Break a Leg: The Producers Opens at Bway's St. James, April 19

By David Lefkowitz
and Christine Ehren
19 Apr 2001

Matthew Broderick and the chorus girls of The Producers.
Matthew Broderick and the chorus girls of The Producers.
Photo by Photo by Paul Kolnik

Gentlemen, it is magic time.

Gentlemen, it is magic time.

Franz Liebkind uttered those immortal words moments before the curtain went up on "Springtime for Hitler" in Mel Brooks' classic film comedy, "The Producers." Well, now that The Producers is a big Broadway musical, Liebkind doesn't actually say those words (he can't — he's too busy rushing into the theatre to play Hitler), but April 19 is, indeed, magic time for the new musical, perhaps the most highly-anticipated show of the season.

By pretty much all accounts, The Producers, Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan's stage adaptation of Brooks' movie, reaches Broadway in as healthy shape as a new musical could wish for. The show's try-out at Chicago's Cadillac Palace, which ended Feb. 25, was sold out before it even started (on Feb. 1), reviews were "amazing," according to spokespersons at the Barlow-Hartman press office, and the production pulled into the St. James Theatre for previews beginning March 21 with "a healthy advance" (the Daily News reports (April 18) a $14.5 million advance on a show capitalized at $10.5 million). The show has also received Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for Broadway Musical, Actor (Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane), Featured Actor (Gary Beach) Featured Actress (Cady Huffman) and Director and Choreographer (Susan Stroman twice).



On March 11, Sony Classical recorded The Producers' original cast CD at Edison Recording Studios, with Hugh Fordin producing. The CD was released to stores April 17, according to Sony VP of publicity Carol Della Penna (reached April 12).

Fordin told Playbill On Line among the items on the disk are an overture that was written for the production but, at present, isn't in the show. Songs in the Mel Brooks-Thomas Meehan tuner include "The King of Broadway," "Der Gutten Tag Hop Clop," "Keep it Gay," "If You've Got It, Flaunt It," "That Face," "`Till Him," "Prisoners of Love" and, of course, "Springtime for Hitler."

Roger Bart, Gary Beach, Cady Huffman and Brad Oscar co-star alongside Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers, which also boasts designer Robin Wagner (a Tony winner for City of Angels and On the Twentieth Century) on sets, William Ivey Long (a Tony winner for Nine) on costumes, Peter Kaczorowski on lighting and Steve Kennedy on sound. Glen Kelly serves as musical arranger and supervisor; Patrick Brady is musical director and vocal arranger. Doug Besterman provided the orchestrations.

Director-choreographer Susan Stroman made nips and tucks throughout the Chi-town run, including the publicized removal of a Gypsy song parody that Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim objected to. Otherwise the only other major glitch was in Ron Orbach's knee, which was injured in rehearsal. Orbach, who played German Nazi deifier Franz Liebkind, missed the previews and opening night but returned to the production Feb. 20. His spirit was willing but the body wasn't ready, and Orbach left again before the end of the Chicago run. His replacement is the aforementioned Brad Oscar, whose New York credits have included Aspects of Love, Jekyll & Hyde and Forbidden Broadway). (Oscar's sister is Victoria Oscar, who's been playing Miss Hannigan in the Annie national tour.)

The musical is being produced by Rocco Landesman, SFX Theatrical Group, the Frankel, Viertel, Baruch, Routh Group, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, Rick Steiner, Robert F X Sillerman and Mel Brooks, in association with James D. Stern/Douglas Meyer and by special arrangement with Studio Canal. Producer Landesman told Newsday (Dec. 14, 2000) he thought the show was "Pretty damn funny. We're back to that rare, unheard-of genre, musical comedy." The St. James Theatre’s previous tenant, Swing!, closed Jan. 14, 2001.

New York/New Jersey's UPN/WOR Channel 9 will offer a two-hour TV special on April 22 that's almost an infomercial of interviews, backstage footage and audience members kvelling. Pat Collins will host the pre-recorded special, which has been taping rehearsal and other segments since mid December 2000.

In The Producers, actor Lane plays Max Bialystock, an overbearing theatrical producer who was once the toast of Broadway but has now fallen on hard times. Broderick is Leo Bloom, a shy accountant who, under Max's tutelage, finally blossoms — albeit into a criminal.

Huffman, best known for playing Ziegfeld's Favorite in The Will Rogers Follies, is the leads' sexpot secretary, Ulla. She told the Daily News (April 18) she studied with a dialogue coach to master Ulla's accent. "I'd never even heard Swedish spoken before."

Beach (Beauty and the Beast's candelabra) is effete director Roger DeBries; and Orbach (Laughter on the 23rd Floor) is unregenerate Nazi playwright, Liebkind. Tony winner Roger Bart (You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown Off-Broadway’s Full Committed) is Carmen Gia, Roger's even-more-effeminate manservant.

Other performers include Madelaine Doherty, Kathryn Fitzgerald, Eric Gunhus, Peter Marinos, Jennifer Smith, Ray Wills, Jeffrey Denman, Bryn Dowling, Robert H. Fowler, Adrienne Gibbons, Ida Gilliams, Kimberly Hester, Naomi Kakuk, Jamie LaVerdiere, Matt Loehr, Brad Musgrove, Christina Marie Norrup, Angie L. Schworer, Abe Sylvia and Tracy Terstriep.

The role of the florid LSD, the hippie rock singer drafted into playing Adolf Hitler, has been eliminated. LSD's environmental anthem, "Love Power," is also gone. In a major plot-change from the movie, Franz gets to play Hitler — that is, until he literally `breaks a leg' and must be replaced by Roger. Other changes include Leo and Ulla temporarily leaving Max in the lurch, and a happier ending than the film.

Theatregoers can be forgiven for keeping an extra-close eye on every aspect of The Producers. Not only is Brooks' 1968 film on many lists as the funniest movie ever made, the plot-line is about Broadway itself. Brooks' Oscar-winning screenplay tells of a larger-than-life but down-on-his-luck Broadway producer who enlists a meek tax accountant, Leo Bloom, to help him get back on top. The scheme is not to mount a hit play but to raise a lot of money, produce a great stinking flop, and then disappear before paying back the investors. What better choice for a disaster than "Springtime For Hitler," a dramatic love-letter to Der Furher penned by a German lunatic living in a tenement? After securing the property, Max and Leo add a flamboyant director to all-but-ensure that "Springtime For Hitler" will be excruciatingly bad. Only it turns out, it's so bad, it's funny...

Back in late March 2000, director-choreographer Stroman (Contact, The Music Man) told Playbill On-Line, "We're actually going to do a reading of [Mel's] musical," "He's written the musical and lyrics and the book. Every single page is funny."

The stage musical features a dance-off between Hitler and Winston Churchill, an idea only alluded to in the film (“Hitler was a better dancer than Churchill... Hitler was a better painter than Churchill. He could paint an entire house in one afternoon — two coats!”).

Asked whether, even in 2001, audiences might find the material in bad taste, actor Broderick told the Daily News (April 18), "I think a chorus of dancers in SS uniforms forming a kick line is still hilarious and horrifying at the same time. We have to walk through a whole backstage hallway filled with Nazi uniforms. It's horrible and bizarre that you get used to it."

Equity auditions for The Producers were held in mid-August 2000, though the Lane casting was in the works long before that. (In a March 2, 2000 appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman," Brooks, a guest on the show, pulled a contract for the musical out of his pants and told Lane, who was Letterman’s guest host, to sign it. Brooks told the crowd he wanted Lane to star in the planned stage musical, presumably in the Max Bialystock role originated by Zero Mostel. Lane, who then went on to star in the Roundabout's The Man Who Came to Dinner, agreed.) Broderick's name had been rumored for months, although early reports had Martin Short as Brooks' first choice for the nebbishy Bloom, with Evan Pappas (The Immigrant) also considered during the early reading stages.

At a press preview of the show in mid-January, creator Brooks described The Producers as "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."

For tickets ($30-$90) and information on The Producers at the St. James Theatre call (212) 239-6200.