- Purchase/rental options available:
Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 467-469
[Access article in PDF]
The Producers. Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks. St. James Theatre, New York City. 25 November 2001.
Max Bialystock, a sleazy Jewish Broadway producer, has not had a hit in years. His latest show has just opened and bombed; his rented tux is two weeks overdue. At the end of his rope, Bialystock meets Leo Bloom, a nebbish junior accountant. Together they conspire to con investors, produce a sure-fire flop, and make a fortune. The plan includes a Nazi musical called Springtime for Hitler; an outrageously effete homosexual director, Roger de Bris; and two million dollars, which Bialystock must raise by having sex with hundreds of preternaturally aroused little old ladies. The Producers has something to offend everyone, and shortly after its spring 2001 opening, it produced the biggest box office numbers in Broadway history.
Based on the 1968 Mel Brooks movie, The Producers was launched by a top-flight creative team on Broadway and boasted a top-flight cast. Nathan Lane's Bialystock and Matthew Broderick's Bloom were a singularly tender comic partnership and featured actor Gary Beach delivered a camp tour de force as de Bris. The book is slow in places, but it often matches its best performers. The lyrics and melodies are serviceable, and Susan Stroman's choreography and direction are dependably entertaining. But nothing else in the show, not the songs, not [End Page 467] the dancing, not the design, comes close to matching the élan of Lane, Broderick, and Beach. The most interesting thing about The Producers, therefore, is that although it is a good show, most people refuse to admit that it is nothing more. Witness its record number of Tony Awards in 2001, including Best Musical, in spite of an exposition-heavy, occasionally prosaic first act sans cliffhanger at the curtain. How then to explain The Producers's appeal? The transgressive thrill of its political incorrectness may account for something. But The Producers is also a great, big Broadway show in the old tradition, and herein lie the real secrets of its extraordinary popularity.
First, The Producers's own producers are neither British megamusical tycoons nor giant media corporations. After two decades of Lloyd Webber and Disney running Broadway, this came as good news for a lot of people. At the level of the text, however, The Producers challenges a newly corporate Broadway's aesthetic-ideological fundamentals in ways that really make fans stand up and cheer. The show re-awakens two dormant elements native to the American musical: irony and a sense of the local. Prior to 1980, these elements worked together to create a tradition that deployed elements of New York's hybrid musical heritage toward social critique. Chromaticism from the Jews and the dropped seventh of African American song both worked to afford seemingly simple stories, set in real places, ample opportunity for the shading in of dissent (Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, Dreamgirls). After twenty years of alarmingly diatonic, anodyne spectacles set in the postmodern nowhere (Cats, Starlight Express), the musical choices and the deprecating humor at the heart of The Producers have turned audiences back toward the local and the ironic again. The first act's "King of Broadway," for instance, tenderly satirizes the cover of authenticity that a purported training in Yiddish Theatre provides a thoroughly disingenuous Bialystock. Lane and the ensemble revel in its hyper-semitic tonalities and dirty lyrics, and the frenzied number speaks volumes on the pleasures of site-specificity, evoking an ironic New York that now lives mostly in memory.
The pleasures here are substantial, for on twenty-first century Broadway, the local is decidedly political. New Yorkers, long the world's top cultural colonizers, have come to feel colonized themselves [End Page 468] by the takeover of Times Square by transnational entertainment capital and the bland placelessness of its branded semiotic systems. Yet the postmodern nowhere is nowhere to be seen in The Producers. Instead, we have the New York we have all been missing—a mythic...