Sutton Foster sounded almost giddy. She was speaking during a break at the end of the second week of rehearsals of Young Frankenstein, the much-anticipated musical adaptation of Mel Brooks' hilarious, affectionate 1974 movie send-up of horror films. "A few days ago we rehearsed the revolving bookcase scene," she says, "and in the middle of it I'm thinking, 'I cannot believe that I'm doing this scene.' It's one of the iconic moments in comedy history. It's just unbelievable."
Young Frankenstein, which begins previews on Broadway in October and opens on Nov. 8 at the Hilton Theatre, receives its world premiere this month at Seattle's Paramount Theatre, where it runs from Aug. 7 through Sept. 1. The show reunites the artistic team of The Producers — Brooks (composer, lyricist and co-author), Thomas Meehan (co-author) and Susan Stroman (director and choreographer) — and features an all-star cast that includes four Tony Award-winners: Foster (Inga), Roger Bart (Dr. Frankenstein), Shuler Hensley (the Monster) and Andrea Martin (Frau Blucher), as well as Megan Mullally (Elizabeth), Christopher Fitzgerald (Igor), and Fred Applegate (Kemp).
"As much as I hate to admit it, the cast is very low maintenance," says Hensley. "It's such a joy; there isn't an ego among them. It's been really fun. I think it's because we're all in awe of the fact that we're going to put Young Frankenstein on the stage."
Foster and Hensley are both huge fans of the movie, but they've consciously avoided watching it since rehearsals began. "I watched the movie again before we did the workshop last year," says Foster. "I haven't watched it since because I want to see what I can find on my own. People are very familiar with the film, so I think it's important that we honor the movie and the performances. But we're also bringing new takes to it. I like to work very organically, just see what happens. I feel the best comedy comes from simplicity and sincerity. Inga is very sexy and a bit of a tart, but she's also very sweet. So I really want to start from a very sweet, sincere place, and take it from there. She's not one of the broader characters, so I have to find her place — and mine — in this ensemble. And I tend to find more of my character in front of an audience. They're so important, especially when you're dealing with comedy." "I saw the film in my teens, but purposely have not watched it again because it's its own entity," says Hensley, who previously played a non-Brooks version of the Frankenstein Monster in the movie "Van Helsing." "And Peter Boyle, God bless him — I don't want to try to recreate what he did. Pretty much everything that was in the movie is in the show, and I have visions in my head of certain scenes. But you get a different perspective when you read a script, as opposed to watching a movie. In a weird way, I look at the Monster as the straight man in this show. He's got to have a heart. He's not out for laughs, at least not on purpose. Everything about the character is exaggerated: I'll have on platform shoes, and I'm going to be almost four feet wide. So I can afford to play against that, and then it becomes something real. The scenes I'm in are high comedy, but Mel said the other day, 'You've got to have reality within the scenes. Otherwise shtick is just shtick.' No matter how fantastical the situations are, you have to make them real. That's where the humor comes in. And we're finding that sometimes the smaller we play these things, the funnier they are."
Hensley, of course, is involved in probably the most famous scene in the film: a duet with Dr. Frankenstein of Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz." "The number is unbelievable," he says. "It's probably seven or eight minutes, and it's a throwback to the old musicals. It's a big spectacle and pulls out all the stops. What's so great about Stro is that she tells stories through dance. And 'Puttin' on the Ritz' tells a complete story. This kind of tap is a new ball of wax for me, but I've always been able to bluff my way through dance. My mom was a ballet director, so I did ballet as a kid. Mom always wanted me to do more dancing, so I know she's up there somewhere and just tickled. She was a true Southern lady, so she would probably say something like, 'Well, I don't really like that he's a monster, but he does get to dance.' Stro knew mom from Oklahoma!, and we always kidded each other about how she had to find something where I could dance. So there is a sweet giggle every time we do 'Puttin' on the Ritz.' Another of Stroman's gifts is that she gives you all these wonderful things to do, and bases them around your ability. She's given me a high bar to reach, but I think it's really going to pay off."
This is Foster's first time working with Stroman, and she, too, is effusive in her praise. "I was very intimidated and nervous going into this, just the idea of working with Susan Stroman and Mel Brooks," she says. "But I've never felt safer or more protected. I think the world of Susan. She's so supportive. The way she works with us as individuals is wonderful — her patience, her eye, her vision. When things are too much and go too far, or when they don't go far enough, she'll help us find the scale of where to play. And she welcomes ideas. She makes us feel we're all in this together. Every person in the room could come up with an idea, and it would be heard and listened to. And then Mel and Tom will come and watch and have their own ideas. The show is like this amoeba that keeps growing."
Hensley adds, "This is a journey we're all taking together, even Mel. I mean, Mel is in there every day, and he'll rewrite things on the spot. You have this iconic image of Mel Brooks as bigger than life and playing the room. And the bottom line is he's really a sweet, quick-witted Santa Claus. At the first meeting he embraced everybody, even if he'd never met you before. It immediately created a family feel to the production. That was so striking to me. And his mind is so quick. I've always thought of myself as funny, but being funny doesn't mean you're going to be a good comedian. Mel has it down to a science."