Dabblers in schadenfreude desperately looking for a chink in The Producers thick armor were made very happy this week. So were the writers of news headlines: "Bialystock Gets the Boot" wrote Variety of Henry Goodman's sudden dismissal from the lead role in the Broadway musical. The New York Post quipped, "Brit Star Fired for Failing to 'Produce.'"
These and similar banners (why did no one come up with "Hitlist for Springtime"?) began rolling out late Sunday night after Goodman received his walking papers after the April 14 matinee. Every excruciating detail of the rupture came to light in the next 48 hours, including the fact that Goodman received his premature pink slip not from the show's many producers—all grown-up people, many of whom work within blocks of the St. James Theatre—or from the show's creators, Susan Stroman and Mel Brooks—but from his London agent. And that news came via the phone lines.
Goodman apparently had no inkling that the end was near. Neither did his new co-star Steven Weber, or much of the cast. Half of the theatre community seemed surprised and appalled by the move, while the other half professed that the break was as much an inevitability as the switching on of neon signs in Times Square. The British actor took over from Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock on March 19, barely a month ago, and was due to open in the show (for the press) on May 1. Many along Broadway were surprised by his appointment. But they were assured that Goodman was a solid comic talent with years of experience on the other side of the Atlantic. (Later we heard he turned in a sterling audition.)
But soon after Goodman began performances, reports trickled out that the laughs in the first act were drying up, that his take on the role was too dark, too serious, that there was no chemistry between him and Weber. And so, after 30 performances, the ax fell on what would have been an eight-month stay. Stroman, in a statement, was diplomatic: "I have the utmost respect for Henry Goodman. He is a wonderful actor and I would happily work with him again on another project...but the producers have decided to pursue a different quality for the role." Goodman was defiant in The New York Times: "I think they've made a mistake.... But I think you're dealing with the pressure of Broadway, dealing with an industry where just giving a good performance isn't enough." And one of the producers, at least, was blunt, in The Times: "Bottom line, the show will be better on Tuesday than it was on Sunday."
The Tuesday show featured Brad Oscar, the musical's original Franz Liebkind, as Max. By filling in for the often ailing Nathan Lane, Oscar had already played the part twice as many times as had Goodman. Plus he had already won favorable reviews for his performance, something which must have weighed heavily in his favor when nightmares of the terrible reviews Goodman might get woke up producers in the master bedrooms of their penthouses. Oscar's ascension to the top of The Producers cast list completes one of the odder Cinderella stories the theatre has ever seen. Within a few weeks in the early days of 2001, he went from playing Santa in Missouri to being Lane's standby to winning the supporting role of Franz when the original actor playing that part injured his knee. That lucky break led to a Tony nomination and a steady job filling in Lane in Broadway's most high-profile acting assignment—a role Oscar now owns.
And this all unfortunately went down as the musical was preparing to celebrate its first anniversary on Broadway.
So, what's it all mean? A lot of provocative copy for the theatre press; an interesting wrinkle in the already engrossing success story of a phenomenal musical; a bit of bad luck for one actor and a bit of good luck for another. Other than that, nothing much. It's the theatre. If producers perceive actors aren't working out, they are let go. Now, what else is going on...?
I know—The Producers' road shows. Signs of Brooksian activity in the provinces have cropped up from market to market for some time, all without an official confirmation, leaving us poor reporters to puzzle out the musical's tangled national paths ourselves. First, it was learned that San Diego would receive the west coast premiere of the show in January 2003. Fine, that's simple enough. Then there was word of a Los Angeles sitdown production in April 2003. Clear as crystal. Finally, news of a first national tour, to launch in Pittsburgh in September 2002, was gleaned. And then Toronto revealed it would host a production in spring 2003. So, that's four different mountings, right?
Well, it was previously thought the first tour would be separate from the April-December 2003 L.A. sitdown. But new regional bookings seemed to contradict that. Plus, this week, the musical was announced for a still under-construction Fox Cities venue in central Wisconsin, for dates coincide with the run in Los Angeles. So, how many offices of Bialystock and Bloom are gonna be out there?
A spokesman clarified: "There was never a scenario under which we would have had road two companies out in the next year. The first company opens in September of 2002 — and has always been the same company that opens in Los Angeles in May of 2003. The second company was originally contemplated to open in Toronto. Subsequently, the producers, along with [Toronto presenters] the Mirvishes determined that Toronto could sustain a third sit-down company, dates to be determined. The second company now opens in Boston in June 2003. The timing of each tour's opening is based primarily on Susan Stroman's availability to direct each production, and have been scheduled to work within her commitments to other shows." Got it? Good. Now, excuse me, while I go lie down.
But, before I do—on Broadway, Billy Crudup opened in the new Sean Mathias revival of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man April 14. And Sutton Foster began her official Broadway life as Thoroughly Modern Millie on April 18. That show was the last new musical to open in the 2001-02 Broadway season—a fact did not seem to elicit a great deal of sympathy from the less than ecstatic critics.
More news on next season's musical front: Brian Stokes Mitchell will tilt at a few windmills in a new Broadway production of the perennially popular musical Man of La Mancha. The show is to begin rehearsals in August and try out in Boston and Washington, before reaching New York this fall. Audra McDonald is supposedly being sought for Dulcinea, a casting idea which would reunite two Ragtime stars. Jonathan Kent, the British director known for thunderous, sky-high sets and his incessant casting of Diana Rigg, will helm.
From all corners of the continental U.S., 2002-03 season schedules are unfolding. At Boston's American Repertory Theatre, Peter Sellars will direct Euripides' The Children of Herakles , Anne Bogart directs Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit and Rinde Eckert premieres his musical Highway Ulysses. A.R.T. also has another world premiere musical, Hotel of Dreams with music by Philip Glass and book by the very busy David Henry Hwang.
Hwang wrote the book for the upcoming Trinity Repertory Company world premiere of Largo, which has songs by Rob Hyman, Rick Chertoff, David Forman and Eric Bazilian. Largo follows a once-famous rock band, The Convictions, who went their separate ways after a bad break-up. Pop singer Cyndi Lauper starred in the 2001 New York Stage and Film mounting.
On the Long Wharf Theatre's mainstage, it will be springtime for pop star Duncan Sheik. His and Steven Sater's rock musical Spring Awakening (based on Wedekind!) is about teenagers, tyrannical parents, sex and violence.
Center Stage in Baltimore will see the world premieres of new plays by Warren Leight (No Foreigners Beyond This Point) and Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel), as well as a revival of the Fats Waller revue Ain't Misbehavin'. Atlanta's Alliance Theatre is the latest outlet to be newly fascinated by Stephen Sondheim's Kabuki-style examination of Japan's Westernization, Pacific Overtures. And Seattle Repertory Theatre will host two world premieres — When Grace Comes In by Heather McDonald and Things Being What They Are by Wendy MacLeod.
—By Robert Simonson