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Double Take

Half of Mel’s creativity comes out of fear and anger,” the comic Mel Tolkin has said. “He doesn’t perform, he screams.” Brooks, the former stand-up who knew how much the public loves the high-wire spectacle of improvisation, of someone just standing there screaming, forcing the audience into delighted and sometimes outraged submission, had no plans to smooth himself out. “If someone wants to call my movies art or crap, I don’t mind,” he told Tynan. “I produce beneficial things. A psychiatrist once told me he thought my psyche was basically very healthy, because it led to product. He said I was like a great creature that gave beef or milk. I’m munificent.” It’s good to be the king.

The comedian’s willingness to go as far over the top as necessary to get his audience’s attention was nowhere more evident than in his first movie, whose technical crudeness attested to the wildly megalomaniac energies of its creator. But then, The Producers was nothing if not a testament to the obstinacy of vulgarity, the tenacity of bad taste; Brooks included that big neo-Nazi production number “right in the middle of the movie” because he knew that audiences occasionally want bad taste, want to have their faces rubbed in bona fide kitsch. (Springtime for Hitler is, Max declares, the musical about the unknown Hitler, “the Hitler with a song in his heart.”) The impulse to force us to confront the grotesque is the germ of a certain kind of comedy—the kind that we’re relieved to participate in because it frees us, temporarily, from everyday conventions and proprieties.

Or allows us vicariously to vent “fear and anger.” The idea for a musical about stormtroopers wasn’t as random as it may look: Brooks has recalled how, as a private who saw action in Europe at the end of World War II, he “sang all the time” when confronted with American corpses, and “made up funny songs.” It’s worth keeping in mind, when comparing the original Producers to its shiny new epigone, that Brooks and the audience for his film, when it first came out, were old enough to have fought the Germans. That tells you a lot about the nature and outrageous appeal of his comic style at its provocative best. “Springtime for Hitler” was a far more daring violation of taste twenty years after the end of the Second World War than it could ever be now. Indeed (in one of his rare if grudging concessions to considerations of taste and sensibility) Brooks agreed to change the name of his movie to the innocuous The Producers from its original title, Springtime for Hitler, because the film’s Jewish distributor was afraid that the latter, even in a comedy, would alienate Jewish audiences.

It is precisely in its utter lack of outrageousness that the new musical version of the film differs from its model. Fear and anger aren’t in evidence here so much as a successful showman’s desire to take a proven hit and package it with more polish for an already appreciative public; the new Producers is to the old one what the new versions of The Fly or Batman were to their film or television originals: fancier repackagings of a product that has otherwise changed very little, even if times have. The new show is “product,” all right, but not in the way that Brooks once thought of his output.

The changes The Producers has undergone in its transformation into a musical aren’t so much qualitative as quantitative—more songs, more dances, and, most importantly, a more elaborately imagined “Springtime for Hitler” production number. (But credit should be given where it’s due: a lot of the bits that people are raving about—for instance, the beer steins and pretzels that adorn the outfits of the Ziegfeldesque Nazi showgirls—are taken directly from the film.) The story has remained intact, with a few unimportant modifications. Ulla, the big-busted Swedish secretary, has more brains than she did before; the lead actor, L.S.D., is all but dispensed with (the hippie jokes simply won’t work today); and the business about blowing up the theater has been eliminated. In the new version, Max ends up being caught and arrested and Leo flees with Ulla, only to return in time to give a moving speech on Max’s behalf at his trial. The latter is the most drastic revision of the original, and serves as a nod, perhaps, to Brooks’s original intention to have his story be about the relationship between the big showman and his timid sidekick. (It’s a pairing that Brooks, for whatever reason, finds resonant, and has used in everything from The Twelve Chairs to Blazing Saddles.)

And some things that were cut from the movie, apparently to Brooks’s chagrin, have been restored in the musical, to no great effect; there’s a lot of business about “the Siegfried oath” that the loony Nazi playwright forces Bialystock and Bloom to swear to, which Ralph Rosenblum, the film’s editor, wisely told Brooks to cut, to Brooks’s fury. (“You’re talking about half the fuckin’ scene!” he yelled at Rosenblum.)

If the musical version of The Producers has gained little substantively in its transition to the stage, it’s certainly been brilliantly gussied up. Generally, stage plays become more polished-looking when they become movies; it’s a measure of how raw the film version of The Producers was that it looks better on stage than it did on the screen. It’s every bit as sleek and cleverly choreographed, lighted, designed, and costumed—and as splendidly performed—as the delirious critics have unanimously declared it to be, and it deserves its fifteen Tony nominations. There’s a hilarious new production number in which Max’s old ladies do an elaborate dance with their walkers; just as entertaining is a sequence, reminiscent of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, set in the depressing offices of Whitehall and Marx, the firm where Leo toils away in anonymous drudgery. And here, at last, you get to see just how preposterous Max’s glory days really were: the walls of his office are adorned with posters for plays like When Cousins Marry and The Kidney Stone. There are, too, a great many theatrical in-jokes and arcane allusions, the best of which takes the form of a camp homage to Judy Garland at the Palace. Roger DeBris sits at the edge of the stage crossing his legs with a certain gamine pluck and mouthing the words “I love you” at the audience, who got the allusion, and loved it.

That may be the problem. The old Mel Brooks liked to push his audience around, see how much they could take. (And not just at the expense of stereotypical Jewish schlemiels and goniffs; you lose count of how many times the word “nigger” crops up in Blazing Saddles, produced in 1974.) The new Mel Brooks is in winking complicity with an audience he knows, by this point, he can count on. If the new Producers is a hit, it isn’t, after all, because it challenges social norms about taste or propriety in any significant way, as the film tried so strenuously to do. Which norms, and what propriety? Making jokes about gay theater folk for an audience of New Yorkers comfy enough to giggle at Nathan Lane’s in-jokes about his own homosexuality can hardly be considered a feat of artistic or social risk-taking; in any event, it’s been impossible to be seriously offended by caricatures of swishy theater queens ever since La Cage aux Folles, the 1978 French film that brilliantly coopted those caricatures and which was, coincidentally, the basis for a sentimental 1983 Broadway musical—a musical that in turn spawned an even cuter movie version in which Lane himself, coincidentally, starred. (Nothing suggests the difference between the film and musical versions more than the difference between the menacingly outsized Mostel and Lane, who even when he’s outrageous manages to be adorable.) And in the Via-gra era, there’s nothing all that outlandish about suggesting that old people have libidos. As for Nazis—well, in a culture that has given us Life Is Beautiful and that can rehabilitate Leni Riefenstahl with a glossily ad-miring coffee-table book of her very own, there’s not a great deal of shock value to Holocaust humor or Nazi kitsch.

Some of those who have attempted to explain the success of The Producers have focused not so much on what you could call the negative angle—the way the show allegedly violates political correctness—as on the “positive” angle. Which is to say, on its rehabilitation of what John Lahr, in an ecstatic review for The New Yorker (whose cover that week depicted a glowering Hitler sitting among delirious theatergoers) called the element of “joy” in American musical theater: “a vivacious theatrical form, which for a generation has been hijacked by the forces of high art and lumbered with more heavy intellectual furniture than it can carry.”4 In a similar vein, Michael Feingold in The Village Voice referred to “decades of musical theatre pundits declaring that musicals have to be solemn, unpleasant and good for you.” Neither critic identified who, exactly, the hijackers and pundits were, and I’m sure that neither would point an accusing finger at Stephen Sondheim, who was sitting across the aisle from me on the night I was lucky enough to get a ticket to The Producers, and seemed to be having a very good time. (Few critics, in fact, have written about Sondheim’s achievement as incisively as Lahr has.)

Still, as I read their remarks I found it hard not to think of Sondheim and his work, which surely represent the anti-Brooksian extreme, the forces of “high art,” in the American musical theater. By coincidence, Sondheim’s great, bitter show-biz classic, Follies, first produced barely three years after what we must now refer to as “the film version” of The Producers came out, was having a revival just as Brooks’s new musical debuted. Superficially, the two works have a lot in common: both examine, with a kind of appalled admiration, the megalomania and delusional fantasies that the theater can inspire in weak people; both parody, with wicked knowingness, the forms and gestures peculiar to musical theater. And yet on a more profound level, no two works could have less in common than Sondheim’s and Brooks’s respective tributes to Broadway do. Follies may be all-singing and all-dancing, but it’s about something; it uses its songs and dances to comment on how popular culture shapes our emotional lives, and explores, memorably, nostalgia and loss. In contrast to Follies—and, perhaps even more tellingly, to its own cinematic model—the musical of The Producers risks absolutely nothing; there’s nothing at stake anymore. Brooks’s new musical has smoothly processed his movie, whose greatest virtue was its anarchic, grotesque energy, into a wholly safe evening.

In this respect, the new Producers doesn’t represent a break from, but is in fact wholly consistent with, the erosion of the musical as an art form, as a vehicle for expressing and exploring something meaningful about the culture (other, that is, than the culture’s ability to cannibalize itself). The Sondheim revival was a small-scale affair, and got mixed reviews; the producers of the megahit The Producers are already talking about a fifteen-year-run.5 You have to wonder what kind of culture finds its greatest entertainment in expanded repackagings of preexisting entertainments. The answer, according to one successful film director of screen comedies, is a culture characterized by sensory deprivation, unable to digest anything but the artistic equivalent of pablum—smooth, flavorless, safe. Great comedy, after all, as much as great tragedy, requires a head-on confrontation with life. “We are all basically antennae,” the director remarked. “If we let ourselves be bombarded by cultural events based on movies, we won’t get a taste of what’s happening in the world.” Those words seem even more apt today, when the musical seems incapable of engaging the world except at second or third hand, than they were twenty years ago. Is it a comic or a tragic irony that it was Mel Brooks who spoke them?

  1. 4

    John Lahr, “Gold Rush: Mel Brooks is back, mit a bing, mit a bang, mit a boom,” The New Yorker, May 7, 2001.

  2. 5

    Robin Pogrebin, “Ticket Sales for ‘Producers’ Break Broadway Record,” The New York Times, April 21, 2001.

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