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November 02, 2004

The Producers - Mel Brooks

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Mel Brooks' The Producers
Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London

The Producers began as a 1968 movie with a brilliant idea at the centre of it. Some people liked it so much that it became "a cult", while others didn't – "dismally unfunny" was leading film critic Leslie Halliwell's verdict. The brilliant counterintuitive idea is that it can be as hard to fail as to succeed. A broadway producer learns that the tax break on a flop could set him up for life, and goes into business with a shy accountant to put on a show that will shut, as they say on broadway, like a five cent moustrap. The show is Springtime for Hitler, an outrageous-concept musical with every vulgar excess added on, like those American hamburgers that contain lettuce, cheese, tomato and every other additive you might think of. This appalling concoction is hailed as a satirical masterpiece and the producers are in trouble.

This was, you might say, Brook's baby, and with Thomas Meehan co-authoring the Book, he has turned the movie itself into a musical, writing both music and lyrics himself. It has been the hottest ticket in New York for a long time, and early audiences at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane gave it a stand up ovation. Totally deserved! Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock the cynical producer comes from the New York production while Lee Evans is local, and they are both superb. Like most people in the cast, they seem to have bodies constructed out of rubber: boy, can they writhe and gyrate! And they have competition. A series of brilliant turns keeps the action rolling along – Nicolas Colicos as the crazed neo-Nazi pigeon fancier who has written the book of Springtime for Hitler and has taught his pigeons to give the Hitler salute, and Leigh Zimmerman as the statuesque Swedish blonde who takes over the office and also the lives of the Producers. "If you've got it, flaunt it" she sings, and she has certainly got it. There's also a superb ensemble of camp theatre folk that had the audience in paroxysms of uncontrollable hilarity. The Springtime for Hitler sequence itself is marvellously over the top, though I did miss the high kicking SS chorus girls from the film itself. But then disaster strikes. This monster becomes a success and our heroes mournfully sing "where did we go right?" A series of running gags comes from the discovery that Max Bialystock gets his financial backing from playing sexy games with little old ladies, who later appear dancing around their zimmer frames.

It's a terrific evening in the theatre and the genre of farce generates chorus lines, songs and gags in plenty. Like the film itself, the musical is fast enough to keep reflection on its themes entirely out of sight. Later, one might consider the whole business of treating Hitler and Nazism as one great big absurd joke. Is satire weakening the kind of necessary revulsion we feel for that experience, and which we imagine to be an important barrier to any recurrence of it? In our politically correct world, only Jews could get away with such chutzpah! I suspect that, as with the parallel case of the satirical treatment of Christianity and other religions, the revulsion will just have to take its chance in our world of kaleidoscopic (and unstable) mood changes. The other reflection must be: how can producers ever make a profit out of this kind of operation. There are about 21 players in the orchestra and quite an array of supporting cast, tumblers, singers and dancers. You would need an awful lot of very rich little old ladies even to get it off the ground.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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Mel Brooks wrote the book for one of the last old-fashioned (= nice music) musicals on Broadway, All American. The only song one hears from it nowadays (and that seldom) is "Once Upon a Time", music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams (lyrics here:

The show quickly closed, and The Producers is Brooks’ commentary.

Posted by: anonymous coward at November 4, 2004 03:35 AM
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