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The Producers, at the St James

In the old days, when we had a weekend house in Connecticut, Kathleen discovered that she could pick up a season's worth of new office clothes if she waited for the sales at the Lord & Taylor store at Danbury Fair Mall. I would drive her down, and then read a book while she exercised her professional-caliber shopping skills by trying on an armload of dresses, choosing three or four to buy - all within an hour (seriously).  Once, though, I wandered around and finally found something that I would dare to recommend to her discriminating attention. It wasn't something to wear to the office, but a modestly form-fitting dress covered in what Kathleen has taught me not to call sequins. The price was better than right, probably thanks to a je-ne-sais-quality that didn't go over well in the countryside. Kathleen tried it on eagerly, while I sat by the cash register and waited. When she came out, she looked so great that I spontaneously cried,  "Let's face it, Roger, that dress is you!" Kathleen burst out laughing, but  the saleslady and another customer eyed us both somewhat nervously. Roger? Perhaps they hadn't seen 'The Producers.' Or maybe they simply hadn't committed chunks of its dialogue to memory. 

When I first heard, last summer I think ('much earlier than that,' says Kathleen), that 'The Producers' was headed for Broadway, my response was not enthusiastic, but by the time tickets went on sale, in early November, I knew that Mel Brooks himself was writing the additional songs, and also that Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick would take on the roles of Max and Leo, played immortally by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the movie - who better? The moment Kathleen saw the ad in the Arts & Leisure section, I got on the phone, even though we were in an Amtrak car speeding through Maryland on our way back to New York. 'Springtime for Hitler' - on Broadway! Every time I thought about it, a few neural circuits would short out. By April 3, the night we went to a preview performance, I was almost sick with anxiety. Would 'The Producers' be a fascinating disaster? Or would I be glad that I'd bought a second pair of tickets, in December, for a performance in May? Milling through the lobby, all I could think of was the scene in the movie where Zero's Max offers the New York Times' drama critic a C-note as a bribe, the better to insure a rotten review. Times have changed, and no one in the crowd looked anywhere near as dapper as the actor playing the critic. But here we really were, on Broadway, about to see - 

"Don't be stupid - be a smarty: Come and join the Nazi party!"

- on Broadway. 

The thrill of seeing the new 'Producers' for the first time was one part religious revival and one part cliffhanger, so in the event I was very glad to have that second pair of tickets, and a chance to appreciate the show's more substantial virtues. A few days before we saw it for the second time, Kathleen remarked that we'd been lucky to see it before it opened and the flood of reviews and faux news items swamped New York. We hadn't known quite what to expect. We'd gone in humming a few bars of  'Springtime for Hitler,' but we hadn't known about the file cabinets, or the pigeons, or the walkers, or the parachutes, or 'A Streetcar Named Murray,' or a gazillion other gags, most of which have been written up in the press or divulged on Charlie Rose. Unforeseen, the gags stunned us into a sort of out-of-body experience, akin to shell-shock, but what kept our nerve-endings from going numb was the thrilling defiance of theatrical probability. The movie rested on the paradox of a terrible show that becomes a hit, but it was a show-within-a-show, at one remove from the moviegoer. In the St. James Theatre, the terrible show is right up there on stage, and yet it's the opposite of terrible. There's Hitler, his arm raised in Nazi salute - how can that be funny? How? Just watch.  

The second time, we could just watch. We could listen to the tunes, which are not, as critics have hinted (no doubt writing in shell-shock), negligible; why, there are at least two and possibly three dancing-school standards among them. We could savor the improvements - the romance, for example, between Leo and his Swedish secretary - as well as the tight knit of the ensemble playing. But most of all, we could see how, at the pinnacle of the entertainment, in the very number that we'd gone in humming, so scrupulously recreated right up to the extraordinary, ominous moment when Gary Beach, playing Roger DeBris playing Adolf Hitler, rises behind the chorus line, poised to shout 'Sieg heil!' - how, at this very moment, 'The Producers' on stage parts company with 'The Producers' on film. Just as the live audience's fear of catastrophe threatens to explode in a geyser of sweat, Mr Beach, turning on the Inner Hitler, balls up in the clench of a diva warming to the adulation of an adoring public, and the adoring public is real. 

To paraphrase one of the hits from another Broadway contender, I've seen the movie, and I've seen the show, and the show is better. Let's face it, Roger: aside from the musical number itself (in which Hitler did not appear), the 'Springtime for Hitler' of 1968 wasn't really  a funny play. ("I lieb' you, I lieb' you, I lieb' you; now lieb' me alone!") One can imagine its two 'dramatic' scenes' being woven into a somewhat larger sketch for 'The Show of Shows,' but even during the sunset of Borscht Belt routine, 'Springtime for Hitler' wasn't credible as a smash hit. Its success was necessary to the plot, of course, so we went along with it, but it was just as farcically improbable as  the nonsense with the dynamite in the theatre basement (happily cut).  But when Gary Beach 'goes into' his clench,  the old corny dialogue gives way to something hugely plausible. Kneeling at the edge of the stage, mouthing a silent but easily-read 'I love you!' to the audience, his Hitler pours forth an ostentatious display of the artistic vulnerability that has held sway on Broadway since the end of Judy Garland's career (maybe Liza Minelli could take over the part).  No doubt about it: a show featuring the twisted inner torments of Adolf Hitler, sung by a wobbly, spot-lit tenor with a thin moustache,  would sell out almost as fast as 'The Producers.' 

Not everything about the show is an improvement. Happily for the movie's actors, the filmed scene in Roger DeBris' boudoir remains the gold standard of Mel Brooks' sketch artistry. On Broadway, it's been tarted up with a crowd of gay stereotypes that crushes the best thing about the scene, Leo's quiet shock at discovering a brave new world that won't shut up. Gene Wilder and Christopher Hewett turned the lighting of a cigarette into an excruciatingly brilliant duet of unwanted seduction. The new version churns out a noisy circus that swallows Leo up, at least until the conga line. And the new Roger has been given New York's third-tallest skyscraper as a dress, prompting Max to tamper with a line that should have gone unaltered. ( Let's face it, Mel, 'that building is you' is one syllable too long.) Exclamations that will be missed, even though it's easy to see why they had to go, include 'I'm not a madam, I'm a concierge!' and 'Well! Talk about bad taste!' (They could stick 'The Führer could dance the pants off Churchill!' back in.) Nevertheless, 'The Producers' is so well done, down to the last of its myriad details, that even the second violists deserve Tonys, whether or not there are any. Director and choreographer Susan Stroman deserves two. 

When we went back to see 'The Producers' last week, I bought some more tickets. Kathleen and I thought that it might be nice to celebrate my birthday in January by taking Megan to see it. When I asked for the next available three-on-the-aisle, however, the computer coughed up March 21, 2002. I had told friends that tickets would be impossible to get after the show opened, but really, March 21! The agent added that Messrs Lane and Broderick would have fulfilled their contractual obligations before that time - did I still want the tickets. Sure. But was it this hard to see Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in 'My Fair Lady'? (April 2001)

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