"The Producers"

June 5, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPOKESPERSON: And the winner is… “The Producers.”

SPOKESPERSON: Gary Beach, “The Producers.”

SPOKESPERSON: Susan Stroman, “The Producers.”

SPOKESPERSON: They’ve broken the record– “The Producers.”

RAY SUAREZ: It was that kind night for “The Producers”– the Broadway phenomenon that took a record 12 Tony Awards including three for the musical’s creator, Mel Brooks.

MEL BROOKS: I am going to have to do the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, act humble.

RAY SUAREZ: Since it opened in April, the show has smashed box office records on the way to becoming the hottest show on Broadway in more than two decades. Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, the show’s costars, joked about the success at Sunday night’s Tony Awards ceremony.

MATTHEW BRODERICK: This is a megahit. This is a juggernaut.


MATTHEW BRODERICK: There will never be a bigger hit and I will never be more powerful. I’m the king of the world! Woo! (Laughter )

NATHAN LANE: Please, please, a little humility might hp.

MATTHEW BRODERICK: That word is no longer in my lexicon. ( Laughter )


MATTHEW BRODERICK: This is a Matthew world and you’re just living in it.

RAY SUAREZ: All this for a show that’s more a throwback to vaudeville and old-time Broadway, than the kind of lavish productions that are now the mainstay of musical theater.

WOMEN SINGING: We want to be a producer we cry ouch… Yoo-hoo! Oh! Ooh!

RAY SUAREZ: The show is based on Mel Brooks’ own 1968 movie starring Zero Mostel as the conniving producer Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as the feckless accountant Leo Bloom.

ACTRESS: Well, talk about bad taste. ( Singing )

PEOPLE SINGING: Springtime for Hitler and Germany…

RAY SUAREZ: The pair, played on Broadway by Broderick and Lane, who took home the best actor Tony, scheme to produce a show that will bomb, so that they can bilk their investors.

MATTHEW BRODERICK: The two cardinal rules of being a Broadway producer are: One, never put your own money in the show. ( Laughter )


MATTHEW BRODERICK: ( Shouting ) Never put your own money in the show!

RAY SUAREZ: To their surprise, their tasteless creation called “Springtime for Hitler” is a smash hit, and the two are sent up to Sing Sing for their transgressions.

PEOPLW SINGING: Good day for bombs good time for bombs but we’re still prisoners, we’re still prisoners, we’re still prisoners…

RAY SUAREZ: Brooks, whose trademark is manic wit and creative shtick, won Tonys for writing the score and the script.

MEL BROOKS: I want to thank Hitler… (Laughter) …for being such a funny guy on stage.

RAY SUAREZ: He crafted a farce that satirizes everything from Nazis, to sex-crazed widows, to stereotypes of gay culture.

ACTOR: Italy

ACTOR: keep it gay…

ACTORS: Keep it gay…

RAY SUAREZ: Even with a top admission price of $100, “The Producers” has confidently moved ahead with advance sales through Christmas 2002. (Cheers and applause)

RAY SUAREZ: So, what’s so funny about “The Producers”? We get three views: Bob Mondello is the arts critic for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered”; Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the upcoming book “The Golems of Gotham,” a professor at Fordham Law School where he teaches a course on law and literature. He wrote about “The Producers” in the Los Angeles Times.” And Daniel Mendelsohn is the book critic for the “New York Magazine” and a lecturer at Princeton University. He wrote about “The Producers” for the “New York Review of Books.” Well, there we saw Adolph Hitler, guests, author of some of the greatest crimes in history, the man who may have single-handedly destroyed Europe. Thane Rosenbaum, is it okay to laugh?

THANE ROSENBAUM: Well, Mel Brooks is — in some ways insists on it. I guess the idea and very much the paradox of the original film and now the play is that there is the idea of having a play, a musical, that is supposed to be so revolting that everyone would be turned off and that ultimately it would lose money. But the paradox is that it didn’t lose money in the film and it’s a huge success now on Broadway as a musical. And I suppose the idea is that as a culture and a society, we are no longer shocked by atrocity — and maybe that’s Brooks’ original prophetic vision, that we would become inured and desensitized to shock and horror and that Hitler would eventually become funny to us as he was in the film and now even more so in the play.

RAY SUAREZ: Bob Mondello?

BOB MONDELLO: He was actually funny before that. He was funny when Charlie Chaplain did something about him in “The Great Dictator.” There’s a long history of making fun of Nazis. It started in Germany. It has developed since. I mean, for heaven’s sakes, Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” just two years ago, I guess, won the best foreign film Oscar for doing much the same thing. I thought rather… I mean, if you had questions of taste, that one really sort of bugged me. This is vaudeville shtick. This is a fun show.

RAY SUAREZ: And Daniel Mendelsohn?

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: Well, I tend to agree. I think that the problem here is, is anything taboo anymore? And I think that what the real question is, is this as funny or funny in the same way as the original film of “The Producers” was in 1968? And I think that’s the really interesting sort of cultural barometer, which in 1968, Brooks who himself fought in World War II was, you know, making a musical about Hitler, a movie about a musical about Hitler, for people who had fought in the war and to sort of sing “Springtime for Hitler” in 1968 had a kind of a different value. And I think, if anything, the success of this show just shows that you can sort of reprocess everything into something that, in fact, is not outrageous, but quite safe. I mean after “Life is Beautiful” and after the Leni Riefenstahl coffee table book, how outrageous is it to think about a musical about Hitler?

RAY SUAREZ: So the function of time here is to move it from being truly transgressive in 1968 to something that no longer has its ability to shock now and is sort of funny, fun?

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: Yeah, I think that it is about not moving things along. I think that we are not shockable, really, anymore. I think that the Mel Brooks that people, in a kind of nostalgic way, are going to see, I mean, that’s one of the big reasons that this is a huge thing. People love Mel Brooks because he’s so outré and crazy. I think this is such a not Mel Brooks production because it is so smooth and processed and it’s… it was a sure thing a year ago when the buzz started. There’s nothing provocative about this.

RAY SUAREZ: Thane Rosenbaum, you were trying to jump in there.

THANE ROSENBAUM: Well, I think that the movie itself was much more provocative and the nazis played a larger role in the film in terms of the sense of revulsion and outrage. Here in the musical, everything is up for grabs. Brooks is unsparing in taking shots at all kinds of cultural artifacts, political correctness issues and that perhaps for me, Ray, it’s not so much that the passage of time makes Hitler more humorous. It’s just the way our culture has progressed and advanced and the way in which we process images in a kind of second-to-second moment through Jerry Springer programs, the “Survivor” realistic television programs, we’ve become very much desensitized and inured to shock and atrocity and horror. And the… I was noting, I was mentioning to Daniel that the shot that you showed of the film which people begin to leave the theater doesn’t even exist in this musical.

RAY SUAREZ: Not at $100 a head anyway.

THANE ROSENBAUM: Exactly. You would never see anyone get up and leave. It’s because nobody believes that anymore today. There’s no real distinction between theater that is meant to entertain and theater that is meant to offend. It’s all ultimately the same. Everything is fair game for satire and mockery.

RAY SUAREZ: Bob, do we make a mistake if we concentrate too much on Hitler? Isn’t this just as much making fun of showbiz and its convention?

BOB MONDELLO: It’s all about showbiz. You saw in the clips that it’s vaudeville shtick. They’re really doing old-time vaudeville. It’s about, you know, “never put your own money in the show” — that kind of thing. That’s what they’re doing about everything; you have seig-heiling pigeons in the… pigeon puppets, which are hysterical but hysterical, I guess, because we’re distant from it, but also partly because a puppet of a pigeon raising its wing on cue is hysterical. What we’re dealing with is the way that – the way that theater makes these things, I guess, less dangerous. I mean, isn’t that the point? If Mel Brooks is trying to do a serious show about Nazis, then this is a totally unsuccessful effort here. This is a showbizzy, splashy musical that people are paying a fortune to go and see so that, you know, they know in advance they’re not going to be insulted if… or annoyed or anything else by the show. I don’t think it’s an issue while you’re watching it. It would be much easier to be offended by the gay stereotypes, I should think. There’s even a black stereotype in one of the segments. And they are being received in much the same way by the audience, that this is… it’s obvious Mel Brooks is being a hoot, as he always does.

RAY SUAREZ: And there was not a great deal of comment, Daniel Mendelsohn, about that. As I went through all the clips over the last six to nine months, there wasn’t a lot of hand wringing over this. It finally culminates in the Tony Awards with him holding part of a comb under his upper lip.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: Right. Well, again, I don think it’s… You know, the gay stuff I think — I agree — I think there’s certainly a lot more ranting about gays than there is about Hitler in this musical, but, again, I just think that we’re past the point… Look, I mean, this is… Certainly at this point in the evolution of the performance history of this, this is being seen by New Yorkers, right, and there are in-jokes by Nathan Lane in the course of the performance about his own homosexuality. This is not an audience that is going to freak out because there’s a drag queen onstage dressed up as Anastasia, right? So I think that we’re just past the point. But just to go back for a moment to what was just said about, isn’t that the point making it safe? I would have to say that what this really tells us – the success of this — is that to generations of the musical, this is really about Broadway in a kind of deep sense as a real vehicle for expressing anything interesting or serious about, you know, American culture other than its ability to eat its own products and spit them back out in a shinier way. You know, there’s another revival on Broadway right now, and that’s “Follies” which is Stephen Sondheim’s musical about musicals. It’s a sort of interesting parallelism. And that’s a musical that is really about something that is sort of disturbing and upsetting in a lot of ways and also musical and wonderful. And I think it’s interesting to sort of pair these two things. Yes, they’re both vaudeville; they’re both about musicals and how they get produced, but it just shows that you… You know, maybe it’s impossible. Maybe the musical a forum for really expressing something is kind of over it by now, and this is just rehash, which is, you know, what Broadway is really about at this point. So it has kind of been processed and made safe. And, you know, I don’t think that’s such a wonderful thing for an art form, but maybe that’s what’s happened.

RAY SUAREZ: Thane Rosenbaum, is Daniel Mendelsohn right? Is that art made safe? Is it really no more complicated than “42nd Street” which is also in revival on Broadway right now?

THANE ROSENBAUM: Well, the thing is — Daniel is absolutely correct. It’s just the question is — and that’s the central question that you’re asking here today — is Hitler different? Is the Third Reich different? Is there the capacity or the potential for farce, the same ideas of recreation and reinvention and art, the same when you’re dealing with a mass murderer as well as a madman? I mean, the thing that is just somehow lost in this entire narrative and this incredible adulation about “The Producers” is that – and I think Bob Mondello is right when he says there’s a long history of satire about the Nazis, and perhaps they were always hilarious. They were, in fact, less hilarious after the Holocaust than when “To Be or Not To Be” was made, or when Charlie Chaplain made “The Great Dictator.” There was perhaps more justifiable humor about the absurdity of Hitler before we realized who he really was and what he was really capable of doing, which is why the sensitivities became more profound, which is precisely why the film, the original film was, in fact, so controversial and I believe, neither a critical nor commercial success. So here you have the incredible irony that the film that was not much of a success and that did get criticism for the fact that it trampled on profound sensitivities, today in making the musical about the musical that was supposed to close after one night’s performance, in fact, is the greatest hit in the history of Broadway. And I think it says a lot about us, it says a lot about popular culture and it says something about Mel Brooks.

BOB MONDELLO: That’s a little scary. The greatest hit in the history of Broadway only a few weeks after it opens is unnerving. If it runs as long as “Chorus Line,” I’ll give you that. I think this show – this is a nice little show, you know, and there was a time when it would have run for a couple of years. It is now going to run for more than five. People are going to go crazy over it for awhile. It’s cute. It’s funny. It’s not trying to be anything terribly serious. I’m thinking about… There was a letter to the editor of the “New York Times” not too long ago about someone asking, would you write a hysterical musical right now about Columbine? Could you get away with that?” And the answer, of course, is right now, absolutely not. There’s no way. We’re too close. And I don’t know that you could ever do such a show in a high school, but it isn’t inconceivable to me that someone would find a way to do a satirical piece about – I don’t know — the NewsHour and develop a skit that had to do with Columbine that was legitimately funny within the context of the NewsHour, because you’ve taken it one step away. What “The Producers” does is take this notion of Hitler and put it inside a show and then make fun of the show. That’s safe. And actually the movie originally did that too, because otherwise you could never do that. And I think you could do the same thing today with other subjects.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Mendelsohn?

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: Well, I have to say that it’s very interesting to hear that because I think the… There’s something else that’s going on here about the evolution of the career of Mel Brooks. I think that the old Mel Brooks, you know, would have made a funny musical about Columbine three years after it happened. I mean, that’s the whole point. I think, you know, so much of what Brooks was about was just pushing the limits of tastelessness. I think as a kind of form of humor traditionally, having your face rubbed in the extreme kind of drecky kitsch that he loves to throw out is a form of release for audiences. You know, we don’t have to worry about how good or tasteful it is. And that’s what so much of his humor was about. You look at these old movies of his and they’re just these sort of strung together, outrageous skits, really, in which he just pushes everything to the limit. And I would say that 30 years ago, Mel Brooks would have looked at Columbine and found something to, you know, to stick into his next movie. And that is very different now. You know, I think this is a guy who has done a lot and he’s relaxing now and having a good time and it doesn’t, you know, I don think he would do , but I think he would have done it.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Mendelsohn, Thane Rosenbaum, Bob Mondello, thank you all.