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 boasts seventeen new songs, with music and lyrics all by Brooks (in addition to the memorable “Springtime for Hitler” production number and the finale “Prisoners of Love,” which he wrote for the movie), the new Producers doesn’t sound like Brooks at all. For the seventy-five-year-old Brooks, the show’s success represents the highly satisfying culmination of a sixty-six-year-old dream: in an article that appeared in the Times Arts & Leisure section the Sunday before his play opened, the writer, comedian, and director reminisced about being a stage-struck boy in Brooklyn during the Depression and being taken to his first show. But despite its ostentatiously un-PC trappings, the show represents not so much the defeat of what Rich calls the “show-business corporate-think that creates such bland pop culture” as—subtly—its triumph.
The Producers began its life forty years ago as an idea for a novel. Brooks, who’d been a well-paid writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, claimed that he’d never considered himself to be a writer, but instead thought of himself as a funny “talker”; nonetheless, he found himself thinking about a novel based on the kind of scenario that only someone who’d spent a significant number of years in analysis, as he and Caesar had, would find irresistible: what happens when someone with a highly overdeveloped superego—the Bloom character, “a little man who salutes whatever society teaches him to salute,” as Brooks recalled in a New Yorker profile by Kenneth Tynan that appeared in 1978—runs headfirst into someone who’s a walking, talking Id. “Bite, kiss, take, grab, lavish, urinate—whatever you can do that’s physical, [Bialystock] will do,” he told Tynan. The novel was to focus on a dynamic point that barely survived in the movie: how the two vastly different men would end up influencing each other, with Bloom instilling in the grandiose, greedy Bialystock “the first sparks of decency and humanity” and Bialystock breathing some life into gray little Bloom. As Brooks worked on his book, however, he realized that nearly everything he was writing was dialogue. “Oh, shit, it’s turning into a play,” he recalled thinking.
His instincts were right. The film version is, essentially, a three-act play. In the first act, Bialystock, who raises money for his disastrous productions by providing sexual thrills to old ladies, and Bloom (played by Gene Wilder in his second film role—the first was as a victim of Bonnie and Clyde) form their unlikely partnership one day while Bloom is doing Bialystock’s books and suddenly realizes that they could, theoretically, make more money with a flop than with a hit. In the second act, the two mismatched partners set about finding the most appalling script (“Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden,” composed by an ex-Nazi who raises pigeons on the roof of a Greenwich Village tenement); the most inept director (the ultra-queeny Roger DeBris, who “never knew the Third Reich meant Germany” until he read the script—“it’s drenched with historical goodies like that!”); and the most incompetent lead actor, a burned-out hippie named L.S.D. (They also spend some of the old ladies’ money on a buxom Swedish secretary named Ulla, who gyrates around the office dancing whenever Max tells her to get to work.)
The climax of the second act is what Brooks referred to as a “big neo-Nazi musical number right in the middle”: a fully staged performance of the show’s opening number, “Springtime for Hitler,” which DeBris turns into a Busby Berkeley spectacular, complete with chorines goose-stepping in swastika formation. Initially appalled, the opening-night audience ultimately finds the play hilarious, it becomes clear that it will be a hit, and Bialystock and Bloom realize that they’re ruined. In the haphazard dénouement that is the third act—Brooks likes his Maguffins, but tends to lose interest in his endings—the two desperately decide to blow up the theater, are caught, tried, and convicted (“incredibly guilty” is the jury’s verdict), and end up in prison. The film closes with the two men producing a musical called Prisoners of Love, excessive percentages of which they sell to their fellow prisoners—and to the warden.
The Producers was the first film that Brooks wrote and directed. He’d go on to make others, some of which, like the sublime horror-movie parody Young Frankenstein (“that’s Frahn-ken-steen,” the baron’s embarrassed grandson keeps telling people) would be more polished and better put-together than his debut. But the deliciously anarchic, gleefully grotesque energies you get in The Producers, which find expression in the many repellent closeups of Zero Mostel and the choppy, hectic pacing and camera work, were to become hallmarks of Brooks’s directorial style, such as it was.2 Even in the funniest Brooks movies there’s an improvisatory feel; in Brooks the director you always sense the presence of Brooks the onetime Borscht Belt comic—he started working the Catskills hotels while still in his teens—frenetically firing off whatever gags he has at hand, whatever would work.
This seemingly ad hoc style was less noticeable when the comic and parodic energy had a consistent object; this is why Brooks’s best films are the tetralogy of genre parodies: Young Frankenstein (horror), Blazing Saddles (westerns), High Anxiety (Hitchcock), Silent Movie (silents). But in the least successful movies, precariously thin plotlines—a billionaire makes a bet that he can survive in the streets of L.A., for example, which is the donnée of the 1991 film Life Stinks—are clearly little more than excuses for stringing together gags (jokes about bums, say), some of which, as in any stand-up routine, are better than others. Other films, like History of the World, Part I, which zips merrily from the Stone Age through the seventeenth century (“It’s good to be the King,” Brooks, as a particularly goatish Louis XIV, keeps saying as he shuffles around Versailles, goosing buxom courtiers), are transparently little more than revues.
And, like a stand-up, Brooks likes to re-use successful material: in Young Frankenstein, the humpbacked Igor’s hump keeps moving from one side of his back to the other; in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, it’s King John’s mole that switches from left to right, to the strangulated dismay of his associates. The hoary “walk this way” gag appears not only in the original The Producers and in Young Frankenstein but in the new musical as well, where the mincing walk of Carmen Ghia, Roger DeBris’s fey assistant, comes in for predictable mockery. (Effeminate gay men are particular targets for Brooks’s humor, and nowhere more so than in the new musical. In this context it’s worth noting the striking frequency with which jokes and stories about “fags” come up in the Tynan profile.)
The problem is that, precisely because the gags are recyclable, they’re not organically connected to anything else; as a result, the movies, however funny, feel slapdash and disjointed at best—the jokes may be funny, but they never really build to anything. I recently watched all of Brooks’s films again, and, having looked forward to the hilarious bits I’d remembered, was surprised at how many longueurs there were. As with a Catskills comic, you tend, with Brooks’s films, to recall the brilliantly funny moments and forget the rest.
Despite the mixed-to-terrible notices The Producers received when it opened in 1968 (“amateurishly crude,” Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker; “a violently mixed bag,” “shoddy and gross and cruel,” Renata Adler wrote in the Times), Brooks’s film soon established itself as a cult favorite. Today, it’s not unusual to see it counted among the funniest movies ever made.3 This popularity surely owes a great deal to the same crudeness, grossness, cruelty, and amateurishness that the critics complained about. Unlike Woody Allen, with whom Brooks is often lumped in discussions of comic moviemaking, not least by himself (“Listen, there are one hundred and thirty-one viable directors of drama in this country. There are only two viable directors of comedy”), Brooks has made no attempt to become more “artistic,” more ostentatiously polished. To Allen’s intellectual artiste, Brooks has been more than happy to play the outrageous clown; like Bialystock, he gives audiences access to their ids. (However ably it parodies old favorite westerns like Destry Rides Again, Blazing Saddles is most famous for a scene that follows a cowboy meal of baked beans to its logical, if protracted, gastroenterological conclusion.)
“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?
June 21, 2001
See Matt Wolf, “Let’s Hear It for Hitler,” The Observer Review, April 29, 2001; Frank Rich, “HIT-ler,” The New York Times, May 12, 2001; Joyce Purnick, “Dissecting the Mania on 44th Street,” The New York Times, April 23, 2001; Michael Feingold, “Glitzkrieg,” The Village Voice, May 1, 2001. ↩
“Almost prehistoric” was the verdict of the distinguished film editor Ralph Rosenblum, who worked on The Producers and has reminisced none too flatteringly about his sole collaboration with Brooks, whom he characterizes as a bullheaded amateur who had no idea how to use the resources of the camera to create humor. The movie’s cinematographer, Joe Coffey, eventually gave up his efforts to educate the nervous first-time director; he blew up at Brooks in public, screaming “You can’t do that, it’s not cinematic!” See Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen, When the Shooting Stops…The Cutting Begins (1979; reprinted by Da Capo, 1986), pp. 193–209. ↩
See, for instance, Kathryn Bernheimer, The 50 Funniest Movies of All Time: A Critic’s Ranking (Citadel, 1999), pp. 54–56. ↩
John Lahr, “Gold Rush: Mel Brooks is back, mit a bing, mit a bang, mit a boom,” The New Yorker, May 7, 2001. ↩
Robin Pogrebin, “Ticket Sales for ‘Producers’ Break Broadway Record,” The New York Times, April 21, 2001. ↩