In the musical The Producers - surely the most democratic employer on Broadway - hard work, patience and dedication will get you everywhere. Onetime supporting player and understudy Brad Oscar rose to the lead role of shifty showman Max Bialystock within a couple months of original star Nathan Lane's departure. Brad Musgrove, a swing actor at the show's beginning, now plays Carmen Ghia, talentless director Roger De Bris's flamboyant Guy Friday. And the man who first donned Carmen's cat suit, Roger Bart, has ascended to over-the-title status as Leo Bloom, the milquetoast accountant Bialystock lures into a life of theatrical producing - that is to say, crime.
Bart got the call to play Leo while still on the set of "Bram and Alice," the sitcom that lured him from the show in June 2002. The series was canceled and he returned to the Broadway fold. "There was never a moment when I was unemployed," he said. "I had the best fall-back job in Hollywood."
The Producers' new Bloom is the first to hail from a largely theatrical background; Matthew Broderick has film star status and his successor, Steven Weber, has mainly flourished on the small screen. A musical comedy veteran, he is also arguably the best-sung Leo to date. And, it should be said, the pale, compact actor is the only one of the three that might actually be mistaken for an accountant in real life.
Though Bart won a Tony Award for playing Snoopy in the 1999 revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, it was Mel Brooks's riotously distasteful musical that lent his name currency in the theatre business. He had originally auditioned for the part of Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, but instead was cast as Carmen Ghia - a character that has freed normally sober journalists to employ words like "swishy" and "flaming." He won the part with his interpretation of a single letter.
"Mel always said if you're going to go up and ring the bell, then ring the bell," related Bart. "Which means don't hold back, take a chance." He kept that in mind while running through Carmen's first scene. Greeting Leo and Max at the door with the word "Yes?," he perhaps thought how the last letter of that word is also the first letter of "sibilant." "I held that 's' for 30 seconds. I think they couldn't believe how bold I was. That's probably the reason I got the job." Along the way he devised the other earmarks of Ghia's character: the fright wig hair style moussed within an inch of its life; the quasi-Egyptian exit walk; and the mouth-popping noise he uses to summon attention. Bart stole the last bit from character actor Fritz Feld, who played many a supercilious maitre d' and hotel clerk over his seven-decade career (including a couple of Mel Brooks films). "I did that as a gag one day. It was one of the very few days that we had a tense rehearsal. Something wasn't going right in a scene before me." So he cupped his hands and popped away. "Suddenly, all the tension went out of the room, because it was so bizarre. Matthew and Nathan couldn't continue. Mel said, 'Keep it in!'"
During his entire run as Carmen, Bart had plenty of time to study the part of Leo as he listened to "the radio play," as he called it - the version of the show that was piped into his dressing room as he awaited his next entrance. "I heard it so many times, it is embedded in me." Nonetheless, the leap from supporting player to lead has left its mark. "As Carmen Ghia I was a sprinter. This guy is like a long-distance runner. I sometimes think to myself, 'Should I have stayed Carmen?'" So exhausted was he after his first couple of performances as Leo that he phoned to do the interview for this article a half hour earlier than scheduled. "I just really want to lie down and take a nap,"he explained.
Still, he'll hold on to the job with both hands. "I'd been playing peculiar parts" until now, he said. Among them were a dog and a harlequin, characters which jibed with his comic face, a series of acute angles ascending from jawline to hairline. "I didn't think I would ever be standing on a Broadway stage singing love songs and dancing with a six-foot blonde" - Cady Huffman as Ulla, without a doubt the first Swedish stereotype to hit Broadway in half a century. "They're going to hire Brian Stokes Mitchell for that."
Playing Leo also affords him the opportunity to observe the production's current Carmen up close. The Producers is a show famous for slyly referencing other musicals as well as itself. Is Bart slipping in a little of his old Ghia gate when the mincing Musgrove enticingly invites him to "Walk this way"? "Well, you see, he's doing me." So when Bart imitates Musgrove's walk, "I'm doing him doing me. So it may look like it's me doing me." Let's hope so.