WINNER: The Producers
The idea of a stage musical version of the classic Mel Brooks film comedy, "The Producers," has been on the minds of theatre buffs for years. Timing is everything: It took 'til 2001 for all the right elements to be available— Susan Stroman directing and choreographing, blowsy Nathan Lane starring as corrupt and funny producer Max Bialystock, Brooks co-writing the book and also writing the pastiche-flecked music and lyrics. After years of a drought of pure musical comedy, the theatre gods gave us The Producers. No, it does not advance the form, but it does exploit the craft of musical comedy of yore. You may be sick of the hype and the shocking $100 top ticket price, but, if you like to laugh, you — and the Tony voters — will be powerless to resist the show.
A Class Act
The goal of this intimate backstage musical was simple: To get the music and lyrics of Edward Kleban out of the trunk and wafting into a Broadway house—and into the hearts and minds of theatregoers who care about stories told through song. Producer Marty Bell was the one who encouraged writers Linda Kline (the late Kleban's companion) and Lonny Price to make the show about Kleban himself. They created a unique biographical show—small cast, virtually no set, eight actors—using pre-existing songs by Kleban (who penned lyrics to A Chorus Line) to tell the tale of a cranky, charming, gifted songwriter aching to be heard. Price directed and stars. Audiences who know their musical theatre history are touched by the show's references to A Chorus Line, but surprised and moved by the lesser-known "Paris Through the Window," "Better," "The Next Best Thing to Love" and other crafty Kleban creations. The show is expected to tour, and observers say it has a long life ahead as a regional theatre favorite.
The gestation period of this pop interpretation of the classic Charlotte Bronte novel (of 1847) has been more than six years, including formative stagings in Wichita, KS, Toronto and La Jolla, CA. Composer-lyricist Paul Gordon teamed with co-lyricist, director and librettist John Caird to tell of the journey of plain Jane Eyre, from abused orphan and wide-eyed governess to fulfilled wife—with struggle, self-doubt, mystery, loss and romance in between. Hardscrabble and upper-class 19th-century England looked rich and atmospheric with the staging's unique series of rising and falling screens, splashed with light and projected images. The musical tends to be an audience favorite along the lines of Les Miserables, but producer Annette Niemtzow said a ticketbuyer's obstacle has been the perception that it's a show aimed only at women and that it's "good for you" rather than a lush, romantic adventure. Those who have seen the show tended to embrace it, and stood to cheer its powerful lead actress, Marla Schaffel.
The Full Monty
When it premiered last fall, The Full Monty was the favorite to win the Tony Award Best Musical. Period. Then a little show called The Producers blew into town and the season of Monty because the season of Mel — Brooks, that is. Monty, with a score by pop-rock writer David Yazbek (a Broadway novice) and book by Terrence McNally (based on the Academy Award-nominated film), got rave reviews for writing, directing, score and cast. Who could ask for anything more? To boot, amid the comic antics of jobless steelworkers planning a strip show, the tuner was embraced for having a human heart. Its national tour just began in Toronto, under the direction again of Jack O'Brien, the versatile wizard who also breathed life into Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. — By Kenneth Jones