by Michael Bowen
Mel Brooks' The Producers ridicules Jews, blacks and women. Of course, it also goes out of its way to make fun of little old ladies, the Irish, lesbians, Adolf Hitler, theater producers, Swedes, gay men, straight men, the Village People, Winston Churchill, pigeon lovers, prudes, Nazis, neo-Nazis and certified public accountants.
For Mel Brooks doesn't care about the high regard in which you hold yourself. Whoever the hell you are, he wants to slice you down like a wienerschnitzel.
"Mel's comedy is very inclusive," says Andy Taylor, who plays the nerdy accountant role (Matthew Broderick in the Broadway production) of Leopold Bloom. "As far as Mel is concerned, none of us is above criticism. He's saying to us, don't take ourselves so seriously -- we're not above anybody."
At one point, a lot of New York City Irish cops jostle onstage, and even the black policeman turns out to have an Irish brogue -- leading to one of Brooks's trademark Borscht Belt groaners about the "black Irish." "In Orange County," says Taylor, referring to the traditionally conservative part of Southern California, "that was kind of a tense titter. People aren't sure they're supposed to laugh at that."
As you might expect from the creator of Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, Brooks also revels in the humor of the junior high locker room. In The Producers' opening number, "The King of Broadway," Max Bialystock remembers how successful he was in days gone by: "I always had the biggest hits, / The biggest bathrooms at the Ritz, / My showgirls had ..." (If you can't fill in that blank, your mind hasn't been trawling through enough gutters.)
As with the scattershot satire aimed at every ethnic minority and subgroup in sight, the risqu & eacute; material, says Taylor, inflicts only glancing blows on puritanical minds. "So many of the off-color jokes go by so quickly," he says, "they're just quick lyrics in a fast-paced song -- that if anybody's offended, they don't have time to wallow in their indignation before they're hit by something that's so funny, they can't help but start laughing about it."
P.C. liberals, prudes, even people who don't like the theater at all -- they all like The Producers. (Puts me in mind of the old Armour hot dogs commercial: "'ducers, The Producers -- fat kids, skinny kids, even goys who don't eat lox love 'ducers, The Producers -- the show folks love to spy." Oy, vay.)
For a show that features a man in drag transforming himself into Adolf Elizabeth Hitler ("the Fuhrer vas descended from a long line of English queens"), it's not just the gay people who are loving this show, as Taylor can attest: "Not a week goes by without some big butch guy coming up to me and grabbing me by the shoulders and saying, 'That was the funniest thing I've ever seen, man!" I mean, we've had entire real estate offices come to the show -- people who wouldn't be caught dead at a musical comedy -- and they love it."
What they love is a show based on Taylor's nebbish accountant's idle speculation: What if some theater producers promised profits to 10 times the number of financial backers that they really need? If they had a sure-fire flop, they could pocket the excess cash, and... It's a Ponzi scheme, a fiduciary house of cards, but it was stumbled upon by Leo Bloom, who just happens to think out loud in the presence of the great Max Bialystock. (As a young production assistant, Brooks really did know a Broadway producer who funded his shows by collecting from lonely old ladies in return for, er, intimate services rendered -- but that's another story.)
Taylor is aware that while Bialystock (Nathan Lane on Broadway, Bob Amaral in this touring version) is the flashier role, Bloom is the guy spectators keep their eye on -- he has it on the authority of the man who co-wrote the book of the musical with Mel Brooks. Taylor says that "Thomas Meehan told me, a play belongs to the guy who is the audience's window. Max is the same at the end of this show as he is at the beginning. But Leo starts as a nebbish, then gets the girl and becomes a high-powered producer by the end."
Maybe Taylor has been too busy being a window to notice how much this part has affected him. Ask him a simple question like "What's the running time on this show?" and he launches into accountant mode. During tryouts, in a desperate attempt to shorten the show's duration, Brooks and Meehan had thrown out pages of jokes and entire musical numbers, especially in the second act. So you can see why Taylor might have all that on his mind:
"The orchestra starts playing at 8:03, or sometimes 8:04 - and that's intentional, so people can get into their seats -- but never as late as five minutes after, and then we run two hours and 40 minutes. Now, that's with a 20-minute intermission, so you're looking at about 2:23 of actual running time, and the curtain goes down at 10:45, maybe 10:46."
Got your stopwatches ready, folks?
"And it's really remarkable," adds Taylor, "that in a year and a half, we've never varied from that running time, up or down, by more than 60 seconds.
"I mean, in Cabaret -- and that's not a show where you have to hold for a lot of laugh lines -- we'd get notes that we were nine minutes over the established running time. So that's an indication of how disciplined we are."
Bean counters, clock-watchers -- the man blends into the role. But Taylor's insistence upon well-choreographed comedy even extends to a conviction that the actors in The Producers should let the jokes tell themselves.
"Remember that [Brooks] won the Academy Award for the screenplay" of the 1968 movie, he says. "This is a show that lends itself to a lot of self-indulgence on the part of the actors. And I've seen other actors take liberties with their roles in this show -- and it's rarely an improvement. I say, let Mel and Tom do the heavy lifting.
"But our company is very disciplined. Bob and I do a pretty lean production -- we try not to screw around. We set an atmosphere. I mean, when do you a show 500 times, goofiness is going to set in -- but it can get to the point where [actors] are doing it more for themselves than for the audience."
After all, right down to the staging, there's been an effort to reduplicate the experience that audiences had on Broadway: "All the effects are the same," says Taylor. "We even have a motorcycle -- and that's a real pain-in-the-ass prop, a lot of hassle for the stagehands to go through for just one gag. But that's the way Mel wanted it."
After all the hassles of transforming a funny but subdued movie into a splashy Broadway show, Mel got exactly what he wanted. The Producers became a bona fide hit with 12 Tony Awards: Springtime for Brooksie in Drama Land.
Publication date: 09/16/04