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

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

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

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. ***

"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."

While "Springtime for Hitler" was shot at Steiner Studios, the reaction of the audience (all of whom donated to charity to be part of it) was filmed inside the St. James Theatre. "My dance department, which is my three dance assistants, re-created the number onstage, because all the cameras were shooting towards the audience. I asked for the St. James, so that my camera crew could be together with the whole theatre crew [of The Producers]. They got on so well. It made my heart happy."

In the film Lane wears his hair in a style somewhat similar to Zero Mostel, who played Max in Brooks' 1968 film comedy, "The Producers." Comments Stroman, "Nathan has a good head of hair, but he wanted the character to be more desperate and older. Nathan also has a youthful quality. He said he could never do what Zero's hair did — Zero's hair was a character all to itself. But Nathan had Zero in mind when he did his comb over.

"As a little girl [in Wilmington, Delaware], I would watch movie musicals on TV. I would watch Fred and Ginger, and pictures like 'Singin' in the Rain' and 'Royal Wedding.' That's why I got into theatre.

"I never imagined that in my lifetime movie musicals would appear again. Now, to have been in charge of a gorilla of a movie musical — directing and choreographing — is beyond dreams realized."

According to Stroman, the credit roll "might be the longest ever. Mel says we should sell it as a movie by itself." It incorporates the once-popular feature of showing the stars individually with their names displayed on the screen. Warns Stroman, "If you leave [without watching the credits], you miss the new song [Brooks' "There's Nothing Like a Show on Broadway"], Will Ferrell's ballad [a version of "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop"] that we call 'The Hop-Clop Goes On' [followed by Franz's encouragement to buy a certain book] — and the surprise of seeing Mel at the end."

*** There are no opening credits. Fade-in is a night shot overlooking Manhattan, and the focus shifts to the theatrical district. Suddenly, from behind rooftops, rise electric lights that spell out "The Producers."

Playing cameo roles are several actors who will be recognized by Broadway fans. Among them: Brent Barrett, Andrea Martin, Debra Monk, Richard Kind, Jonathan Freeman, Ruth Williamson, Michael McKean, Marilyn Sokol, Peter Bartlett and Ronn Carroll. Many players who have been in The Producers also have parts in the movie.

Two of Ulla's lines had to be changed for the film. In the play (Act Two, Scene One), Bialystock and Bloom are amazed that Ulla's repainted their office. Asked when she did all this, Ulla replies, "Intermission!" In the movie, Max asks, "How did you find time..." and she answers, "I skip lunch." And instead of inquiring why Leo is "crossing downstage right," Ulla asks, "Why Bloom go so far camera right?" Also different for the film is the Sing-Sing sequence.

The cinematic Shubert Alley looks north from 44th Street and boasts signs for such establishments as McHale's (the 46th Street bar famed for its burgers) and Barton's bonbonniere (once the home of luscious chocolate truffles).

During the "You Never Say Good Luck on Opening Night" number, there are theatrical posters displayed in the faux Shubert Alley. But not all of the shows would have been advertised simultaneously in 1959, the year "The Producers" is set.

My Fair Lady was running, but not with its original cast, as shown. Redhead and Destry Rides Again are okay; the former opened in February '59 and closed in March '60, and the latter ran from April '59 until June '60. However, West Side Story closed in June 1959 and The Sound of Music didn't open until November.

Highlights abound. Broderick's hysterics during his first scene, when Lane asks about Leo's blue security blanket — and Lane's reactions — reach comedic heights. There's also Bart's sibilant greeting to Lane and Broderick, when he holds the last letter of "Yes." "Someone asked if we had tweaked that," relates Stroman, "but it was all Roger Bart." Perhaps the funniest number is "Along Came Bialy" with Lane leading 83 Old Ladies (some of whom are Laddies) dancing with walkers. Another delight is Beach's explosive "stage debut" ("Heil, myself!") as the substitute star of Springtime for Hitler. And the mutual admiration shared by Lane and Broderick (onscreen and off) is apparent in the song "'Til Him."

***

Gary Beach plays Roger DeBris, "The Producers"' (other) director. "After [the show] opened, Roger [Bart] said, 'I wish HBO would film this [so the original cast could be seen].' We know how lucky we are that Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman made us part of the deal."

Beach hadn't seen the film when we spoke (but would on Friday). He recalls, "The set for the Astor Bar was so beautiful. They shot a scene that was in the [original] movie, where Max and Leo go to the bar after seeing the start of Springtime for Hitler and are convinced that it's going to be a failure. You'll see it on the DVD."

Were there any difficulties in making the movie? "One thing — for the four of us who had done the play — was that we were so used to gales of laughter. In this kind of comedy, the audience is another character. All of a sudden, you're out there talking into silence. That was odd at first."

After the movie opens, New Yorkers will be able to see Beach onscreen and onstage. He's back at the St. James, where Carmen Ghia is now played by Jai Rodriguez (TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"), who is seen as Sabu, one of DeBris' staff, in the film.

I'd read that the pose DeBris strikes before launching into his big number when he takes over the title role on opening night of Springtime for Hitler was meant as Beach's tribute to his Lumiere role in Beauty and the Beast. "I read that, too," notes Beach, "but it isn't true. Actually, I'm doing the pose that Angela Lansbury did on the Mame posters. It was very theatrical."

His favorite moment in the film? "I loved doing the section we refer to as 'the Judy section' — sitting on the edge of the stage. The support you receive from a 150 people standing around, all doing their jobs, is incredible. When you do a show, how many people are in the room? The cast and maybe five others. In a movie, it's a community, all there to make the movie work. I loved that. I've never had this large a role [onscreen]."

It took a week, Beach confides, "to shoot 'Springtime for Hitler.' They dyed John Barrowman's hair so blond and even though he has blue eyes, they gave him turquoise contacts." Barrowman plays the Nazi officer who sings the "Springtime" song.

Doubling as the DeBris dwelling, says Beach, "was the Pratt Mansion [1026 Fifth Avenue], which is now owned by Marymount [School]. We shot in the entrance hall and, for lack of a better word, the living room."

When sets were being dismantled, Stroman asked if Beach had a country house and might like a memento. "It's a large oil painting that hung over Roger and Carmen's mantle — their dead Pomeranian, with an archangel behind the dog. I said, 'Sure.' I didn't realize that it was four-feet tall. I have it in my dressing room. I think I'll give it to Broadway Cares, and they can auction it. I do have a place on Fire Island, but the painting's too gay for Fire Island." [Laughs]

I mention that I was glad one of my favorite jokes remained in the movie. It's an exchange between DeBris and an actor at the Hitler auditions. DeBris: "What have you been doing?" Actor: "For sixteen years, I've been touring in No, No, Nietzsche." DeBris: "Did you play Nietzsche?" Actor: "No, no." That was added for Broadway, claims Beach. Out of town there was a different exchange. DeBris: "What have you been doing?" Actor: "For sixteen years, I've been touring in Charley's Aunt. DeBris: "What part did you play?" Actor: "Charley's Uncle."

One of Beach's fondest memories of The Producers was getting to know the late Mrs. Mel Brooks. "I really felt like I had made it when Anne Bancroft knew my name. 'Gary.' Oh, my God, that's Anne Bancroft saying my name! She had a total idea of who she was and an awareness of her effect on other people — which is a nice thing to have. A lot of people who are in that position either don't know or don't care. She was totally aware. That was sort of wonderful!"

Like most actors, Beach doesn't know what his next job might be, "but I'd like to do a comedy." I suggest that perhaps he and Roger Bart could take over for Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick on Broadway in The Odd Couple, and he supposes that might be fun. "Roger's in New York at the moment because he's going to see his [older] daughter play Sally Bowles at the University of Pennsylvania."

From his first scene shot — "We call it 'the cop scene,' where Franz comes in, shooting at us in Max's office" — to his last scene done — "Kissing Ulla, and my [Hitler] moustache comes off [onto her lips]" — Beach's film experience was a pleasure. "When you come from the world of theatre and all of a sudden you get into the reality that they deal with for a movie, it's mind boggling."

***

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com.