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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Where did we go right?

The 'flop' that was bound to be a long-running Broadway hit

Special to The Japan Times

When it opened on Broadway in the spring of 2001, Mel Brooks' musical comedy "The Producers" became an instant cultural phenomenon steeped in irony. The day after its premiere, 33,000 tickets were sold at $100 each, a record high price, and the production was able to pay off its initial investment of $11 million in a mere 36 weeks.

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(from left, front) Andy Taylor, Bob Amaral, Stuart Marland and Rich Affannato, with the company of Mel Brooks' hit musical comedy "The Producers"

The irony is that the play itself is about two men who stage a Broadway musical hoping that it's a flop. In 1959, cynical theatrical producer Max Bialystock and milquetoast accountant Leo Bloom raise several million dollars for their production by overselling fraudulent shares. They then sink only a tenth of the money into the show with the idea that when it closes after one performance they can keep the rest. Naturally, it's a hit.

Brooks based "The Producers" on his 1968 movie of the same name starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, which was itself an homage to the musical comedies he loved while growing up in New York. By adding real songs, the 2001 theatrical version completes the homage, which is another irony: The musical that many believe saved Broadway is a throwback to the musical comedies that dominated the White Way up to the 1960s.

"There hadn't been any new musical comedies for years when it opened," says Bob Amaral from his hotel room in Austin, Texas, where he is playing Max Bialystock in the touring company of "The Producers" that will come to Japan in July. "Mel essentially brought back the book musical. 'Les Miserables' and 'Phantom' -- there's very little book. Here, there's a story and then there's music that complements the story."

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"We Will Rock You" (above) and the Japanese staging of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" are just two of this summer's musicals in Tokyo.
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Brooks also wrote the music and lyrics, and he's said that each song is a tribute to a favorite Broadway composer or musical style. The songs are pastiche -- no one is going to turn them into hits in the way songs from the classic musicals of the past were. But it isn't the music that's made "The Producers" a smash -- it's the laughter.

The truth is, comedy hasn't driven the Broadway musical since the '50s. Starting in the '40s with "Oklahoma!," composers and librettists have tried to elevate the musical to an art form. In the '60s they adapted fine literature and rock composers took on contemporary social problems. In the '70s, Stephen Sondheim grafted art songs onto high-concept theatrical conceits. The '80s saw the invasion of European bombast, and the '90s the dominance of Walt Disney and "Rent."

"The Producers" uses comic archetypes that emerged during the Golden Age of musical comedy and which have mostly disappeared since then. "Mel started out as a writer for Sid Caesar's TV show in the '50s," Amaral says, referring to the man who is often credited with inventing TV skit comedy. "Caesar was known as a bull in a china shop." Amaral also mentions Phil Silvers, the bald vaudeville comic who became a star in the mid-'50s with his own situation comedy in which he played a bluff marine sergeant who will do anything to make a buck. "Mel had nothing to do with [Silver's] Sgt. Bilko show, but Max is the same kind of character, a bossy, know-it-all, take-charge kind of guy."

Like Caesar and Silvers, Max is also Jewish. If Mel Brooks is remembered for anything 100 years from now, it will be for mainstreaming Jewish humor by making fun of Jewish stereotypes. In that regard, the character of Max is for many people inseparable from Zero Mostel, another great Jewish comedian. Insiders say that Brooks named Max's co-conspirator Leo Bloom after Leopold Bloom, the Jewish everyman hero of James Joyce's "Ulysses," who Mostel made his show-business comeback playing in a 1958 off-Broadway production called "Ulysses in Nighttown" after having been blacklisted for not naming names of suspected communists in front of the U.S. House's Un-American Activities Committee.

"I never saw [actor] Nathan [Lane] do it on Broadway," Amaral admits. "The only example I had was Zero. I was a huge fan of Zero's." Amaral once worked in a production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," a burlesque take on an ancient Roman comedy with songs by Stephen Sondheim. "Did you know that ["A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"] was written for Phil Silvers? Somehow he wasn't available and Zero was the second or third choice. It became his trademark and made him a star. Until then he was just a nightclub performer."

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Bob Fosse's choreography ignites the stage in "Chicago"

Mostel's precision and manic energy, contained in his huge body and rubbery features, remains for many the ideal delivery system for Brooks' fast Jewish toilet humor, and even if the movie sometimes strains for jokes, Mostel's performance ranks with those of the greatest film comedians of all time. But as Amaral points out, not many people got it.

"It was '68, less than 25 years after World War II," he says, in reference to the musical's main joke: The script that Max and Leo plan to turn into a flop is a "musical romp" featuring Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun and written by an unreformed Nazi. "We're talking about a Fuhrer, who in the movie was on LSD. And you've got all these German stereotypes and these dancing swastikas."

Unlike "Springtime for Hitler," the play-within-the-movie, the movie itself was not a hit, though it was popular with stoners who dug the surreal goofiness as well as anti-establishment types who appreciated Brooks's irreverence.

When he first saw it, Amaral was going to acting school in Boston. "It was one of the first movies I ever quoted lines from," he recalls. "It wasn't critically acclaimed even though it won the Academy Award for best original screenplay. Not a lot of people know that. But nobody saw it and critics were panning it, and then Peter Sellers wrote a letter that was published in Variety saying, 'Don't listen to the critics. This is the funniest movie I've ever seen.' And so a few more people went to see it, but only much later did it become a cult hit."

What's startling about the musical version is that while the style of humor seems quaint, the irreverence feels sharper than ever. Brooks was never a comic revolutionary. Like his music, his movies were strictly parodies of familiar forms -- westerns ("Blazing Saddles"), horror movies ("Young Frankenstein"), Hitchcock thrillers ("High Anxiety"). He never felt the need to grow into something more sophisticated the way Woody Allen did.

People accept his adolescent mischievousness because they feel they know him. Mel Brooks is an institution. In the musical, he not only has fun with Nazis, but also has a black accountant sing a minstrel number ("I debits all duh mornin' an' I credits all duh ebenin' "); introduces a big-busted dumb Swedish blonde ("When You Got It, Flaunt It"); and has Max raise money by prostituting himself to rich little old ladies with walkers. "Let's play one game with no sex," says Max to one insatiable old nympho. "How about the Jewish Princess and Her Husband?"

Amaral thinks that it is this uncompromising willingness to offend anyone and everyone that is at the heart of the musical's popularity. "What Mel is saying is that we've gotta laugh at ourselves. The PC thing has gone way overboard. I can't remember the city we were in, but I went into a farmer's market one day and this woman was behind the counter and she said, 'I saw the show last night, and I'm from Germany and I loved it.' I asked her if it would go over in Germany and she said, 'I think it would be a huge hit.' " He adds with a laugh, "That's taking a chance that I'm not sure I'm willing to take."

He could probably be persuaded. Max Bialystock sounds like Amaral's dream role. "I'm 56 years old," he says, "so I'm very familiar with Mel's take on comedy, his delivery." He explains how he read the part in front of Brooks and director Susan Stroman. "My favorite line is when Max tells Franz Liebkind, the author of 'Springtime for Hitler,' to go out and kill all the actors, and Leo says, 'You can't kill the actors. They aren't animals, they're human beings.' And Max's response is, 'They are? Have you ever eaten with one?' Now, I did that at the reading and Mel goes [dead-on Brooks impersonation], 'That was perfect!' Of course it was perfect. It's been my favorite movie line for 35 years."

"The Producers": July 6, 7, 15, 19 and 21 at 7 p.m.; July 8, 12, 13 and 22 at 3:30 and 7 p.m.; July 9, 16, 17 and 23 at 12:30 and 6 p.m.; July 10, 18 and 24 at 12:30 p.m. Tokyo Koseinenkin Kaikan, Shinjuku. 9,000-13,000 yen yen. Kyodo Tokyo, (03) 3498-6666.

The sound of musicals is in the air this summer. Here's a sampling of the summer's song and dance:

The sound of musicals

In English

"Chicago": The movie was cute but a sham, since it jettisoned what made the stage version legendary -- Bob Fosse's steamy choreography. As with "Cabaret," whose songs were also written by John Kander and Fred Ebb and whose film version was directed by Fosse, this is a cynic's view of decadent show biz life set between the wars. But "Chicago" is funny, since it's about murder and celebrity, the two great American pastimes. This revival was overseen by Ann Reinking, who played Roxie in the original Fosse production.

Aug. 11, 12, 17, 19, 24 & Sept. 1 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, 28 & Sept. 3 at 1 & 6 p.m.; Aug. 18, 25, 31 & Sept. 2 at 2 & 7 p.m.; Sept. 4 at 1 p.m. Tokyo International Forum, Yurakucho. 8,000-12,000 yen yen. Kyodo Tokyo, (03) 3498-6666.

"We Will Rock You": Brian May and Roger Taylor have given their blessings to Ben Elton's fantasy musical made up of Queen songs. The plot has something to do with a future society where all instruments are banned and music is only available via download. (Take that, Metallica!) This Australian production's "Grease"-like sets and "Rocky Horror"-style costumes only add to the cannibalized atmosphere, but every Queen song you love is here and sung by huge choruses, which is probably the way Freddie Mercury heard them in his head.

Through Aug. 24 daily, except Mondays and July 12; at 1:30 p.m.& 7 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and holidays, and 7 p.m. all other days. Shinjuku Koma Stadium, Tokyo. 9,450 yen and 12,600 yen. Box office, (03) 3200-2213.

"Titanic": This big, lumbering musical about the big, lumbering trans-Atlantic liner actually came out before the big, lumbering movie, but just barely. It has nothing plotwise to do with James Cameron's creature -- it's more historically rigorous -- but the producers have apparently found a way to shoehorn the movie's theme song into the score. Winner of five Tony Awards.

Aug. 19 at 7 p.m., Aug. 20 & 21 at 1 & 6 p.m., Theatre Brava, Osaka. 8,000-12,000 yen yen. Kyodo Osaka, 06-6233-8888. Aug. 24, 26, 29 & 30 at 7 p.m., Aug. 25 at 2 & 7 p.m., Aug. 27 at 1 & 6 p.m., Aug. 28 at 2 p.m., Showa Women's University, Sangenjaya, Tokyo. 8,000-12,000 yen yen. Sunrise, (0570) 00-3337.

In Japanese

"The Producers": Yoshihiko Inohara and Hiroshi Nagano of Johnny's Jimusho play, respectively, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom.

Aug. 13-31, Aoyama Gekijo, Tokyo. 9,500-12,000 yen yen. Teledome, 0180-993-545.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch": The movie version of John Cameron Mitchell's off-Broadway musical about a transsexual rock singer was a surprise hit in Japan, and this stage version has been selling out everywhere it's played for the past year.

July 11-15 at 7 p.m., July 16 at 4 p.m., Zepp Tokyo, Odaiba. 6,000 yen and 8,000 yen. Parco, (03) 3477-5858.

Shiki Theatre Company: Because they make exclusive deals for the productions they take on, Japan's biggest theater company is the only place you can see the world's most popular musicals in Japan. If Shiki performs it, then even foreign touring companies can't stage it here. Among the productions starting runs in August are Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love" and George Gershwin's "Crazy for You." Open-ended runs include "The Lion King," "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Aida," and "Beauty and the Beast." The productions are all in Japanese, but the company's Web site, which includes all schedules, venues and explanations, is also in English. www.shiki.gr.jp/index.html

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