Double Take

The Producers

book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, music and lyrics by Mel Brooks, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman
a musical at the St. James Theatre, New York City

Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks; drawing by David Levine

At the climax of Mel Brooks’s 1968 comedy cult classic movie The Producers—the opening night of an intentionally awful musical about the Third Reich called Springtime for Hitler—the show’s grandiose producer, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), tries to alienate the Times theater critic by ostentatiously offering him a bribe: he hands the prim man a complimentary ticket wrapped in a $100 bill. (As even those who haven’t seen the film are likely to know by now, Bialystock wants the play to bomb so that he and his partner, a timid accountant named Leopold Bloom, can abscond with the backers’ money. Figuring the play will close after its first performance, they’ve sold 25,000 percent of the show, never dreaming they’ll have to pay the investors back. Naturally, the show’s a hit.)

In the case of the phenomenally successful new musical based on the film, the ticket would make a far more tempting bribe. The day after it opened last month to ecstatic reviews, the producers of The Producers raised the top ticket price to $100 (a Broadway record); but for the present, tickets are much harder to find than hundred-dollar bills. “That beloved Broadway phenomenon: the unobtainable seat,” the editors of the real-life Times were moved to gush in one of two editorial-page comments devoted to the musical’s huge success. By the Sunday after opening night, $50,000 worth of tickets were being sold every ten minutes, according to one of its producers; nearly $3 million in tickets were sold on a single day. (Another record.) When the Tony Award nominations were announced on May 7, the fact that The Producers received fifteen of them (another record) seemed like a foregone conclusion—as if recognition of a musical’s actual qualities ought to follow naturally from its box office success, rather than the other way around. A Bialystockian view of things if ever there was one.

Inevitably, the phenomenal success of The Producers has spawned a cottage industry in ruminations about its appeal. Attempts to explain what one critic, writing for a British audience, calls the “cultural repercussions” of the musical’s success have appeared in print from London to the East Village.1 Many of these writers attribute the show’s popularity to its refreshing refusal to abide by “politically correct” standards: it mocks, with gleeful evenhandedness, Nazis, Jews, dumb blondes, gays, lesbians, blacks, Irishmen, old people, and (lovingly) theater people. “For a show that is attracting family audiences,” the Times’s former theater critic and current Op-Ed page columnist Frank Rich wrote three weeks after the play’s première, “this one is about as un-Disney as you can get…. It hasn’t been pre-tested with focus groups but insists on speaking only in the singular voice of Mel Brooks.”

And yet despite the fact that it’s based on Brooks’s most famous movie (a critical failure for which he nonetheless won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1968), and…

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