By Scott Ross
When I first heard that Mel Brooks’ wildly uneven but utterly original 1968 comedy The Producers was being developed as a stage musical, my heart sank. Another adaptation of a movie? This was only in 2000, remember, long before the mad rush to plaster the entirety of Broadway with pre-sold movie titles and “jukebox” shows, yet the trend had already planted its pernicious roots, due largely to the flowering of Michael Eisner’s beloved “synergy”: Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King. It now routinely requires two dozen named producers to mount the average musical in New York; a movie company can spend and spend (and spend — Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, anyone?) in the theatre, and its investment will still be, comparatively, minimal, even relatively painless.
My apprehension for this particular show was largely alleviated when I discovered that Brooks himself was writing the score, and co-authoring the book. Since Brooks has written delicious songs for most of his movies (including of course that subversive ear-worm “Springtime for Hitler”* for the original Producers) even his not being a trained musician/composer did not concern me unduly. After all, neither was Irving Berlin, and he did well enough. But a nagging thought persisted: What in the world could they do with L.S.D.? The character, a brain-addled hippie whose spaced-out inanity garners him the starring role in that self-same Broadway musical Springtime for Hitler, had dated almost immediately, and badly. When I finally saw The Producers, around 1976, after practically memorizing the dialogue on the original soundtrack LP, it was immediately apparent that L(orenzo) S(t.) D(uBois) was one of those topical jokes that doesn’t travel; he was already embarrassingly recherché fewer than 10 years after the movie’s release. Thirty years on he’d be well night insupportable.
I needn’t have worried. Not only did Brooks and his co-writer, Thomas Meehan, dispense with L.S.D., they hit upon the happy notion of setting the show, not in the 1968 of the picture, but in the infinitely more tuneful, fiscally healthy Broadway environs of 1959. The choice of that year does not seem incidental. It was, after all, the apex of big shows with big scores: Flower Drum Song, Elaine Stritch in the Leroy Anderson-scored Goldilocks, Frank Evans and Jay Livingstone’s witty and underrated Oh, Captain!, The Sound of Music. Not to mention such hold-overs as Harold Rome’s Destry Rides Again, the Bock-Harnick Fiorello!, Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer’s Once Upon a Mattress, Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella and, of course, the record-shattering My Fair Lady of three years prior; memories were fresh, too, of Judy Garland’s most recent stage concert, which is not as incidental to The Producers as it may at first appear. As well, ’59 saw the original production of that most perfect of all musical plays, another “musical fable” the alternate brassiness and tendress of whose score (and star) were surely beacons to Brooks: The irreducible, incandescent Merman-starred Gypsy. What an atmosphere for this show’s putative hero, the impoverished yet indefatigable Max Bialystock, not merely to exist, but to thrive! That this incomparable Max was to be portrayed by the equally inimitable Nathan Lane was further indication that something potentially wonderful might be happening.
I’d read and heard nothing of the advance buzz The Producers was generating when I picked up the newly recorded cast album. Merely glancing at the photos tickled me; hearing the score itself sent me into ecstasies. I am fully persuaded that with The Producers, Mel Brooks, already a nearly lifelong hero to me for his almost incredibly nimble brain and indomitable joie de vivre, had written the wittiest — and funniest, which is not always or necessarily the same thing — most tuneful, most intractably memorable original score in years. The finest work by a gifted amateur composer since the heyday of Frank Loesser; the greatest 1959 Broadway musical never produced.
If I had reservations, they were only about Matthew Broderick. I was flummoxed by his ascendancy to the ranks of musical leading men, and remain utterly underwhelmed by his curiously thin and under-powered, uninflected vocalizations. Worse, the character of Leo Bloom had yielded, in Gene Wilder’s simultaneously uniquely hilarious and (to employ a seeming oxymoron) magisterially vulnerable performance, one of the greatest of all comic archetypes. Broderick, as it turned out, sang decently, and even managed some pathos. But where he is merely an acceptable pipsqueak, Wilder, on film, was inspired. Original. Non-pariel. Sui generis. So much so that in his acceptance speech on winning the Academy Award® for Best Original Screenplay, Brook thanked three people: “Gene Wilder, Gene Wilder, and Gene Wilder.”
I missed the inevitable 2005 movie of the show, directed by its original director-choreographer, Susan Strohman, which came and went all too quickly, only catching up with it a few days ago on DVD. Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Guide, suggests that this particular well has been visited once too often, but I respectfully demur. While some of the movie lies in the realm of dutifully filmed theatre, much of it is splendid, and delightfully cinematic. Aspects of the show Brooks could only dream of getting onto the stage (such as Leo’s RKO fantasy of becoming a successful producer and, later, his Astaire and Rogers-inspired dance with the innocently lubricious Ula) reach heights of superbly staged, lit and photographed movie-musical bliss. And while we are, alas, denied the opportunity to relish Cady Huffman and Brad Oscar’s performances as, respectively, Ula and Springtime for Hitler’s Nazi author Franz Liebkind their replacements, Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell, do well enough, although the latter lacks the unsettling genius of the 1968 original, Kenneth Mars. (One can easily imagine the increasingly panicked casting edicts being handed down from nervous studio suits: “All right, all right! We’ll give you Lane, and Gary Beach, and Roger Bart. But you’ve gotta let us sign a couple ’a movie stars!”)
The loss of Beach and Bart would have been, if not disastrous, at least dispiriting. Indeed, they seem to me absolutely essential to the success of the entire enterprise, nearly obliterating the original 1968 performances by Christopher Hewett (the original Karpathy of My Fair Lady) and Andreas Voutsinas (who seemed to me less amusing than unpleasantly sinister.) It is in these two riotously, and magnificently queeny, performances that the great difference between The Producers of 1968 and The Producers of 2001 is most keenly writ. What in the original had seemed unduly vicious and almost militantly homophobic becomes, in the later edition, part of Brooks’ more expansive, even loving, embrace of all things theatrical. His 2001 theatre-fags are deliriously, unabashedly, queer, in the sense not merely of being homosexual but of embracing their sexuality instead of simply embodying a narrow, even hateful, conception of it. Yes, Beach’s character (the exquisitely monickered Roger DeBries) is a pretentious, arty, clueless parvenu and yes, Bart’s languidly over-sibilant Carmen Ghia (another inspired name) is the tired businessman’s conception of the prissy, fawning, dirty-minded little hairdresser. But what in ’68 had been merely mean-spirited had mutated, by the turn of the century, into relaxed, and amused, benevolence. Brooks clearly loves these two swanning loons, and their big production number, the hilariously anachronistic “Keep it Gay” does not so much mock as celebrate the pair’s courageous outrage. It’s the difference between laughing at, and laughing with. The Brooks of 1968 is nervously disdainful. The Brooks of 2001 is having a gay (but straight!) old time of it.
The newer Producers movie would almost be justified if all it did was record for posterity Lane’s phenomenal inventiveness and inspired clowning. Eschewing any imitation of Zero Mostel’s performance, this Bialystock is just as original and, in its way, memorable. And, thanks to the DVD, we’re allowed to enjoy the performer’s mastery of Brooks’ berserk mazurka and crazily over-rhymed couplets in the axed opening number, “The King of Old Broadway.” One can see why it was cut from the picture; Max’s character, and his impecunious state, are established in his first scene with Leo; unless the number had somehow been placed in that scene, the inspired dialogue between the pair becomes almost superfluous. But what a pleasure to find it, if not restored to its rightful spot, at least preserved for those who may cherish it. (Another extra on the disc is the full “Along Came Bialy” in which Lane parades through Central Park like a demented Harold Hill leading not a brass band but a platoon of little old ladies cavorting with their Zimmerman frames. Brooks used a similar gag in his underrated 1976 Silent Movie, but it works even better here.) If Broderick is less felicitous, even he has grown on me, a little, and his innate sweetness shines through, especially in the show’s surprisingly plangent (if Platonic) love duet, “‘Til Him.”†
I next traveled from inspired amateur to prodigious — possibly even profligately — gifted master: From The Producers to the live 1989 Barbicon Centre concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.
A storied flop in its day, its Goddard Lieberson-produced cast recording kept the astonishingly fecund score for Bernstein’s adaptation of Voltaire’s wry satire alive for years and led, eventually, to the vivid (if overly vulgar) 1974 Hal Prince edition that finally established Candide as a genuine American masterwork. Blame for its 1956 failure vary: Lillian Hellman’s book was too studied, arch and didactic, less Voltaire than Bertolt Brecht; Tyrone Guthrie’s staging was too lush yet scatter-shot; the score was too overstuffed and “difficult” for the average Broadwayite’s ear. And while it is true that, in the revival, Hugh Wheeler’s revised book came closer to a sense of the dry outrage of the original’s bitter literary jest, a sort of black comedy avant le lettre, what was undeniable is that it was Bernstein himself who is the true author of the piece. (And that despite the lyrical contributions, in 1956, of John LaTouche, Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker and both Hellman and Lenny himself, and, in ’74, of Stephen Sondheim.)
While there will probably never be a Candide to suit the taste of every fan — there are, after all, multiple versions of numbers like “The Best of All Possible Wolds” and “What a Day (for an Auto-da-fé!)” and the purist will doubtless complain that this latter, “official” version is the poorer for its dropping Sondheim’s “Sheep Song” lyric — the ’89 edition (subsequently released on a double CD set following Bernstein’s untimely death in 1990) is nearly all any aficionado could want, and performed by a cast as treasurable (with one rather notable exception) as may be imagined. The (sadly, late) Jerry Hadley is an appropriately wide-eyed Candide, his warm, rich tenor caressing every plangent note; the deeply-missed Adolph Green makes a superbly ironic Pangloss, cleverly triumphing even over his own vocal limitations; Nicolai Gedda makes delectable feasts of his varied roles; Kurt Ollmann is all one could wish in a Maximilian; and Christa Ludwig is the Old Lady of one’s fondest dreams. Only June Anderson’s Cunegonde disappoints. Felled, as so many in this concert were by what was termed “the Royal Flu,” Anderson is obviously struggling, and one sympathizes. But her diction, in common with far too many of her operatic contemporaries (Erie Mills and Harolyn Blackwell, both of whom have sung the role, are prime examples) is mush-mouthed; she elides over consonants carelessly, and it’s instructive to compare Ludwig’s performance with hers: Despite her Teutonic ethnicity, Ludwig’s every English word is crystal-clear and comprehensible, without resort to ostentatious over-enunciation.
As befits an evening celebrating his most impressive (and in some ways, personal) musical-theatrical work, and not discounting the contributions of others, the concert is really All Bernstein. Although his forays to Broadway were few, in five major attempts he gave us four great shows, and in only a dozen years: On the Town, Wonderful Town, West Side Story and Candide. Other than Sondheim I can think of no other composer of Bernstein’s comparable gifts, not even Gershwin, who authored so many masterworks for the musical stage, and in so brief a time. And while Bernstein’s Candide is both a satire and a knowing opéra bouffe, two genres that would seem to cancel each other out, in his hands they not only mesh, but meld. Surely the wittiest of all Broadway scores — a wit that is reflected as well in its uniquely literate lyrics — yet Candide manages to be moving, profoundly so, especially in its glowing finale, the sublime “Make Our Garden Grow.”
This Candide is unique, too, in that it bests every one of those other opera-and-Broadway hybrids of its time (a genre begun by Bernstein’s own, ill-conceived 1984 “crossover” West Side Story recording.) But then, aside from those of Pangloss and Martin (which Green also assays here) this is a show whose every role requires not merely a good singer, but a great one. I’ve often wondered how Barbara Cook, the original Cunegonde, felt when Lenny handed her the sheet music for “Glitter and Be Gay” and she realized she’d have to hit that culminating high E flat seven times a week. But, aside from its starry cast, what makes the concert so insuperably joyous is Bernstein’s conducting. Peter G. Davis once referred, more in sadness than in anger, to Bernstein’s “ponderous, ‘Late Lenny’ style.” That affectation is in no way in evidence here. This is Candide in excelsis, as buoyant and infectious, as incandescent and sparkling, as the night the show premiered. Bernstein is so relaxed, and so clearly loving every moment, that, on top of his patented “Lenny Leap,” he often levitates in place, dancing in wriggling pleasure.
His delight is ours as well.
*Brooks claims he’s even heard the song as Muzak in elevators; I don’t doubt him.
†Side-note: Is it just me, or does the actor’s carefully chiseled chest now seem weirdly over-developed? It unbalances his diminutive frame, looking less like musculature than a male bodice.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross