Hitler Hilarity

The Producers is more than theater. It is, like a handful of other shows, an event. Mel Brooks' record-breaking Tony-winner is one of those programs attended by people who never set foot inside a theater unless it's to witness a road company of a show that's received so much press they're afraid to not see it, lest they miss something they "heard was supposed to be good."

The difference between The Producers and those other shows Cats, Rent, and The Phantom of the Opera, to name a bloated few is that The Producers is a polished work of art that's a joy to behold. It relies not on pyrotechnics but on good old-fashioned talent (once the hallmark of musical theater) to entertain us. It's a show busting with clever songs and funny material, all of it sold even in its touring version, which is moored for several weeks at Gammage Auditorium by a splendid cast.

The Producers is the biggest Broadway hit since The Lion King, which is less a musical than an amusement-park ride and which could hardly have failed, anyway, given the Mickey machine Disney built to promote it. Brooks' musical opened with advance ticket sales of $15 million, half again its $10 million production costs, and went on to sweep the 2001 Tonys, taking home more awards than any other show ever. But the real success of The Producers is that, in the space of a single weekend, it revived the run-down musical-comedy genre, raised the bar on book musicals, and rid the Great White Way of a nasty and lingering case of political correctness.

The Producers is, of course, adapted from Brooks' 1968 movie about Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), a slimeball Broadway producer whose scaredy-cat accountant Leo (Gene Wilder) convinces him that a stage flop is worth more than a hit (because there are no investors to pay off when a show tanks). The duo's plan backfires when the sure-fire loser they mount, a musical called Springtime for Hitler, becomes a runaway hit.

The film played forever in revival houses and became a cult favorite, but was trounced by critics and first-run audiences. Its material a smorgasbord of insults aimed at Jews, homosexuals, blacks, the elderly, and especially show-biz types was considered so offensive that moviegoers dismissed it as crass and unworthy. Today, those same fag jokes and randy references to Nazism are a tonic, because our devotion to political correctness makes Brooks' material even naughtier and, therefore, more fun to laugh at. If there's a punch line here, it's that Mr. and Mrs. Middle America, the very people who were offended by Brooks' story 35 years ago, are shelling out big bucks to see it and standing to cheer at the end.

Brooks and co-author Thomas Meehan (who won a Tony for writing Annie) stick closely to the original script, and the few changes are all for the better. The film's hippie Hitler wouldn't have played today, but the fairy Führer (think Hitler as Tallulah Bankhead) who replaces him in the stage version is a scream. The Jewish subtext of the film is now front and center: In "Where Did We Go Right?," Max and Leo sing about their hit show, "We knew we couldn't lose/Half the audience were Jews!" Elsewhere, Nazis form kick lines and bellow lyrics like "Don't be stupid/Be a smarty/Come and join/The Nazi party!"

If it's okay to laugh at silly Nazis and extravagantly nelly chorus boys, it's because Brooks is not only in on the joke, he is the joke. The Producers is a backstage musical written by a Jew whose colleagues are gay men and whose backers are probably sleazeballs like Max Bialystock, and musical theater pot shots are shoehorned in at every turn. At one point, Leo hollers, "Stop the world, I wanna get on!"; later, his office erupts into a photo-montaged Busby Berkeley routine. In fact, some of the very best bits are Berkeley-inspired: Director Roger de Bris' "common-law assistant" tells him, "You're going out there a silly hysterical queen, but you're coming back a great big passing-for-straight Broadway star!"; later, in the awe-inspiring "Springtime for Hitler" number, Berkeleyesque showgirls appear in towering headgear as dancing storm troopers form a giant swastika.

When we're not marveling at the material, we can enjoy the irony of a backstage show that will inevitably inspire a return to the vaudeville roots of the American musical which, before its Disneyification, used to be about fun and games. The success of The Producers signals the end - at least for a while - of the routine musical, which means we'll be spared an umpteenth revival of Showboat or another string of reworked '80s films-with-music, a trend that peaked with the agreeable Hairspray.

If there's a problem with The Producers, it's that it sets the bar so high that it's a safe bet that decades will pass before another musical will outshine it. And if there's a problem with the road company, it's that it attempts to match the success of the Broadway production by asking its leads to emulate the performances of Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. (Which is pretty darn ironic when you consider that Lane who's often compared to Mostel has made a career of reprising Mostel's roles, notably with his Tony-winning turn in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in the role Mostel originated.) No matter. Much of the audience for this bus-and-truck version won't have seen the New York version, and would probably have settled for an animatronic Nathan Lane if one had been sent here.

The Producers has brought us its spectacle, but not the brainless chandeliers-falling-from-the-sky hoo-ha of other popular shows. Instead, we're wowed by a song about the joys of sex, performed by little old ladies who keep time with their walkers. We're stunned by a number near the end in which Max recounts the entire plot of the show we've just seen, complete with a reference to intermission. And even if we don't get the myriad of musical theater references that are, after all, what The Producers is really about, we can enjoy Brooks' usual brand of larger-than-life humor. In the show's final moments, the Broadway sky blazes with neon signs advertising musical extravaganzas with names like High Button Jews, She Shtups to Conquer, and Death of a Salesman on Ice. Even if you're a high priest of PC who's never been to the theater, that kind of chutzpah is just plain funny.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela