Breaking the Code: An Insiders' Guide to the Parodies, Homages and Allusions in The Producers

By Edward Karam
18 Jun 2001

Rodgers and Hammerstein, Tom Stoppard, Annie and Mel Brooks (the filmmaker) are slyly cited in The Producers.
Rodgers and Hammerstein, Tom Stoppard, Annie and Mel Brooks (the filmmaker) are slyly cited in The Producers.
Photo by Photo by Paul Kolnik

The fun of the Broadway musical The Producers derives not just from its frantic physical comedy and vaudeville moments—Max and Leo stuck in a doorway together, Leo discovered hanging inside a coat on a hanger—but also from the allusions to other shows and personalities. Some are obvious: Mel Brooks's lyrics mention Ibsen, Strindberg, and King Lear. But subtler nuggets of parody and homage can slip away in the show's cascades of laughter. Herewith, a guide to some of the choice moments in The Producers that depend on either musical or extra-textual knowledge.

The fun of the Broadway musical The Producers derives not just from its frantic physical comedy and vaudeville moments—Max and Leo stuck in a doorway together, Leo discovered hanging inside a coat on a hanger—but also from the allusions to other shows and personalities. Some are obvious: Mel Brooks's lyrics mention Ibsen, Strindberg, and King Lear. But subtler nuggets of parody and homage can slip away in the show's cascades of laughter. Herewith, a guide to some of the choice moments in The Producers that depend on either musical or extra-textual knowledge.

• Even before the curtain goes up, there's a joke. Matthew Broderick's character, Leopold Bloom, has the name of the hero of James Joyce's Ulysses. In Scene 2 of The Producers, in which Bloom arrives at Max Bialystock's office, the program specifies the date as June 16, 1959. The date of the action in Joyce's novel is June 16; it's celebrated annually as Bloomsday, and readings of Joyce's novel occur worldwide.

• "Opening Night" is a song about the theatre business, and in occupying the first slot in the show, it parallels "Another Op'nin, Another Show" in Kiss Me, Kate. It inverts that number by being about "the worst show in town," but, says co-writer Thomas Meehan, "It's also a homage to the first show that Mel Brooks every did, New Faces of 1952. A good friend of his and mine who wrote several Mel Brooks movies—Ronnie Graham—wrote an opening song to that called `You've Never Seen Us Before,' and it's kind of a peppy opening tune. And `Opening Night' is a salute to that song from way back in 1952."

• Early in the second number, "King of Broadway," the blind violinist says, "It's good to be the king." That's a line from History of the World, Part I, in which Brooks plays Louis XVI. Says Meehan: "That's his tagline. Everybody else is starving and there's chaos, but he's doing fine."

• "King of Broadway" has the mournful sound of Hebraic music that suggests a number of antecedents, notably Fiddler on the Roof. "It was in the spirit of Fiddler," says orchestrator Doug Besterman, who used a dulcimer, solo violin and "a real high, small clarinet." But, he adds, "To me, it sounds more like `Reviewing the Situation' from Oliver! than something from Fiddler on the Roof." (Meehan, however, says, "We weren't thinking along those lines," i.e. Oliver!)

• The dancing and singing street denizens of the same number may conjure up the peasants in Fiddler on the Roof, but, says Meehan, "there's sort of a Brecht-Weill feel" as well. Think The Threepenny Opera.

• Nathan Lane climaxes "King of Broadway" with a bravura "run," in which he negotiates 12 rhymed lines lickety-split. If it makes you think of "Tchaikovsky" from Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's Lady in the Dark, or of any of Danny Kaye's tongue-twisters, that's no accident. Tongue twister songs were a Kaye specialty; but the prototype for "King of Broadway" and "Tchaikovsky" extends even further back, says Meehan. "There was a man named Aaron Lebitov who, way back in the '20s or '30s, wrote a song called `Rumania.' When Mel first thought of the kind of song he wanted to do there, he said he'd like to write a song like `Rumania,' but he said he didn't think he could. I said, `I think you can. Go for it.' For six months he didn't try it, and then one day he did." Although some of the songs were written in a day, says Meehan, " 'King of Broadway' took a long time. "It went through many changes, but he got it right."

Funny Boy, the title of Bialystock's flop musical of Hamlet, is a takeoff on Funny Girl, of course. "Originally it was just an idea for one of the titles at the end of the show," says Meehan. It's not meant to refer to the bad gay Hamlet in The Goodbye Girl or to Frank Loesser's song "Hamlet" from the 1948 film Red, Hot and Blue. The Dane is always fodder for satire.

• Leo Bloom's security blanket is an obvious nod to Linus in Charles Schulz's comic strip "Peanuts." "It's in the movie, too," says Meehan.

• After Leo has his hysterical fit in Max's office and he calms down, Max says to him soothingly, "Yes, Prince Myshkin." It's an oblique insult, since Prince Myshkin is the title character of Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

• When Leo returns to his bookkeeping job, one of the accountants mournfully sings, "Oh, I debits all de mornin'/An' I credits all de eb'nin/Until dem ledgers be right." The music conjures up Jerome Kern's "Ol' Man River" intentionally: "Musically it sounds like Show Boat," says musical director Glen Kelly. But Mel Brooks has added his own twist. "It's not unlike the beginning of Blazing Saddles," says Kelly, when the blacks are working on the chain gang and they break into a Cole Porter song. "It's a joke on what the stereotype of a black person is," says Kelly. Director Susan Stroman, incidentally, choreographed Hal Prince's 1994-95 revival.

• When Leo quits his job with the words, "Stop the world, I wanna get on," it's a play on the title of the 1961 Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse musical, Stop the World—I Want to Get Off.

• "When is it gonna be Bloomsday?" Leo asks rhetorically, as he explains to Max why he has returned. It's the same day as Scene 2, so the obvious answer is June 16.

• In Max's office there is a poster of Bialyhoos of 1942. It recalls The Ziegfeld Follies, George White Scandals, and Earl Carroll's Vanities—"all those shows where the producers would get their names in the show," says Meehan. "It also suggests the level of the kinds of things Max was doing." Another poster advertises a show called 100 Dollar Legs. It's a wink at the 1932 Betty Grable movie, Million Dollar Legs. "The idea is that Bialystock's is the budget version," says Kelly.

• One of the terrible scripts that Max reads aloud begins "Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach." The reference is to Kafka. "That's the first line of Metamorphosis," says Meehan. "Thursday and Friday night audiences are more likely to get those [literary jokes]. Wednesday matinee audiences are not so good."

• The title "Springtime for Hitler" was used in the 1968 film, but Meehan notes that it's a homage to Springtime for Henry. "That was Mel's idea," says Meehan. "Springtime for Henry is a cornball play that used to be played around the country all the time."

• When Franz Liebkind sings "In Old Bavaria," says Kelly, "the phrase where he goes 'I'm talkin' ooooold...' is Al Jolson. He does Al Jolson more later, when he sings 'Haben Sie Gehoert Das Deutsche Band?' Mel always did that great... He created these songs mostly by singing them to me."

• In the same scene, Kelly says, "The pigeons sing a little bit of 'Deutschland Uber Alles.'" And when Liebkind forces Max and Leo to take the Siegfried Oath, says Kelly, "the music that's playing under it is Wagner—The Ring." "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop" is just a deft parody of traditional Bavarian folk songs.

• Scene 6 opens with a salute to Tom Stoppard. Carmen Ghia answers the telephone: "Hello. The living room of renowned theatrical director Roger De Bris's elegant upper East Side townhouse on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in June." The Stoppard original is "Hello, the drawing room of Lady Muldoon's country manor one morning in early spring," in The Real Inspector Hound, says Meehan, adding that the British playwright didn't have time to see The Producers during his trip to New York for the Tony Awards. "He's coming back in August, and he's going to call me for tickets."

• The doorbell of Roger De Bris' apartment plays "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story, and those who know the lyrics—"I feel pretty/Oh so pretty/ I feel pretty and witty and gay"—will realize that they are echoed in De Bris' verse intro to "Keep It Gay." De Bris: "Shows should be more pretty/Shows should be more witty/Shows should be more—what's the word?" "Gay?" asks Max.

• "Walk this way, please." Max and Leo mimic Carmen's mincing. It's a lift from Brooks's own Young Frankenstein, of course, in which Marty Feldman's hunchback Igor says the line.

• "Keep It Gay." You'd really have to know your musical theatre to recollect that Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote a song of the same title, with the same triple repetition of the words. It's in their 1953 flop, Me and Juliet. "I think we were going for Rodgers & Hammerstein," says Besterman, but not Me and Juliet. According to Kelly, the music in the verse bears a similarity "to the verse to 'Do Re Mi' in The Sound of Music."

• Roger De Bris' gown, which makes him look like the Chrysler Building, and his red wig are a sly nod to Annie, Thomas Meehan's 1977 smash. The Chrysler Building is mentioned during "It's a Hard-Knock Life": "You'll stay up till this dump shines like the top of the Chrysler Building."

• "Sabu, champagne!" The servant summoned by Roger De Bris at the end of "Keep It Gay" wears a turban and omphalic ruby. The oft-turbaned Indian actor Sabu starred in B movies like Elephant Boy (1937) and Cobra Woman (1944).

• Nathan Lane's delivery of Max's comment after Ulla dances, "They'll say `Oooh, wee-woo-woo wah-wah-wah whoa,'" sounds very like Jackie Gleason. "It's also in the movie," says Meehan, "but I think that Nathan made it more Jackie Gleason. Nathan is a big admirer of Jackie Gleason and has wanted to do a musical based on Jackie Gleason's life."

• Just after Max tells Leo "Never put your own money into the show" and then shouts the same sentence at him, this exchange occurs: "Get it?" "Got it." "Good." That routine is Danny Kaye again, stolen from The Court Jester (1955). Incidentally, says Meehan, "That rhythm of saying something quietly and then saying it loud is burlesque."

• "Little Old Lady Land" is a parody of "Loveland" in Follies. "I think absolutely there's no question," says Besterman. "That's precisely what they were parodying." Kelly credits designer Robin Wagner. "We never said it should be like `Loveland,'" he says. "I think the set kind of did that for us."

• In the Act I finale, five different songs are reprised and intercut, "exploiting another musical cliche," says Kelly. "The most famous example of that is in West Side Story. `A Weekend in the Country' [in Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music] is another example."

• The vamp at the beginning of the audition scene is the same as in A Chorus Line.

• During the auditions for Hitler, one actor says he has been touring in No, No, Nietzsche. It's a twist on No, No, Nanette, Vincent Youmans' bouncy 1925 musical.

• Franz Liebkind's rendition of "Haben Sie Gehoert Das Deutsche Band" is stylistically Al Jolson.

• "You're going out there a silly, hysterical screaming queen and you're coming back a great big, passing-for-straight Broadway star." Is there anyone on the planet who doesn't know that this parodies 42nd Street? "I think that line gets a laugh anyway, but when I saw 42nd Street that line got a big laugh," says Meehan. "I think even if there had been no Producers that would still get a laugh in 42nd Street, it's so old. We weren't the first to kid that line."

• The whole "Springtime for Hitler" number parodies 1930s movie director-choreographer Busby Berkeley.

• "Don't be stupid/Be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi Party." It's Brooks's own voice delivering the line, lip-synched by an actor. Brooks reprises the line he delivered in the original film.

• When Gary Beach as Roger De Bris stands at the top of the big staircase in "Springtime for Hitler" and strikes a pose, it's deliberately reminiscent of Lumiere, the candlestick, which he played in Beauty and the Beast. Also, the top-of-the-staircase entrance, says Kelly, "is like Hello, Dolly!"

• "The Fuhrer is causing a furor." It's sung in that creamy 1940s style by the Heil-los, according to the script, though the group's name is never stated in the show. "The Hi-Los were all men, and this is men and women, so it's not completely accurate," says Besterman, "but the idea was that this was a cool vocal group. In terms of the instrumental, it was Kay Thompson all the way." Some old Milton Berle TV shows inspired the parody, says Kelly. "On one of them Kay Thompson is a guest, and she's supported by the boys, and she's pushed around. It was one of those close harmony vocal group things." Says Meehan: "It's in the category of so bad it's good, so we decided to do one bit of that in 'Springtime for Hitler.'"

• As Roger steps to the forestage to sit for his Judy Garland moment, says Kelly, "the music sounds like 'Over the Rainbow' for four bars without actually being it."

• "In that number, there is a musical quote," says Besterman. "When Roger sings, 'I'm the German Ethel Merman, dontcha know,' the orchestra answers with the opening notes of the Gypsy overture." (Those notes are from "I Had a Dream.")

• When Roger sings, "Everyone Sieg heil to me/Wonderful me!" the music again turns Garland-like. "It was supposed to be like 'The Trolley Song,'" Kelly says. The final cadence of "Wonderful me!" parallels "...end of the line" in "The Trolley Song."

• The tilted mirror over the swastika formation of dancers is Robin Wagner's homage to A Chorus Line, which he also designed.

• Another musical allusion, from Cole Porter, occurs in Leo and Ulla's duet "That Face." "Before they start dancing," says Kelly, "there's a vamp which is very similar to the vamp that comes before 'The Continental,' just to identify we're going to be doing a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers tap number there. It's from the movie The Gay Divorcee."

• Max's whole number "Betrayed" parallels "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy, and his "I see a weathered old farmhouse" speech, with the accompanying music, seems lifted from The Wizard of Oz. Actually, though, says Kelly, "It's an idyllic version of 'King of Broadway' with dreamier chords behind it. It's in the major instead of the minor."

• At the prison, the inmates' line "Gotta Sing Sing" is an obvious homage to Singin' in the Rain.

• The goodbye song after the curtain calls is a rarity nowadays, but "almost every revue in the '50s would have a number like that," says Kelly.

• Finally, there's one more reference that's so inside almost no one in the audience will get it, says Meehan. When Max and Leo are planning to go to Greenwich Village to meet Franz Liebkind, the Jane Street address Max gives as Liebkind's is actually that of Meehan himself. With a chuckle, he says, "There's a mad Nazi on my roof!"