to audition for a part in their new play. She is cast as Eva Braun, Hitler's lover. But they also give her a position as their secretary in order to keep her around.
Much is made of Ulla's Swedish accent and her poor ability to understand or speak English. With no skill whatsoever as a secretary, her office work is limited to picking up the telephone and saying "Bialystock and Bloom" repeatedly, like a parrot.
Ulla is aware of her own sensuality; her audition for the producers is a song called "When You Got It, Flaunt It." Later, when she is singing the duet "That Face" with Leo Bloom, it becomes clear that she is sincerely attracted to him. In the end, after Bloom has been to prison, Ulla is with him, starring in the new musical that Bilaystock and Bloom have developed.
At the core of Bialystock and Bloom's scheme to defraud the backers of their production is greed. Max Bialystock is so greedy that he ends act 1, scene 2, on his knees, praying to God, "Oh, Lord, I want that money!!" When scene 4 begins, presumably some time later, he is still on his knees, still praying. Leo Bloom is not initially as motivated by greed as he is inhibited by fear, but, after returning to the pool of unhappy, browbeaten accountants at Whitehall and Marks, he becomes convinced that, deep down, he really does want to have the things that money can buy.
To Bialystock, wealth represents the kind of lifestyle that he once knew, which he sings about in "The King of Broadway": champagne, fine clothes, huge hotel suites, and the adoration of beautiful chorus girls. His greed is pushed further with the arrival of Ulla, whose beauty represents the worldly things that are unattainable for a man like him, who does not have money. Bloom's greed is a copy of Bialystock's until, at the beginning of act 2, he permits himself to open up to Ulla's charms. When Bloom takes the two million dollars and runs away to Rio with Ulla, his action is almost as much an act of fear as of greed; Bialystock would have found it a dream fulfilled to be rich in a tropical paradise with a beautiful girl, but Bloom leaves the country to run away from the police.
There is nothing subtle about the way that the play uses Bloom's little blue blanket as a symbol for his barely-repressed infantilism. When he first meets Bialystock, he is driven to hysterics, afraid of Max's natural overwhelming vitality. The only thing that can calm his panic is stroking his face with his blanket, like a young child would do. This returns him to the security and comfort of childhood. Bialystock openly mocks Bloom and shows his disgust, but Bloom holds fast to the behavior that has comforted him all his life.
Bloom takes a small step toward maturity when he stands up to his boss, Mr. Marks. Having been exposed to the excitement of Broadway producing and fraud, Bloom realizes that the boring routine that he once thought of as comforting is, in reality, soul-deadening.
It is love, however, that makes Bloom give up his security blanket. He realizes that his "minor compulsion," as he puts it, might hurt his chances with Ulla. Still, he does not actually throw the blanket in the garbage until he has danced with her, when he is certain that he and Ulla are in love with each other. Maturity, for Bloom, means accepting the fearful uncertainty of love, leaving the world of familiar things for a world of greater promise.
The Producers shows two lonely, distrustful individuals opening up to become part of the social world that surrounds them. Both Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom admit this growth in their song "Til Him," in which they each identify themselves as having lived unfulfilled lives when they tried to face the world all alone. Up to the time of that realization, Bialystock, who made a practice of taking advantage of his investors, feared that anyone he met was trying to take advantage of him. Bloom had been too timid to face up to society's disapproval until he saw how Bialystock lived without approval. Each man's negative qualities cancel out the other's over the course of the play, so that, united, they find comfort. This opening up to each other is symbolized in the way that, having been called "Bialystock and Bloom" repeatedly through the play, they refer to themselves in their final song as "Leo and Max."
This play's sense of building a community goes beyond the friendship between the two main characters, though. The coterie of odd people that they pick up in the process of trying to achieve the worst play ever becomes like a family to them. In the end, the people whom they chose because they were unlikable become indispensable to Bialystock and Bloom. Even though he is a deranged, talentless Nazi who has tried to kill them, Franz Liebkind is, almost as a matter of course, given a part in their Prisoners of Love show while they are incarcerated—just as Ulla, Roger De Bris, and the rest are naturally included in their success when they are freed. Bialystock and Bloom find themselves, over the course of the play, forming a theatrical troupe of misfits who are part of the theater scene but do not belong any place else.
To a great extent, the plot of a show like The Producers derives naturally from the central idea. Once Brooks decided to work with the conceit of a producer working to become rich by mounting a losing production, there are certain events that would naturally have to take place. The story would have to establish the protagonist's previous lack of success; it would have to introduce someone who gives Bialystock his main idea; then there would have to be a succession of interesting, eccentric characters intended to comprise a truly awful play, and investors to be swindled; followed by a play-within-the-play of truly terrible proportions; then the surprising success of the play; and the unintended consequences of the play's success.
Following this basic structure, Brooks adds plot devices that make the story even more appealing to mass audiences. The subplot of a love interest between Bloom and Ulla adds a humanizing effect, for instance. Also, Brooks follows the show's emotional high point, the "Springtime for Hitler" production number, with several points that make this story of greed and embezzlement end pleasantly. Having Bloom return from Rio at the end to save Bialystock affirms the lasting strength of friendship; having the producers go to prison affirms society's rules against swindling; and having them released against all probability and become successful producers gives audiences the satisfaction of seeing characters they have come to care about end up happy.
- Contact an attorney who specializes in entertainment law and find out why Bialystock and Bloom's scheme to over-sell a losing show would not work. Or why it would.
- The centerpiece of this play is the production number "Springtime for Hitler," poking fun at the dictator who terrorized Europe in the middle of the twentieth century. Write a similar song to a modern dictator, such as Sadaam Hussein, that could be used in a mock musical about him.
- Leo Bloom quits his accounting job because his boss, Mr. Marks, is such a tyrant. Interview several people about the worst employers they have ever had, and the actions that they dreamed of taking in order to leave their unhappy situations.
- Franz Liebkind tells the producers a little-known (and probably wrong) fact, that Adolf Hitler's middle name was "Elizabeth." Find out the middle names of ten famous politicians and research why they were given those names.
- At the end of the play, Leo Bloom has earned the right to wear a "producer hat." Research various hat styles and determine which would be appropriate for various professions that usually do not have hats, such as teacher, accountant, hair-dresser, etc.
Usually, the use of stereotypes indicates that the author of a piece lacks imagination or is so opposed to a group of people that he or she has not bothered to think of individual characteristics for his characters. The stereotypes that Brooks includes in The Producers are so numerous and so obviously offensive that they have a different effect. Instead of reflecting poorly on the author, audiences, knowing that no writer could be that insensitive, are invited to reflect on the stereotypes instead. Brooks's many "gay" jokes surrounding Roger De Bris, Carmen Ghia, and their friends are not so much jokes about gays as they are jokes about gay jokes. The black accountant singing like a slave is not meant to imply that black people meet the slave stereotype, but to show that the situation is like that of the slave stereotype; and the sexist imagery of Ulla as an unintelligent sex object falls apart when she sings her song "When You've Got It, Flaunt It," showing that she is in fact in control of her fate, fully aware of the personality that others might find foolish. Brooks's stereotypes are acceptable because he does not use them in ignorance, but instead uses them to shock the sensibilities of audiences who are used to fewer stereotypes, which forces audiences to think for themselves.
Brooks has chosen to set The Producers in 1959. The 1950s are considered to be the heyday of the Broadway musical. They were integral to American pop culture, the source of the music that dominated the top-ten lists on the radio just as rock and roll made its debut. Shows from the 1950s that still run in frequent revivals into the 2000s include Guys and Dolls, Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady, The King and I, and West Side Story. Composers of these musicals included such legends of the stage as Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, and the team of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Rogers and Hammerstein are credited with defining the modern Broadway musical with their 1943 show Oklahoma !: while there had been stage shows with musical numbers in them, Oklahoma ! is considered the first show to integrate lyrics into the storyline instead of stopping the action every once in a while for a vaguely relevant song. As the culture became more media savvy, though, the traditional Broadway musical increasingly came to be seen as sentimental and trite.
By the end of the twentieth century, the Broadway musical was more about spectacle than about stories or tunes. Huge, multi-million dollar productions used an increasing amount of clever and expensive moving sets, light shows, and costuming. These dazzled audiences, but their relationship to traditional musicals seemed to go no further than presenting music and action together on the stage. Audiences came to see them because they each had some new achievement, but the performances of the actors onstage became less and less important. Investors poured millions into elaborate stagings of The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, Miss Saigon, and Kiss of the Spiderwoman. A notable development was the interest of huge entertainment corporations; this brought needed cash to Broadway, which had gone through some very lean years in the 1980s. The Disney company, with investments in everything from film to theme parks to radio, started to recycle its cartoons for the stage; the first was Beauty and the Beast in 1994 and, when that was a success, Disney bought the New Amsterdam Theatre to mount its twelve million dollar production of The Lion King, which proved to be a worthwhile investment. It seemed that the future of Broadway musicals was to be bigger, brighter, louder, and more expensive.
When The Producers hit Broadway, it represented a throwback to earlier days of song and dance. Brooks's score is clearly patterned on the tunes and themes of 1950s musicals, and the entire production can be done with just a few sets and no exotic or expensive special effects. It rewrote the rules by proving that a musical could be a breakout success without an overly elaborate production—relying on characters, tunes and solid performances to hold audiences in their seats. The tide seems to have turned, with musicals, such as Urinetown and Avenue Q relying more on wit than spectacle to keep audiences entertained.
When The Producers opened its trial run in Chicago, it was well-received, but was not the universally-loved, critic-proof behemoth it was to later become. Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss was impressed by the show, but was well aware that it was a "buoyant boisterous musical-theater time machine," referring to Mel Brooks's "giddy, childlike, pseudo-naïve irreverence and intentional bad taste" and "the blatant silliness of his old-time jokes and attitudes." Weiss went on to say, "Unapologetically politically incorrect, he has concocted what 50 years ago would have been called 'the tired businessman's show,' with sexpot and all—a pure, simple, self-confidently anachronistic entertainment."
Two months later, the show opened in New York, taking the town by storm. In the New York Times, which has a long-standing tradition of setting the standards for Broadway (and, by extension, for the theater world), Ben Brantley's review from April 20, 2001, started, "How do you single out highlights in a bonfire? Everybody who sees The Producers—and that should be as close to everybody as the St. James Theater allows—is going to be hard-pressed to choose one favorite bit from the sublimely ridiculous spectacle that opened last night.… It is, to put it simply, the real thing: a big Broadway book musical that is so ecstatically drunk on its powers to entertain that it leaves you delirious, too."
To deal with the unprecedented popularity of the show, ticket prices were immediately hiked, from $90 to $100. Later, to foil scalpers who were monopolizing the best seats for months to come, the show's backers took the unprecedented move of raising top prices to an astronomical $480 apiece.
At the 2001 Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Awards, The Producers made history by receiving 12 statuettes, breaking the record of 10 awarded to Hello Dolly in 1964. Among the Tonys won were best lead actor (Nathan Lane); best featured actor (Gary Beach); best featured actress (Cady Huffman); best director and best choreography (Susan Stroman); and, unexpectedly, best musical score for Brooks, who, at 74 years old, had never written music for a Broadway show before.
One area of contention about this show has always been its offensive comic portrayals of blacks, women, gays, etc. Jim Seavor, writing for a largely gay audience in the Providence Journal-Bulletin, acknowledged complaints that the play made fun of homosexuals, but his response was that it was funny; that there were other venues where audiences can see more well-rounded portrayals; and that, in the context of The Producers, gays are "simply part of a large group of over-the-top characters. Everyone is a target." He also pointed out that the characters that seem outrageous to audiences are taken as being fairly normal by other characters on the stage. He concluded, "In a way, it's a relief to sit there and laugh at what we've been told we should no longer laugh at."
Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing. In this essay, Kelly examines the way Brooks's play uses mildly shocking stereotypes to make audiences reflect on the Broadway musical tradition.
Mel Brooks's theatrical adaptation of his 1968 film The Producers has been an unmitigated success from the moment it arrived on Broadway, garnering a record number of Antoinette Perry Award ("Tony") nominations and awards, and raising levels for ticket prices. There are obvious factors involved in its success, such as two big stars, solid musical performances, and terrific production values all around. What critics usually express surprise about, however, is that Brooks is able to make mass audiences warm up to the show's more offensive elements. At the heart of the story is a one-joke premise—a campy musical gala featuring Adolph Hitler. Brooks surrounds this with moth-eaten stereotypes—sex-maddened old ladies, brainless buxom blondes, swishy homosexuals, a slavish black character and Jews, belligerent and cowardly. The satire in The Producers runs the meager gamut from offensive to irrelevant. Brooks gives audiences much to dislike, and they have responded by lining up for tickets.
No one ever said that a musical comedy has to be thoughtful or tasteful. It might even be taken for granted that the most money is to be made in pandering to the audience's least common denominator—providing mindless entertainment that the greatest number of people can be comfortable with. The odd thing about The Producers is how it can be comforting to the audience by dealing in offensive images. In part, this might just say something about who the average theatergoer is: someone who does not find offense in unflattering portrayals of blacks, Irish, Jews, Swedes, the elderly, gays, or females. Surely none of these groups can be excluded from the droves of people racing to the play. What is missing from the play's images is the actual offensiveness. Though the play is clearly centered on offensive characters, they are presented in a way that even the mainstream patron of musical theater would be hard pressed to find objectionable. In using sensitive cultural images without offending anyone's sensibilities, the end product might have been bland; instead, Brooks has absorbed the energy from poor taste while throwing out its poisonous effects.
DO I READ
- Brooks and co-writer Tom Meehan wrote supplemental essays and margin notes for a large, illustrated book of The Producers that was released by Roundtable Press in 2001.
- Another musical that opened on Broadway at the same time as The Producers was Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis's Urinetown. More bitingly satirical, Urinetown is a parable about a futuristic world in which a malevolent corporation controls all of the public toilets and collects money from anyone who needs to use them. This play uses rousing music that is as reminiscent of the musical's glory days as that used in The Producers.
- There are any number of good books showing what is required in putting on a musical production. One good contemporary example is Matthew White's Staging a Musical (1999), which covers all of the basic requirements in a straightforward way. It was published by Theatre Arts Books.
- The year after The Producers opened, the big musical to open on Broadway was Hairspray (2002), also based on a semi-successful movie (in this case, a 1988 John Waters film). The book is by Mark O'Donnell, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittmann, and Thomas Meehan.
- There is a long history of making fun of Adolf Hitler. Even when he was at the height of his power, political cartoonists made a point of mocking him. Zbynek Zeman's book Heckling Hitler, published by I. B. Tauris in 1987, examines this.
In his notes about how he came to bring The Producers to the stage, Brooks said that he wanted to do an old-fashioned musical comedy, the kind that he felt they had stopped making around 1960 (quoted in Brooks): "Unhappily, as far as I'm concerned, the musical comedy was replaced by what might be called the musical tragedy, the kind of show, often from London, in which you sit in the dark all evening without laughing once. And though you stopped smoking years ago, because you know that smoking causes cancer, you long throughout the show for a Lucky Strike." With his reference to the somber contemporary blockbusters of writers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Brooks's invocation of a past that came before people knew about cancer and smoked Lucky Strikes with abandon, Brooks has identified the mandate for The Producers as light-hearted nostalgia. The whole production is steeped in the past: the Third Reich of the 1930s and 1940s, the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, and the original film of the 1960s. According to the script, the play is set in 1959, though its sense of reality is so skewed that there is nothing particularly significant about that date (other than its relationship to Brooks's quote about musical tragedies).
Nostalgia is particularly useful for musical comedy because its very nature is to show the world in a sanitized, rosier light than one sees when looking at the present. Audiences accept broader characterizations in nostalgic comedies, as if people were simpler in the past than they are in the present. The stereotype of the blonde Swedish kitten, to give one example, would be much more offensive if she were being passed off as a part of contemporary reality, as if the woman's movement had made no progress from the 1960s to the present: since the play is set before the 1960s, both in date and in spirit, the character of Ulla can, when played by a strong performer with a good sense of self, be taken as an egotist, not a victim. Gags about Irish cops, Jewish accountants, and an African American office worker singing a Negro spiritual do not linger in the air announcing their staleness, as they did when they were more common, in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead they act as nostalgic reminders of the vaudeville tradition that Brooks, if not most of his audience, might remember.
The tone of lighthearted cornball stereotyping this production attains is centered on the two leads, Max Bialystock and Leopold Bloom. Both represent traditional Jewish stock characters. Bialystock, conniving and greedy, is a schnorrer, taking advantage of others, directly descended from Shakespeare's Shylock, seen onstage four centuries earlier. If Bialystock is threateningly aggressive, though, Bloom is at least as infuriating in his neurotic insecurity. Bialystock is not threatening to the play's audience because he is introduced, in the very first song, as an abject failure. Bloom, simpering into his security blanket, is drawn at least as broadly in his own way as Bialystock is. They are both character types, defining a world of even broader character types.
At the start of the second act, the play goes further toward defining what audiences should expect from its characters by creating a romance between timid Leo Bloom and Ulla, the blonde sex goddess who leaves the male characters gape-jawed. If Bloom and Ulla were at all realistic, a romance between them would not make sense: Bloom is so timid that he has a panic attack when Bialystock raises his voice, while Ulla is so self-assured that she auditions with a song called "If You Got It, Flaunt It." Since they are general character types, though, their romance fits the story just fine, mostly as an indication of how producing a show has raised Bloom's confidence. More important than what it says about Bloom, though, is what their romance does for the structure of the show: it allows Brooks to introduce a romance, an element that every musical comedy is bound to have. The focus of The Producers is not supposed to be on characters, but on the musical comedy genre.
Such a stance might seem to cheapen the value of the play, relegating it to the category of "mere entertainment" instead of a serious work that deserves its many awards. But focusing on the show itself, and not the characters, is what makes The Producers relevant in the modern world. It is a show about show business, making its points without dwelling on them. As the script shows Bialystock and Bloom go through the process of devising the worst show possible, Brooks, by making the characters impossible to take seriously, forces audiences to think about the show they are attending.
The Producers reflects on itself in the way that it pays homage to the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s in its tunes, choreography, characterizations, and plot. To all of the retrospective elements of the show, Brooks has added a very modern element by consciously trying to offend prevailing sensibilities. At an earlier time—say, the time when the play is set—the offense may have come from the very presence of an integrated chorus, or of openly gay characters. The world has changed, though. For modern audiences, the element of shock, though mild, derives from the ways that minorities are treated onstage. Society has come so far beyond stereotyping that even bringing out these old characterizations of the sexpot, the schnorrer, the dirty old women, and the milquetoast makes audience stop and wonder if their mere presence is offensive. In fact, none of these comic characters makes a statement about people in general, so, no, they are not actually objectionable. But they seem wrong, and that makes this musical comedy seem like it is flaunting the social rules.
The most contemporary area of offensiveness is in Brooks's handling of its gay characters. Characters like Roger De Bris and his "common-law assistant" Carmen Ghia are tagged as ridiculous from the moment they are introduced, with foolish names and costumes. They have a production team of gay stereotypes clearly derived from the openly gay 1970s musical group The Village People, as well as a signature song which uses the word "gay" every few lines. It all seems as if they should be scandalous. In contemporary society, after all, there is no more question of equal rights for races or genders, but the legal battles over the rights of gay couples to marry and adopt keep this issue in the news. In fact, these gay characters are more likely to amuse than offend gay rights advocates. In a song like "Keep it Gay," The Producers accomplishes three things simultaneously: it taps into the backwards-looking nostalgia for 1950s and 1960s attitudes; it touches on a contemporary social issue; and it shows Brook's subtle touch, in being able to go near controversial subject matter without raising ire.
The central gag of The Producers—the sight of Adolf Hitler interpreted by a swishing, effeminate homosexual—is so obvious that it should have audiences enraged—not because Hitler is praised, but because he is so universally despised that, in mocking him, Brooks sets his sights so low. The humor relies on the contemporary notion, which is the basis of shock humor, that each person will feel that they will get the joke but that the person sitting next to them might be outraged. Aside from a very few extremists, though, there really is no group that is going to object to this play ridiculing Hitler. Except for a very few audience members who might be attending a musical comedy but have absolutely no sense of humor, there is very little danger that anyone could watch Roger De Bris's mincing and not realize that Hitler is being mocked. At the core of this play is a scandal in theory, but one that never really materializes, hence, the play's commercial success.
In the 1968 movie, Brooks cut between showing the debacle of the Springtime for Hitler musical onstage and showing the shocked faces of the audience members as they realized what they had stumbled into (apparently, having missed the play's subtitle, A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden, when they purchased their tickets). The stage play—coming after a quarter century of what has come to be called, derisively, "political correctness"—relies on audiences to assume that someone around them is always going to be offended by something.
Brooks's Springtime for Hitler production number is one of the most rousing, whistle-able songs to play on a Broadway stage in years. Audiences do not have to be told that they like it. And, due to Brooks's careful use of stereotypes, they are well aware that what they like might offend others. All that is required for this play to work is that audiences believe that Bialystock and Bloom would be blind to the play's obvious charm. Their characters are shallow enough that it is not hard to believe anything of them: love, betrayal, male bonding, ignorance, principles or cowardice. All that matters for this to be a comedy is that people believe that Bialystock and Bloom are happy in the end and that the audience walks out of the theater happy.
David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Producers, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following review, Brustein details some of the controversy surrounding The Producers and praises Brooks for showing that comedy can not only expose "stupidity and pretension," but "can also exorcise and nullify evil."
The cover of a recent issue of The New Yorker depicts a lone spectator scowling in the midst of a theater audience rocking with laughter. The unhappy dissenter is Adolf Hitler, and the audience, of course, is watching The Producers (St. James Theatre), Mel Brooks's musical remake of his classic movie.
Everyone is familiar with the premise of The Producers: how the failed producer, Max Bialystock, gets the idea from his nerdy accountant, Leopold Bloom, that by over-subscribing a flop he can make more money than he could by producing a hit. Bialystock and Bloom finally discover the play "that will close on page four," namely Springtime for Hitler, an epic by the neo-Nazi Franz Liebkind (Brad Oscar) designed "to show the world the true Hitler, the Hitler with a song in his heart." When the play turns out to be an unexpected, if unwanted, success, Bialystock is convicted of larceny, despite his heartrending defense ("I know I'm a back-stabbing, despicable crook—but I had no choice. I'm a Broadway producer"). After a few months of hesitation on a tropical isle, Bloom elects to join Bialystock in jail, though both are soon released to bring their new convict musical. Prisoner of Love, to Broadway. It is a hit—an intended hit.
Obviously there are some people—other than Hitler and his skinhead following—who would frown at The Producers. Letters to The New York Times are already charging Brooks with insensitivity to the Holocaust. Let us concede that insensitivity and bad taste are inseparable from the production; indeed, they are practically its organizing principles. Let us also concede that Brooks's willingness to give offense is the primary reason why this event is proving so exhilarating. And the exhilaration is palpable. Never in my long theatergoing life have I been part of such an ecstatic audience. I do not mean people desperate, at $100 a throw, to applaud their expenditure. I mean a really happy audience—wreathed in smiles before, during, and after the performance.
Despite some early misgivings, I had a pretty terrific time myself. Admittedly, Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock, while unquestionably very funny, still suffers from his compulsive eagerness to please. In his second attempt to play a role originated by Zero Mostel (Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was the first), Lane again shows the extent to which he lacks Mostel's subversive ferocity, his manic marginality. In his black slouch hat and red velvet jacket, he is also much more soi-disant than the seedy Zero—no strands of hair pasted over his forehead or rolls of fat draping over his belt. And although Matthew Broderick is priceless as the nerdy Leopold Bloom, carrying his remnant of a security blanket like a lost flag, he cannot quite scale the heights of uncontrollable hysteria that made Gene Wilder such a terrified wreck in the part. The movie also had a tougher satiric edge than the show. (A younger Mel Brooks, for example, would never have tolerated the musical's courtroom climax, with its soggy reconciliations and unconvincing character reversals.)
But the musical of The Producers is a more lighthearted creation than the movie, almost a different species, with its own special conventions and demands, for which Lane and Broderick may be more appropriate casting. What it sacrifices in savagery it gains in form, enjoying a tighter, more coherent structure than the somewhat ungainly film. Thomas Meehan, who collaborated on the book, has managed to curb some of Brooks's excesses as a writer, and Susan Stroman, who wittily staged and brilliantly choreographed the show, has avoided some of his overkill as a director.
To be sure, excess and overkill are Brooks's trademarks, the qualities responsible for his wildest comic flights—the epic farting scene in Blazing Saddles; the "morning after" in Young Frankenstein when Madeline Kahn, having been shtupped by the Frankenstein monster, wakes up warbling, "Ah, sweet mystery of life!" (not to mention the scene in which the monster and Dr. Frankenstein appear on stage in top hat and tails, tap-dancing to "Puttin' on the Ritz"); Brooks himself playing Louis XIV, surrounded by a bevy of beauties, in The History of the World, Part I, demonstrating to the movie audience why "it's good to be the king." But we have occasionally suffered the defects of these virtues in such clinkers as Life Stinks (so did the movie) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (whose only funny element was its title). Brooks's unwieldy sense of form may have been eliminated from the musicalized Producers, but mercifully his irrepressible good humor and his fecund imagination were preserved. The evening is virtually an hommage to this great comic artist, with dozens of quotations from his past movies. Indeed, his voice can be heard everywhere, even on stage, lip-synched by an actor singing the immortal lines: "Don't be stupid, be a smarty / Come and join the Nazi Party."
Rather than look for holes in the fabric, we ought to embrace this new old-fashioned musical comedy with gratitude. It is a refreshing tonic after all those decades of moral instruction from Rodgers and Hammerstein, and urban neurosis from Stephen Sondheim, and melodious angst from "new wave" musicals such as Falsettos and Rent. As John Lahr has observed in his New Yorker notice, The Producers recalls the good old days of comedian-driven musicals—comedians, we should note, who were originally schooled in vaudeville and burlesque. Lahr's father, Bert, was one of the linchpins of this movement (and his goofy, pained innocence seems to have influenced Lane's performance in the current production). So were Bobby Clark, Jimmy Savo, Ed Wynn, and Jimmy Durante—and later Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, and Zero Mostel. A number of these comics were Jews, including Lahr, though he rarely played Jews on stage. (I fondly remember him as a raffish plutocrat in The Beauty Part, explaining his state of undress to his wife: "I had to give the maid a severe dressing-down.")
It took Mel Brooks to tap the inexhaustible oil well of satiric deflation at the foundation of the Jewish experience. This mother lode he pumped to a fare-thee-well in the "2000 Year Old Man" series, playing an aging Yiddish kvetch who claims to have been a participant in all recorded history. ("Did you know Joan of Arc?" "I went with her, dummy, I went with her!") The same ironic contrast between lowliness and loftiness characterizes The Producers. Take as a pictorial example the theater posters on the walls of Max Bialystock's office—This Too Shall Pass, The Kidney Stone, The Breaking Wind, A Streetcar Named Murray, She Shtups to Conquer, Katz, High Button Jews—which deflate some of Broadway's most sanctified commodities with outrageous Jewish humor.
Of course, Brooks was hardly the first to ridicule Hitler. In The Great Dictator, Chaplin satirized him as a pompous egotist (with a Jewish barber as his double) famously bouncing a globe of the world off his behind, when not vying with Mussolini over whose barber chair could attain greater height. Brecht turned him into a narcissistic actor in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Even the Three Stooges did a number on him with their crude brand of thumb-in-the-eye slapstick. Still, nobody can touch Brooks when it comes to letting the air out of evil icons (he did the same to Torquemada and the Inquisition), generally by exposing how much they have in common with showbiz. Here he turns Gauleiters and storm troopers into chorus boys, while ripping the last shred of dignity from Hitler by making him a Judy Garland wanna-be whispering "I love you" to the audience that he is trying to seduce.
Outraged letters to the editor notwithstanding, it is a lot easier to make fun of the Nazi movement now than it was thirty-three years ago. It would be hard to replicate today that supreme moment in the film when the audience, watching the opening number of Springtime for Hitler, is shocked into paralyzed silence before bursting into applause. For one thing, we are half a century away from the event; for another, we are too familiar with the movie. In the musical, therefore, this "gay romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden" is performed before a live audience applauding it in the St. James—not so much a play-within-a-play as a hit-within-a-hit.
So the satire on Nazism is the easy part. But like Springtime for Hitler, The Producers is designed "to offend people of all races, creeds, and religions"—not a difficult task in our present age of hypersensitivity. Theatrical gays get the worst (or the best) of it. There is a rich scene in the apartment of Roger de Bris (a stage director, not a mohel), whom Bialystock and Bloom are trying to sign for their intended flop. It includes a staircase entrance by this flaming queen in a huge wig and sequined dress, not to mention the classic "Walk this way" moment in which Bialystock and Bloom start swishing behind a particularly effeminate majordomo. Piling Pelion on Ossa, it also features four or five superbly funny entrances by the director's entirely gay production team, including his "common-law assistant" Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart). Like other groups adept at self-satire (Jews and blacks, for example), some gays may find this kind of send-up insulting in the hands of an outsider; but it is really no different from the kind of bitchy humor gays often turn on themselves.
De Bris ends up playing Hitler after Franz Liebkind, the Nazi who wrote Springtime for Hitler, literally breaks a leg on opening night. (The musical wisely drops the outdated hippie character played in the movie by Dick Shawn.) Leibkind's assistant tells de Bris, "You're going out there a silly, hysterical screaming queen, and you're coming back a passing-for-straight great big Broadway star!" As camped by the incomparable Gary Beach, de Bris's first entrance as "Adolf Elizabeth Hitler" ("descended from a long line of English Queens") is enough to guarantee him his Tony. Glowering at the audience with his hands guarding his crotch, he suddenly crumples his body and lifts his arm above his head like a demented teacup, displaying a gleaming set of teeth below his Hitler moustache.
Radical feminists will not like this show much either, since it signals the return of woman as sex object—the long-legged, skimpily dressed showgirl sashaying in her traditional bent-kneed style. These dress parades are almost invariably used for comic purposes, as in the climactic Third Reich production number, when the female chorus descends the stairs in abbreviated Bavarian costumes, with a collection of sausages, pretzels, and German eagles on their heads. Stroman concludes the sequence with a Busby Berkeley-inspired extravaganza—even zanier than the one in the movie, involving goose-stepping storm trooper puppets against a mirrored back wall borrowed from A Chorus Line—that redefines the word, "show-stopper." (She has also choreographed a dancing chorus of homing pigeons.)
Also borrowed from a more Aristophanic, less censorial theatrical period is the buxom sidekick, often a nurse, here a secretary—a Swedish beauty with a hyphenated name so long it takes a court stenographer three minutes to record it. As played by Cady Huffman, Ulla (to use the shortened form) is a willing object of Bialystock's and Bloom's lust, especially after arousing them with a particularly lubricious song and dance ("Even though we're sitting down, we're giving you a standing ovation"). It is nice to be reminded that once upon a time in the theater men and women were allowed to feel sexual attraction.
As if enough constituencies had not been offended yet, the Times has also received letters from angry people in Florida retirement homes protesting that handicapped old ladies are among those mistreated in the show. Bialystock raises capital by servicing wealthy old widows, each with her own suggestive nickname ("Hold-me, Touch-me," "Lick-me, Biteme," "Kiss-me, Feel-me"). As a form of fore-play, all of them propose suggestive games, to which an exhausted Bialystock replies, "Let's play a game where there's absolutely no sex—the Jewish princess and her husband." Among a number of rousing production numbers is one, "Little Old Lady Land," in which these aging women (some of them played by men) raucously perform on walkers. Only in America could it be considered offensive to depict aging women as capable of erotic and energized behavior.
The quality of performance and production is at a consistently high level. Matthew Broderick plays Bloom with hunched modesty and adenoidal shyness, performing (particularly in "I Wanna Be a Producer") with surprising musical comedy assurance. Despite my reservations about Nathan Lane, he has never been more disciplined than here under Stroman's watchful direction, though I dread to think what he'll be doing with the part three months hence. All of the other aforementioned actors, and the well-drilled ensemble that supports them, add energy and gaiety. William Ivy Long's costumes are witty and splashy, and Robin Wagner's sets are sumptuous recreations of a glorious Broadway past.
But the real hero of the evening is Melvin Brooks. Over the marquee of one of Bialystock's flops is the credit: "Entire production conceived, devised, thought up and supervised by Max Bialystock." Brooks, who in addition to all his other duties is one of the producers of The Producers, might claim the same credits. His music, though a decent enough approximation of Broadway show tunes, seems rather derivative, but his book and his lyrics are entirely nonpareil, and so is the animating idea behind the show. The Jew who finally buried Hitler, Mel Brooks demonstrates that comedy is not only capable of exposing stupidity and pretension. At times, it can also exorcise and nullify evil—not as powerfully, but sometimes more lastingly than a hundred Sherman tanks, a thousand B-42s, or a million GIs.
Robert Brustein, "The Jew Who Buried Hitler," in New Republic, May 28, 2001, p. 27.
In the following essay, Christon examines how impressions of the film version of The Producers has changed, especially since the reworking of the story into a musical.
New York The latest word on The Producers is that ticket orders are now on sale for the Christmas season of 2002. Mel Brooks' Broadway adaptation of his own 1968 film has won a record-breaking slew of Tony Awards, and available seats are so hard to get that the voice mail of the show's press representative offers this stony injunction: "Do not leave requests for house seats. Any telephone requests for house seats will not be returned."
Question: If The Producers is so great now, why wasn't it so great then? Though, like Harold and Maude, it became an instant cult delight, it opened to generally dismal notices.
"I wasn't crazy about the original," says Andrew Sarris, ex-film critic for the Village Voice who now reviews films for the New York Observer. "I panned it. We were still too close to the real thing" (Nazi Germany and the Holocaust). "Things didn't work cinematically. It wasn't well-made. It was more like specialized cinematic vaudeville. The bad taste wasn't just about Hitler and gays, it was about women, too."
Against the Grain
Timing may have had something to do with it as well. One of the most brutal, divisive decades in American history was drawing to a close, and with it the horrible televised spectacles of assassination, burning inner cities, campus revolt and body bags flown home from the war in Vietnam. The feminist slogan "The personal is political" was a public mantra completely lost on cinematic down-on-his-luck producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and his timid accountant. Leopold Bloom (Gene Wilder) as they schemed to sell 25,000% of a sure-fire flop to a bunch of gullible old women "stopping off," as Bialystock says, "to get a last thrill on the way to the cemetery."
Memory doesn't serve that way anymore, despite The Producers' unretouched, unexpurgated presence in cable reruns and video. Notions of taste now seem either quaint or starchy edicts of a new kind of shock troop, the P.C. police. When a female moviegoer buttonholed Brooks with the charge that The Producers stooped to vulgarity, his memorable reply, "Madam, it rises below vulgarity," now seems the timely riposte, where earlier it would have been merely objectionable.
Don't Ever Change
The Producers on Broadway has meant rediscovery of a 75-year-old figure who stands against our ideal of self-reinvention by virtue of never having changed. Not through the late '40s and early '50s era of writing for TV's Your Show of Showsand The Sid Caesar Show and the later TV hit, Get Smart. Not through the classic record series The 2000 Year Old Man nor Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, High Anxiety or History of the World—Part I.
"Much of Brooks humor," the late Kenneth Tynan observed in Show People, "… is inspired by fear: fear of injury, illness, sex and failure; and also of unfriendly Gentiles, especially large ones, and most particularly if they are Germans or Cossacks."
And in his stage review of The Producers, The New Yorker's John Lahr celebrated comedy's defiance of death itself by quoting, from the same Tynan essay, Brooks as a PFC in war-torn Europe in WWII:
"Along the roadside, you'd see bodies wrapped up in mattress covers and stacked in a ditch, and those would be Americans, that could be me. I sang all the time … I never wanted to think about it … Death is the enemy of everyone, and even though you hate Nazis, death is more of an enemy than a German soldier."
Before the Rise
Before he convinced producer Joseph E. Levine that he could indeed direct The Producers, Brooks had fallen on hard times, which included divorce from his first wife, a Broadway flop called All American and a failed screenplay called Marriage Is a Dirty Rotten Fraud.
"He'd dropped off the screen," recalls Larry Gelbart, one of Brooks' Sid Caesar cohorts who'd gone on to other successes. "He was out of it. No one thought he'd direct." Gelbart also recalls Brooks touting a novel called Springtime for Hitler, which later became The Producers.
"But all he had was a title. There was no novel."
What Brooks had instead was what he's always had—a matchless talent for madcap verbal improvisation. As conceived, Leopold Bloom, one of the main characters from James Joyce's Ulysses, was to be a tidy, dutiful, timid Jewish accountant fully prepared "to play it straight and trudge right to his grave."
'Bite, kiss, take, grab …'
Then he runs into Max Bialystock the producer. "Bite, kiss, take, grab, lavish, urinate—whatever you can do that's physical, he will do." The two catalyze each other. Mild Leo hatches a fraudulent scheme and their lives are never the same.
Ten years passed between a writer-director's handshake and delivery of The Producers final cut, and 32 years more before it became a Broadway smash musical. A lot of people still don't think there's anything funny about fascism, and grim echoes of the Holocaust are still with us. But The Producers audacious energy hasn't dated.
Isn't that one definition of a classic?
Lawrence Christon, "Producers Pic Gains Stature as Time Goes By," in Variety, September 10–16, 2001, pp. A26, A30.
Brantley, Ben, "A Scam That'll Knock 'Em Dead," in the New York Times, April 20, 2001, Sec. E, Pt. 1, Col. 1, p. 1.
Brooks, Mel, and Tom Meehan, The Producers, Hyperion, 2001, p. 24.
Seavor, Jim, "At Large—Tasteless Is Transformed by a True Sense of Glee," in Providence Journal-Bulletin, September 30, 2001, Arts Sec., p. J-01.
Weiss, Hedy, Review of The Producers, in the Chicago Sun-Times, February 19, 2001, Features Section, p. 37.
Flinn, Denny Martin, Musical! A Grand Tour, Schirmer Books, 1997.
Examining the history and different styles of stage musicals, Flinn ends his survey with the 1995–96 season, in despair that the era of Broadway musicals was over (a situation that The Producers was instrumental in changing).
Hofler, Robert, "Broadway Tuner Has the Reich Stuff," in Variety, April 16, 2001, p. 1.
Hofler's article, from the show-business trade paper Variety, examines the coming sensation of The Producers weeks before it even reached Broadway.
Holtzman, William, Seesaw: A Dual Biography of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, Doubleday, 1979.
Not much has been written at length about Brooks's life, but this book, covering his early years with his wife, gives a good sense of the private man.
Jones, John Bush, Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theatre, Brandeis University Press, 2003.
This book is exhaustive in its understanding of the ways in which musical theater reflects society.