I can't tell you how thrilled I am to be a part of this. This is my dream," filmmaker, actor and now composer-lyricist Mel Brooks announced to the press gathered at the New 42nd Street Studios Jan. 11, "My dream - to be with a Broadway show, out of town, with all these girls."
Well, The Producers is on its way to an out-of-town tryout in Chicago (where, Brooks hoped, one of the beautiful ladies of the chorus would take pity on him), but first, the highly-anticipated Mel Brooks musical gave a brief preview for the press.
Tony Award winners Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are the stars of the show and both had a moment to shine in the Brooks songbook. Lane, as Max Bialystock, an overbearing theatrical producer who was once the toast of Broadway but has now fallen on hard times, went first with the second number in the show, "King of Broadway." In it, Bialystock finds himself standing outside the Shubert Theatre, contemplating the opening - and closing - night of his latest show, Funny Boy, a musical version of Hamlet. A blind violinist makes him remember the good old days, when he was "young and gay, but straight" and had six shows on Broadway - "and one was a hit!" - dissolving the Eastern European lament into a parody of traditional Jewish dance.
Still, Bialystock has it better than Leo Bloom, the shy accountant played by Broderick. Although he first discovers how a producer can make a bundle of cash with a flop, he initially refuses Bialystock's offer to become partners. Returning to his dreary workplace, ruled with an iron fist by a menacing CPA played by Ray Wills and populated by "Unhappy" accountants, whose troubles come out in an "Old Man River"-esque dirge, he starts to dream of his life as a Broadway impresario in "I Wanna Be a Producer." As Bloom drifts deep into his fantasy, chorus girls emerge from filing cabinets, pink champagne runs out of the water cooler and suddenly he's tap-dancing with top hat and cane.
The Act One Finale is the moment when the specially selected flop, Springtime for Hitler, starts to come together. Bialystock and Bloom have their playwright - unregenerate Nazi and pigeon aficionado, Franz Liebkind (Ron Orbach); their director - the effete Roger DeBries (Gary Beach) and his even-more-effeminate manservant, Carmen Gia (Roger Bart); and their secretary/receptionist with Broadway dreams of her own, the alluring Ulla (Cady Huffman). Finally, the conmen producers have managed to fleece all of "Old Ladyland" and they have their money. Nothing can stop them - or so they think. Currently in the score, aside from the movie's well-known musical parody tunes "Springtime for Hitler" and "Prisoner of Love," are "We Can Do It," Liebkind's lullaby to the fatherland titled "In Old Bavaria," which is followed by a mockery of Bavarian dance, "The Guten Tag Hop Clop," director DeBries and Carmen Gia's anthem "Keep It Gay," "If You've Got it, Flaunt it," "Where Did We Go Right?" and a duet for Bloom and Ulla called "That Face."
That final number, which elevates Huffman's Ulla from the breasty visual joke in the movie to a full-fledged character seeking a romance with Bloom, is the first thing Tony Award-winning director-choreographer and Producers helmer Susan Stroman heard upon meeting Brooks.
"Mel Brooks said he was going to come over. I never met him before, so I was very nervous; I was a big fan. I open my front door, never met him before, [and I'm] looking at Mel Brooks. He starts singing and dancing - full out - a song from "The Producers" he'd written called "That Face." He danced down my long hallway and ended up on top of my sofa and then he said 'Hello,'" she said.
That fits Brooks' cut-up personality, but he's serious when it comes to the creation of his Broadway Producers. "It's a love letter to Broadway and it's really a backstage musical. It should have always been a Broadway musical. The satire, the irony, Springtime for Hitler, all that craziness."
It took a phone call from producer and Dreamworks co-creator David Geffen, who insisted the show should be done, to really inspire Brooks. Although Geffen dropped the project to concentrate on Dreamworks, Brooks found a second inspiration in Stroman.
"Susan Stroman really pushed us in the right direction. See, you know things, but you don't. You don't know that songs can't be entertainments, they can't be frivolous, they have to either tell you who the characters are or move the story. She's really the genius behind this," he said, explaining that Stroman helped focus his song-writing.
Certainly he hopes for a better reception from the critics for the musical than he received for the film. "'The Producers' got killed in the New York Times when it first came out. Bad reviews. You know the movie only got about two or three good reviews when it came out," Brooks said.
The Producers will open April 19 at the St. James Theatre. Chicago sees the new tuner first with a run at the Cadillac Palace Theatre Feb. 1-25 before Broadway previews begin March 22.
For tickets ($30-$90) and information on The Producers at the St. James Theatre call (212) 239-6200. The Producers is on the web at http://www.producersonbroadway.com.
— By Christine Ehren
and David Lefkowitz