STAGE TO SCREENS: "The Producers" Film Chatting with Stroman and Beach

By Michael Buckley
20 Nov 2005

Susan Stroman and Gary Beach.
Susan Stroman and Gary Beach.
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

This month we chat with Susan Stroman and Gary Beach about the movie version of "The Producers."

The musical has been transferred successfully from the stage. (Saw a screening last Tuesday.) The mint-condition Mel Brooks-Thomas Meehan musical marks an impressive feature debut for Stroman, who won Tonys as Best Director and Choreographer for the Broadway show. Beach gets to reprise his Tony-winning turn as Roger DeBris, the role he's currently playing a third time around at the St. James Theatre.

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick joyously preserve their roles of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, and neither has ever been seen to better advantage onscreen. Close-ups enhance their polished performances; their timing's impeccable, their chemistry sublime.

Portraying Roger DeBris, Gary Beach remains as solid as the Chrysler Building. Not many actors can evoke Judy Garland one moment and the next be (as in the Brooks lyric) "the German Ethel Merman." (Bravo/Brava!) Roger Bart superbly re-creates his role as Carmen Ghia, looking like the love child of Carmen Miranda and Fernando Lamas-s-s-s-s.

Added for their box-office appeal are Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell. While Thurman is an okay Ulla, "receptionist-slash-secretary," the lady is not Cady Huffman, whose Tony-winning performance I preferred. (And I can't imagine Nicole Kidman, who was originally slated for the movie, as Ulla.) Taking nothing away from Brad Oscar's memorable, Tony-nominated portrayal of Franz Liebkind, Ferrell, in a different manner, is able to mine camp Franz moments and make the Nazi playwright a lovable loon. (Ferrell could get an Academy Award nomination for what originally was an Oscar role.)



Thomas Meehan appears (silently) as Bialystock's defense attorney, and be sure to stay until the very end of the credits to see (and hear) Mel Brooks shout, "Get out! It's over!" A combined production of Universal and Columbia Studios, the film opens in limited release Dec. 16 and everywhere Christmas Day. Santa should treat Mrs. Claus to a night out.

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"Although it was hard, every moment was wonderful," says Susan Stroman of her behind-the-camera debut. "I loved it! But it's all-consuming. Making a movie takes a year and a half, and the one person who's consistent through the process is the director.

"Once I shoot the movie, I never see my shooting crew again. I'm passed on to the editing team, then the sound mix, the Foley [sound effects], the color team you get passed to different technical experts. It's very different from the theatre. I think, of all the things, I loved the editing most. I had a wonderful editor named Steven Weisberg, and he absolutely understood the comedy and also understood it musically.

"The hours were difficult, but I loved [making the movie], and would do it again. I feel honored to bring a theatre piece to film. I've been asked before, but I never wanted to leave the theatre for that long. This was very special."

Something that particularly pleased her was "that we shot it all in New York. We didn't go to Toronto or Yugoslavia and pretend that we were in New York. I was able to hire 300 New York dancers, 72 New York musicians, a New York crew and Broadway folk."

Indeed, Stroman tells me, "Every opening nighter [in the first scene, the premiere of Funny Boy, Max Bialystock's musical version of Hamlet] has worked for me in one of my Broadway shows." Among them is Karen Ziemba, who won a Tony for Contact, and whose other Stroman shows include And the World Goes 'Round, Crazy for You and Steel Pier.

How did Stroman react when, during filming, tabloid reports stated that Brooks was actually helming the movie? "It was crazy! I don't know who could have said such a thing. But you can't take time for that stuff. Mel and I are the best of friends. We were like Army buddies, in the trenches together. He was my impresario, my producer. He would say, 'Stro, you can have whatever you want, but don't spend a penny.' [Laughs]

"From day one, six years ago, the one thing Mel has had for me is respect. I appreciate that more than anything. He allows me to do what I do. He's one of those people who throws you into the deep end of the pool and says, 'Swim!' He just called me up one day and said, 'You're going to direct this movie musical.'"

Filming took place at Brooklyn's Steiner Studios, "where they built 44th Street down to the [Hudson] River Shubert Alley, Sardi's, the Astor Bar, Max Bialystock's office. Rio [where Leo and Ulla go for a brief time] was built there. It was a big set, a big soundstage, like the old MGM days.

"We had to take this proscenium piece and give it four walls and a sky. Of course, the Central Park scenes were shot in [Manhattan's] Central Park, which is a set by itself." Lane and Broderick's first number, "We Can Do It," begins in Bialystock's office, continues on 44th Street in front of Sardi's Restaurant and ends at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. (Brad Oscar plays the cabbie who drives them there; only in the movies could a Manhattan taxi travel a mile and a half in seconds.)

"It's about four in the morning when Nathan and Matthew are [romping] in Bethesda Fountain [at the end of the number]. None of us had ever been in Central Park at night. It was thrilling! We almost felt naughty in a way. Nathan and Matthew were such good sports. As wonderful as the Parks Commissioner was, he wouldn't allow us to heat the water, so Nathan and Matthew jumped into some cold water."

Stroman has only praise for her cast. Lane and Broderick, she observes, "are glorious! You're able to see them in close-up. They're almost Chaplin-esque. They have those kinds of chops where they have complete control of their bodies; they can do prat falls, sing, dance. They're unmatched in their talents. To be able to capture the performances of Nathan and Matthew and Gary and Roger is so special. They are one of a kind. Nobody's like them."

Bialystock and Bloom first meet Franz on the roof of his building, where he raises pigeons. Were Will Ferrell's birds real or mechanical? "They're both. That was my first day of shooting, and probably because of the pigeons was the hardest day of the whole year and a half. It ultimately turned out great. The pigeon-puppeteers were lovely. The real pigeons would fly off of the set, and we'd have to wait for them to come back. Will was wonderful! He allowed the pigeons to cover him completely [not seen in the final cut]. And Will works so well against Nathan and Matthew." What was her last shot for the movie? "Nathan dressed as his mother [for a flashback] in 'Betrayed.'"

Three numbers ("The King of Broadway," "In Old Bavaria," the reprise of "That Face") have been cut ("but will be on the DVD," she assures), and one ("Where Did We Go Right?") wasn't filmed.

Explains Stroman, "The King of Broadway" was removed because I felt we needed to get to the line where the whole plot begins as soon as possible." (It's said in the second scene, after Bloom arrives at Bialystock's office. Leo: "Under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit.") The DVD, states Stroman, "will also have a [cut] scene in the Astor Bar and a wonderful gag reel."

Of course, numbers onscreen are able to be much more elaborate than when restricted to the confines of the stage. For "I Wanna Be a Producer," the play had a line of accountants seen at Leo's office; in the film, there's an enormous room filled with 29 accountants and Jon Lovitz as their CPA boss. When Leo fantasizes, he's suddenly on a set where his name is spelled out in electric lights and he's surrounded by showgirls.

"On Broadway," Stroman points out, "I only had six girls. In the movie, I have twenty girls . . . 'wearing nothing but pearls.' [Laughs] My wonderful production designer, Mark Friedberg, and I talked about what 'marquee heaven' would be like, if Leo Bloom was to go through a portal in his office. Mark designed three different marquee sets with the name Leo Bloom spelled every which way in light bulbs." Continued...