Lewis J. Stadlen has played Groucho in Minnie's Boys and Dr. Pangloss in Candide, Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and Senex in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Could it be those bigger-than-life roles were all in preparation to introduce America to the extreme comic role of Max Bialystock in the new national tour of The Producers? America wants to see a big, brassy Mel Brooksian performance, and Stadlen's past work hasn't lacked strong acting choices. Stadlen plays Max to Don Stephenson's Leo in the new tour of the 12-time Tony Award-winning musical by Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan and Susan Stroman, launching Sept. 10-29 in Pittsburgh. For the job, Stadlen got advice from his pal and colleague, Nathan Lane: Go home after the show and sleep. Veteran character actor Stadlen spoke to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about his bold acting style and the process of creating the new tour.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Based on your credits, there's a bigger-than-life quality to the roles for which you are best known — Roundabout's Man Who Came to Dinner; Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor; Hal Prince's 1974 staging of Candide; Minnie's Boys, in which you played a young Groucho Marx. Max Bialystock is in that tradition. Have you done classical stuff and I don't know it?
Lewis J. Stadlen: Yeah, I have. But even the classical stuff is "big." I would say the quietest role I've played is Trigorin in The Seagull, which I did at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival. I've done a lot of Brecht. The thing that I was taught and one of the things that I think is somewhat deficient in theatre today as compared to when I was growing up, is actors performed with size. And I don't mean that what they did was necessarily over the top. My teacher, Stella Adler, taught us that anybody can be real, but not everybody can be interesting. What attracted me to the theatre was it elevated people's perceptions about feelings and ideas, so that's the way I approach the work. An actor gets known for something. I'm 55 years old. I guess I'm one of the few people who knows how to do a certain style.
PBOL: I keep thinking if you had been born 25 years earlier, you might have been doing "Your Show of Shows" or other Golden Age TV sketch comedy shows. Would that have been a good fit?
LS: I think my identification growing up — my father, who was an actor by the name of Allen Swift, he weaned me on movies, on Jimmy Cagney, an American style. I identified with a kind of Depression-era style. Once again, to harken back to that word, "size." It was about people being positive in the face of adversity. About fulfilling needs. What I've found is that I've become kind of an amalgam of all the performers that I watched, who influenced me, as a child. There's no one I like better than Walter Huston or Frank Morgan or Bob Hope. So what I do, and what Nathan Lane does, is — we steal. We're not so artful in our mimicry that it doesn't become us.
PBOL: When you first saw The Producers on Broadway, did you think that was something you wanted to bite into, or did you think that looks like an exhausting role?
LS: Well, I thought both things. It's complicated. Nathan and I have done seven plays together. We were working, at the time, on The Man Who Came to Dinner, and he told me he was going to do The Producers. He asked if I was interested in doing the role of Franz Liebkind, and I said, "No, I don't think that's the right part for me. I think that Kenny Mars was eloquent in the role [on film] and all I would be doing was imitating him." I told him, "Why do you wanna do The Producers? It's a great movie and they're never gonna make a better musical out of it than it was movie." And then when I went to see it four days before it opened, I went back to the dressing room, I sort of prostrated myself and said, "Lewis Stadlen's wrong again!" When Nathan was going to leave, he called me up and said, "Are you interested in replacing me?" And I said, "I'm really not." I was interested in doing the national company. He looked at me askance like I was mad and said, "Now why would you wanna do that?" I said, "Well, hear me out: The person who replaces you on Broadway really works in a vacuum and works with a stage manager and then he goes into a company and it's all about replacing you." It would be a question of fitting ourselves in like pegs. If I play Max Bialystock in the national company, then it would be my company — to the extent that Max and Leo are the engine of the show; at the time I didn't know Don Stephenson would be Leo — and everybody would be starting anew and we'd be working with Susan Stroman. I went in and auditioned and got it. Then I went to see it [again] and all I could fixate on was how few minutes Nathan was off-stage! I kept looking at my watch and said, "Oh, my God, now I have to do it!"
PBOL: These will not be carbon copy performances of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, will they? Is there wiggle room to explore?
LS: Certainly, they're not gonna deviate too far from the success that the show had in the Broadway production. But once Susan realized we understood the style, she gave us the latitude to create our own interpretations. PBOL: Did Nathan Lane give you advice in terms of stamina?
LS: Yeah, he did. He told me he kind of ruined himself, that I should be careful. You really have to develop a talent for "marking." Marking is when you do everything with the same intensity, but you don't give it the same vocal projection. It's as difficult a role as I've every had — I guess Candide was as physically active, but that was when I was 28. You find ways, once you learn the material, of being less effortful. You have to take this show day-to day. It's not so much performing a play, it's a lifestyle. I've done it enough to know — even in front of just invited audiences — that I have to live like a monk. You do it, you go home and you read a book.
PBOL: You don't go to a party.
LS: No, and you don't drink. I'm not a smoker. I'm starting to take vitamins. My wife, Mary MacLeod, is a dancer; she was in Fosse and Chicago, and when I'd come home and complain she'd say, "Welcome to my world."
PBOL: This will be pretty much what we saw on Broadway, yes?
LS: It is. It's changed, though. [Susan] changed things, she's tweaked things: Part of the opening number, new lines have been added. She's been stimulated by this process. Susan's been there all the time, Mel's been there a lot. This was seven weeks of intensive rediscovery. What we were all unaware of is that this show was choreographed down to every lyric. It's as specific in terms of movement and design as any show I've ever done, but once she gained the confidence that she had a really good cast, she could enjoy it as a whole new creative process.
PBOL: Is it too premature to ask what happens to you and Don in the spring, when this show goes to Los Angeles? In May 2003, this company plays L.A., where Jason Alexander and Martin Short take over Max and Leo. We all assumed you and Don would leapfrog into the next national tour.
LS: That's what they've suggested. That would be nice, I guess. Who knows what will even be happening in New York? Right now we're signed through San Francisco. But I know that they're very pleased, so I'm sure there'll be lots of companies.