PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Young Frankenstein — Welcome to TranSILLYvania

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Young Frankenstein — Welcome to TranSILLYvania
 
Broadway put on the Ritz, the glitz, the tux and the klieg lights Nov. 8 to usher Young Frankenstein into the Hilton Theatre for what looks like something more than a long winter's nap.
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It was a handsome set of first-nighters, nicely stardusted with name-brand comics and comediennes — everybody looking fashionably fit enough for those $450 premium seats.

On stage and off, it was a Mel, Mel, Mel, Mel world — as in Mel Brooks, the mad scientist behind this classic, constantly-quoted Karloff takeoff. He co-wrote it first as a film in '74 and now, again, as a Broadway musical — and all his camp-followers were in attendance.

At the end of the evening, he gave them what they wanted — himself, marching on stage with his collaborators after the cast had taken their bows. He introduced on his left "my co-book writer and Irish friend" (Thomas Meehan), on his right "the genius who choreographed and directed this piece of work" (Susan Stroman), behind him "the most fabulous, talented cast anybody could ever dream of," the fellows in the orchestra pit, "a guy by the name of Glen Kelly, a musical genius who arranged all this fabulous music," and then — then — he pulled an authentic rabbit out of his top hat that surprised everybody.

"A special treat," he declared grandly (and correctly), "the man who started it all, who gave birth to this idea — ladies and gentleman, Gene Wilder." And, from the wings, on came rather gingerly the original Young Frankenstein, and the room went wild — maybe even Wilder. Brooks planted a kiss on his cheek, and the two faced an ecstatic audience.

"I love this man," Brooks babbled on, "and I'm not gay." (Pause.) "Well, maybe a little." Security was tight, and attendance was select, for the opening-night party held at The Empire State Building — the brainstorm of Robert F.X. ("Call me Bob") Sillerman, who is co-producing the show with Brooks. He picked this monument to Art Deco "because I wanted something that was consistent with the '30s theme of the show. What could be more appropriate?"

The party was confined to the crudite and the second floor, but guests did have access to the 86th floor observation deck for those inclined to a little homage to Deborah Kerr.

Wilder didn't make it to the party. In fact, truth to tell, he didn't make it to the show. He just showed up for the curtain call — as a favor to Brooks. "Gene saw the show — a matinee about three weeks ago — and loved it," Meehan said. "Mel very much wanted him to come tonight and get recognition. It was Gene Wilder's idea way back. He brought it to Mel, and they did it together so it was very appropriate that Gene was out there tonight."

Meehan was feeling waves of post-show relief. "I think it came together. It felt pretty good tonight. We don't know what we'll get in terms of reviews, but I'm happy with the audience's response. It's really been three years or more doing this. Mel lost Anne [his wife of 41 years, actress Anne Bancroft], and it was hard for him to come back, but he has been very brave and he rose to the occasion, so I'm very happy tonight for Mel."

Disneyland isn't in the cards for Meehan. He has three new shows lined up like dominos.

"Cry-Baby is out in La Jolla right now," he relayed like a messenger from the front lines. "I was out there for the opening Tuesday night. It went pretty well. It was the first public performance. I think we saw the flaws, and we've got a lot of time to work on it."

That, too, won't be followed by a holiday — other than Death Takes a Holiday. "We're doing a workshop in December. They want to do it at Roundabout. Doug Hughes is directing."

After that will be the musical version of "Rocky." Now, would that be I? II? III? IV? Or V?, you might well ask. "Only I," said Meehan. "It was the only good one. It was made to be a musical. It's got all the elements. We will use 'Gonna Fly Now.' The score will be by the glorious ones, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. It's not too far away. Joe Mantello will direct. Sylvester Stallone won't be in it, but he's given us his blessing. He and I sat and worked it out together. It's really, on some level, autobiographical. He was an actor nobody cared about. The whole thing is an analogy of his own life."

Brooks and Meehan have been faithful to the "Young Frankenstein" film, and the former even translates some of the more memorable punchlines into song titles. Andrea Martin gets the Teutonic torch song, "He Vas My Boyfriend," as the haughty, haunted castlekeeper, Frau Blucher (whinny). And Brooks gives Sutton Foster and Megan Mullally — the hot-and-cold running girlfriends of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Roger Bart) —very apt signature songs: "Roll in the Hay" for his hot-blooded lab assistant and "Please Don't Touch Me" for his frigid fiancee. Frankenstein's used-body-parts monster makes spectacular strides from shuffle to soft-shoe "Puttin' on the Ritz" at Loew's Transylvanian Palace with his creator.

It's every baritone's dream to sing Irving Berlin on Broadway — and the inarticulate mangle that Hensley makes of that title is something. "I haven't watched the movie in, maybe, five years — but that sound is embedded in my head," he admitted. The song's title is even spelled out phonetically for him in the script. "Mainly consonants. There's about two vowels in that whole thing. It's like Czech. The payoff of the role is that I can't speak or sing until the end. It's one of those things where you think, 'I'd really love to sing here,' but I'm singing inside."

That's just a niggling regret. Otherwise, "this has been a terrific experience for me. Working with Mel Brooks, Susan Stroman, this cast — it's a no-brainer. I didn't need a brain. I don't know why they gave me one." William Ivey Long, who costumed Contact's "The Girl in the Yellow Dress" ten times before he got it right for Stroman, was in a perpetual state of exacting alterations while the monster show was trying out in Seattle. "I did so many for this, for Megan and for Sutton, because the movement changes during rehearsal and then during out of town," he said.

"It's always exciting working with Susan and her movement. She's very demanding, but when you can finally please her, and please the movement, then that's very rewarding."

Hair stylist Paul Huntley took no credit for the Bride of Frankenstein wig for Mullally after she and The Monster copulate. "That was Susan's joke," he admitted. "We went much for the Elsa Lanchester look, not the Madeline Kahn." Extending the gag, Mullally appeared with her own personal hairdresser still teasing the already-towering ëdo.

The star-cluster who came out for Young Frankenstein's first faulting step onto The Great White Way included — you should pardon my boldface — Walter Cronkite, Tommy Tune with Liz Smith, Joe Armstrong,Victoria Clark, Ted Sperling, Elaine Stritch, Mike Nichols, Silda Spitzer, Susan Graham, Bill Rosenfield, Marshall Efron and Alfa-Betty Olsen, Billy Crystal, Goldie Hawn, Martin Short, Rosie O'Donnell, Regis Philbin, Natalie Portman, Joy Behar, Mike Wallace, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Harry Smith, David Hasselhoff, Joan Rivers, Willa Kim, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, Brad Oscar, David Leveaux, Cindy Adams, Parker Posey, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Jason Moore — well, you get the idea . . .


The cast of <i>Young Frankenstein</i> takes its opening night bows.
The cast of Young Frankenstein takes its opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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