Thursday, March 24, 2011

THE PRODUCERS Meet…THE PRODUCERS!

My smart, funny hubby Vinnie and I have our Team Bartilucci caps on for this week’s double dose of The Producers. We adore writer/director Mel Brooks’ madcap satire in all its forms: the original Oscar-winning 1968 movie; the Tony-winning 2001 Broadway musical; and the movie version of the musical! How’s that for blanketing the field?
Dorian: “Money is honey…He who hesitates is poor!”
I know more people who can quote lines from The Producers than lines from Shakespeare’s works; make of that what you will! J People seem to either absolutely adore or utterly despise The Producers. But most folks I know agree with Vin and me that this nutzoid farce has "Love Power," to quote the late, great Dick Shawn as the ever-groovy, scene-stealing LSD, a.k.a. Lorenzo St. DuBois. Outrageously impudent yet surprisingly tender at times, it’s no surprise that writer/director Mel Brooks' zany tale of schemers trying to produce “the worst play ever written” and profit from it won Brooks his Best Original Screenplay Oscar and became a comedy classic. Need I say it’s also one of our family’s longtime favorites?
Meet our rascally protagonist Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), who’s had an epic string of bad luck in recent years: “You know who I used to be? Max Bialystock, King of Broadway, six shows running at once! Lunch at Delmonico’s. $200 suits. (Max gestures at his stick pin.) You see this? This once held a pearl as big as your eye. Look at me now. Look at me now! I’m wearing a cardboard belt!” Even Max’s comb-over has seen better days. It’s been years since Max has produced a hit Broadway show, and he’s been reduced to using his powers of persuasion — and wheedling, and bellowing, and conning — to “launch… (himself) into Little Old Lady Land” to seduce money out of his rich elderly female backers, giving them “one last thrill on their way to the cemetery.” Afterwards, he collects checks made out to “Cash” (“That’s a funny name for a play.”) from the unsuspecting old dears. The most aggressively horny of them all is Estelle Winwood as “Hold Me Touch Me,” who loves to play games where she both insults and sexes up Max as her chauffeur, naughty stableboy, etc. I used to wonder if Winwood was born old, God bless her; I’ve never seen her as a young woman in any of her many films! She lived to the truly ripe old age of 101, stealing the show in all of her movies that I’ve seen, including this one.

Enter one Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), a meek young accountant sent to do the books for Max’s most recent Broadway flop. It innocently occurs to the studious, honest Leo that
“under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit” by raising $1 million, putting on a $60,000 Broadway flop, and keeping the rest when the play theoretically closes on opening night. Of course, if the play was a hit instead, the producer would go to the hoosegow, since there’s no way he could pay back all the backers. A light bulb goes on over Max’s head. After Max badgers, er, persuades Leo to be his partner, the book-cooking begins, the hunt for a surefire flop play commences, and the wacky shenanigans escalate! Max and Leo find their worst play candidate, Springtime for Hitler, written by addlepated Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, played by the recently departed Kenneth Mars, a longtime Team Bartilucci fave. Thrilled, Franz waxes rhapsodic about his beloved Fuhrer: “Hitler, there was a painter. He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! Two coats!”  But that’s only the beginning of our heroes’ audacious, hilarious odyssey, as they hire flamboyantly gay transvestite director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett, best known as TV’s Mr. Belvedere when I was a youngster), the aforementioned LSD, Swedish-speaking sexpot secretary Ulla (Lee Meredith), and one of the craziest chorus lines in movie history. No wonder this screamingly funny, no-holds-barred comedy helped to put former Your Show of Shows writer Brooks on the map as a filmmaker.

The great Zero Mostel steals every scene in his uproarious, larger-than-life portrayal of Max. I’ve heard that Mostel could be a handful to work with, but it sure pays off in all his stage and screen performances. The Producers is no exception. Alas, Mostel wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, but Gene Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor; his perfect balance of hysteria and sweetness played off blustery, wily Mostel beautifully. In particular, I’ve always liked the father-and-son vibe Mostel and Wilder develop over the course of the movie—including antic father-and-son-style arguments.
J  Anyone trying to make a comedy depending on controversy and questionable taste for its laughs should watch The Producers  first and see how a master does it! In fact, before the Broadway musical version of The Producers revitalized Mel Brooks’s career, I was thinking that maybe Brooks and Wilder should take the time to watch it again themselves. At that point in their careers, they seemed to need a refresher course in how to be funny after the duds they’d begun churning out. At their peak as writers and comedic actors, Wilder always seemed to be able to temper Brooks' mania for poo-poo humor, and Brooks always seemed able to help Wilder to better balance out his trademark hysteria/sweetness. In her 1968 New York Times review, film critic Renata Adler wrote that Wilder “played (Leo) as though he were Dustin Hoffman being played by Danny Kaye.” Her assessment is both on-target and ironic, considering Dustin Hoffman was originally cast as Liebkind, until he was offered the role of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Brooks gave Hoffman his blessing, Mars moved into position, and movie history was made all around!
Much as my family and I also loved the Broadway and film editions of the musical version co-written by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, and starring the incomparable Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (even though I felt that Broderick wasn't quite as good as Leo Bloom as Lane was as Max Bialystock. That said, together they have great buddy chemistry), the original is still the champ!

Vinnie: “Broadway!  Oh joy of joys! Oh dream of dreams!”
Upon first rumors of a Broadway adaptation of The Producers, the eyes of The Wife and I filled with a mania usually only seen in children approaching Christmas.  We riffed madly on what the show might contain: We guessed right on songs called “Where Did We Go Right?” and “Little Old Lady Land” (okay, the song was titled “Along Came Bialy,” but it was absolutely about Little Old Lady Land) and “Where Did We Go Right?”, while my guess of “Everything Goes Better with Dancing” was wrong. Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock was our only guess/choice, and when Mel Brooks showed up on Letterman with a contract for Nathan, we breathed a sigh of relief. Soon afterwards, we were strolling along NYC’s Theater Row during a picturesque Manhattan winter with our friend Jason, who casually remarked that tickets had gone on sale for the show, a moment we’d been watching for carefully. Suddenly time seemed to stretch and slow, and the snowflakes hung frozen in the air as Jason tried to recall which theater it was.  We dragged him through Times Square like we were Regina Lampert and Peter Joshua (et al) at the Paris Stamp Market in Charade, screaming, “Think, Jean-Louis, THINK!”  He eventually remembered the theater (The St. James) and we grabbed two seats for the first show they had, which was for the fourth night after opening.  Oh how we laughed.

Four hundred years later (or so it seemed) we were in our seats in the mezzanine, and the air was filled with a shared joviality. The show had already been declared a hit, but these first few shows were filled with Mel Brooks fans who had, like ourselves, bought our ticket sight unseen, based purely on our love for the man, the film and his entire catalog.  A party of people across the aisle from us were decked out in tuxedos and Viking helmets, like the ones seen on the boys in the cut (and presumed lost) scene where they take the Siegfried Oath in the original film. The show went through a few changes. With the musical now set in the 1950s instead of the late ’60s, Lorenzo St. DuBois and his classic protest ballad “Love Power” was gone entirely, and Franz Liebkind’s part grew in kind when it’s he who is originally cast as the Fuhrer with the classic line, “That’s our Hitler!”  Pretty much everybody’s part got bigger – Ulla graduated to full female lead, complete with romantic subplot. Roger DeBris and Carmen Giya got a big bump up, with Roger eventually having to play Hitler, with riotous results.  Lots of new songs, all written by Mel on the only musical instrument he knows – the tape recorder.  He made the songs up and sang them into a waiting microphone, and the musical staff transcribed and arranged them. Thomas Meehan clearly took the Gene Wilder role and kept Mel from going too crazy – there’s clearly a lot more “Later Mel”-isms in the show (“I can assure you, even though we’re sitting down, we’re giving you a standing ovation”), but it’s kept well in check.  Plus, the boys (and Ulla) get a traditional Broadway Happy Ending, crammed in at the end after the rehearsal of “Prisoners of Love”, with the show opening on Broadway and Max and his new partner taking their place as
Kings of the Great White Way. While Lane and Broderick are the best-known actors in the parts of Max and Leo for the musical, there are a few folks who have taken the roles who I would have killed to see.  A limited performance in L.A. featured Jason Alexander and Martin Short – indeed, Short was Mel’s first choice for the role of Leo.  In Britain, Lee Evans played Leo with Lane as Max again. Lane and Evans teamed in Gore Verbinski’s first major live-action film, Mouse Hunt, and while his career in the U.S. was limited, Evans is a national treasure in England.  Reece Shearsmith of The League of Gentlemen played Leo later in the run as well.  And in a run in Manchester, U.K. standup comic Peter Kay played Roger DeBris.
Anyway, back in America

At the premiere party of the musical, which went on to win a well-deserved 12 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Harvey Weinstein said to Mel, “We gotta make a movie of this!”  Mel replied, “We MADE a movie of it; it was called ‘The Producers’!” So there was little doubt there would be a film of the musical…of the film. Lane and Broderick were back, as were Gary Beach and Roger Bart as DeBris and Carmen
.  Nathan Lane was perfection as usual, using his magnificent mix of equal parts Zero Mostel and Lou Costello.  But Matthew Broderick’s performance, both in the musical and the film, always fell a bit flat for me.  He never reached the level of panic that Wilder did (which I imagine Lee Evans and Martin Short did in their turns), and comes off more uncomfortable than hysterical.  Uma Thurman hung her performance on a passable accent, but ultimately, she seems better cast for action roles than comedy. Will Ferrell has yet to give a poor performance, and his manic Liebkind is no exception. Cameos from Andrea Martin as one of the little old ladies and one of the Queer Eye boys, Jai Rodriguez, as one of DeBris’ in-house staff (Jai graduated to playing Carmen later in the Broadway run) are a nice treat as well.  Don’t blink or you’ll miss Brad Oscar, Broadway’s Franz, as a cab driver. Speaking of Oscars, check out the newspaper the usherettes read in the first number; the Funny Boy review byline is “Addison DeWitt,” the role for which George Sanders won his All About Eve Oscar.

Susan Stroman directed the Broadway production and was chosen to direct the film, but as has happened many times with adaptations of musicals, it felt very much like a filmed stage show, not really taking advantage of the larger stage.  Somehow, the scenes that DID venture outside, the performances of “We Can Do It” and “Along Came Bialy,” still felt flat and staged. Like so many before, the film is merely a good approximation of the stage musical.

A little bit of trivia is revealed by Stroman on the DVD commentary: at the close of the film as the camera pulls back to reveal the many marquees of Broadway, we see a bit of the Lunt-Fontanne theater’s marquee on the left; specifically, the letters “ANNE”. That’s a tribute to Mel’s wife Anne Bancroft, who had died shortly after the opening of the musical, last appearing in the Producers-centric episode of Curb your Enthusiasm.

To her dying day, The Wife’s Mom swore she had seen The Producers “in its first run on Broadway.” We tried endlessly to tell her it had started as a film, and she was patently mistaken, but no number of IMDb listings would change her mind. (We suspect that she’d innocently mistaken it for one of Mostel’s other Broadway hits.) It’s nice to know that we got to see it — I can only hope it was as good as the production she remembered.