A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
The Producers
Who said movies do not make good musicals? If I did, I take it back. My favorite movie has opened as my favorite musical: Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” This is a great evening in the theater, one of those joyful creations where everything comes together, an effect achieved only by hard work and close attention to every detail. Susan Strohman directs and choreographs Brooks’ zany book (with Thomas Meehan) and musical numbers. And Nathan Lane is nothing short of brilliant as 1959 producer Max Bialystock (in a Kermit Bloomgarten hat), while Matthew Broderick is impressive as Leo Bloom -- no, not the James Joyce hero, but a wimp accountant who leaves the drudgery of accountancy for the glamour of showbiz. It is Leo who inadvertently sparks their producing partnership by suggesting creative accounting whereby a Broadway flop (unlike a hit) can make its producers really, really rich if they oversell investments they will not have to repay.

Having just opened his umpteenth flop, “Funny Boy: Hamlet, the Musical,” Max is ready to try the venture, wooing elderly women to invest for percentages (reaching 1,000) of the show. Charmed by Max’s promise of sex games, they hand over checks made out to “cash,” the show’s working title. Max and Leo search for a surefire flop, reading piles of scripts, including Kafka’s “Metamorphoses,” and light upon one written by neo-Nazi Franz Liebkind called “Springtime for Hitler.” Broadway’s worst director, transvestite Roger De Bris, is engaged, his entourage celebrating his acceptance with a lilting, Hollywood musical-type number, “Keep It Gay.” Opening night disasters begin when the star, Franz, hailed with the traditional good wish, “break a leg,” does so. Unable to go on as Hitler, he is replaced by the director. Unfazed, Max is even more certain than an effeminate Hitler will insure the production’s failure.

As the show within the show unfolds with its big production number, “Springtime for Hitler,” a tenor introduces a bevy of Ziegfeld-like beauties parading down stairs and wearing elaborate costumes and headdresses satirizing every German stereotype you can think of, from pretzels to beer to the Nazi emblem, as the chorus line of women in boots and leather jackets goose-step, singing “Springtime for Hitler and Germany/ Winter for Poland and France.” The high point is the appearance of a campy, dancing and singing Hitler (that may owe something to Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator.)

As Max and Leo at first gloat and then despair, the stage audience loves it as much as the real audience. Ruined, Max goes to jail, Leo takes off with the money and their sexy receptionist, as Max in the courtroom delivers his brilliant “Betrayed” a fast-forward reprise of all the show’s numbers. In a mercifully short denouement, Leo returns, conscience-stricken, to defend Max. The show ends with a Shubert Alley montage of the producing team’s successes – their titles all parodies, like “South Passaic.”

While the book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan follows that of the movie and enlarges on its already hilarious production number, “Springtime,” credit Mel Brooks with the music and lyrics that satirize movie musicals like the lugubrious “Prisoners of Love” (with the heroes as real prisoners) or the cheerily optimistic “We Can Do It.” Add to these the “The King of Broadway,” a pseudo-kletzmer and “Haben Sie Gehoert Das Deutsche Band?” a pseudo-German folk song sung by Franz trying out for the role of Hitler. If memory serves, Mel Brooks performed the last-named in the film, in full, medal-decorated uniform, contending for the role but rejected. (He does get to play Hitler in his film “To Be or Not to Be”)

Credit director-choreographer Susan Strohman for the wit, pace, and invention with which she shapes Mel Brooks’ comic creation into a hit that exemplifies Broadway at its best. (St. James Theater, 246 W. 44 Street, New York, N.Y. 10036, phone 212-239-6200)