Around 11:30 last night, Harvey Weinstein — who invested in The Producers with his brother Bob — handed the front-page review from The New York Times to Sarah Jessica Parker. She read it partly aloud and partly to herself, shaking, while her husband, Matthew Broderick, who co-stars in the new hit Broadway show, listened.
It was a rave. Parker smiled. During the intermission last night between acts one and two she had said to this reporter, "Do you think it's good?" She wasn't kidding. She was nervous. Lighting director Peter Kaczorowski said later, "We were all very cautious."
At the party following the opening performance, Harvey and Bob Weinstein's mother, Miriam, summed it up best. How did she like the show? She gave me a double take, then said: "Let's put it this way. Tomorrow I go shopping."
The Producers, written and conceived by Mel Brooks from his classic movie, is the kind of earth-shattering hit Broadway has not seen in years and years. It is quite brilliant and new, while at the same time drawing on a number of clever sources such as Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly!, Your Show of Shows, and the Marx brothers movies.
And yet, not a word of it rings false or seems derivative.
Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are revelations each as the Broadway producers Bialystock and Bloom. Lane's part is showier, and he is so wild in his effort to overcome the ghost of Zero Mostel that it all works. He's like the Tasmanian devil and a whirling dervish as he chews scenery, chews other actors, and chews on himself. You can't take your eyes off of him for a minute.
Broderick gets the mousier role of Leopold Bloom, who does say at one point, bemoaning the lack of excitement in his life, "Will it ever be Bloom's day?" Who knew there was a place in culture where James Joyce and Mel Brooks intersected? But Broderick's part is deceptive. He holds the show together as the voice of reason, and gives Bloom more depth than he had in the movie. He is the nerd's nerd and pulls it off with aplomb.
Of course The Producers wouldn't be complete without ironic references and cues from the past. It's presented at the St. James Theatre, where Hello, Dolly! played for eight years. The centerpiece number, "Springtime for Hitler," is staged similarly to the older show's main famous number, down a long staircase. A following scene, in a courtroom, also has a resonance from the earlier show. At one point, a character calls himself "the German Merman." Ethel Merman, as Dolly, once walked across the very stage.
The opening number of The Producers is almost a parody of "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof. Is it intentional? Zero Mostel was the star of that show and the star of Brooks' movie. From then on, Brooks mixes in bits and pieces of his own work. One character even gets to say, "It's good to be king!"
Susan Stroman, who is now the queen of all theatre, directed The Producers with magic. The scene changes are seamless, the whole thing seems effortless and yet it's so complex that it's almost overwhelming to watch the dance numbers — many of them sly parodies and burlesques — and try to figure out how she does it. It's a mystery.
At one point, a group of old ladies does a whole dance number with walkers — walkers with taps, no less. And "Springtime for Hitler" is over the top but so much — say as in a Mel Brooks movie like History of the World: Part I — that it becomes ridiculous. Stroman reins Brooks in just enough. Their partnership could lead to musical versions of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.
Of course what sums up the whole attitude of The Producers is the revelation that Hitler's middle name is Elizabeth.
Last year when this column broke the news that Brooks was writing this show, I asked him what he'd do about having swastikas. Not politically correct, you know. His response: "There will be lots and lots of swastikas. Lots." He was right. A coat-check girl asks Bialystock and Bloom if they'd like to check their "hats, coats and swastikas." In the "Springtime" sequence, the dancers actually form a swastika in four lines and then dance in a large mirror so the audience can see the image.
A Chorus Line this ain't.
Demi Moore, Other Stars Make It Seem Like an Old-Fashioned Premiere
Following the show, the great number of stars trekked from the St. James to Roseland for the after party. (An after after party, at the Park Club on 10th Avenue, followed.)
Mary Tyler Moore, Demi Moore, Aaron Eckhart, Joan Collins, Glenn Close and Robert Pastorelli, Ellen Barkin and Ron Perelman, Harry Evans and Tina Brown, Jim Dale, Will and Grace's Eric McCormack, You Can Count on Me writer/director Ken Lonergan, Lauren Hutton, and Joan Allen were just some of the folks who turned out.
The show was such a hot draw that both Kathie Lee Gifford (accompanied by husband Frank) and the new Kathie Lee, Kelly Ripa, were in the same room for the first time ever.
Anne Bancroft, the great actress and Brooks' wife, told me later that the evening was bittersweet. "I've known for a long time how good the show was, but I also just lost my mother, so it's been an up and down time."
Broderick, who came to the party in a white dinner jacket, told me he and Lane are committed to the show for one year, but after six months he can take a break to film The Music Man for television. "But I don't mind. In a weird way, I hope there is a strike so there won't be any diversions. I could be in this forever. We're loving it."
Broderick told me that Lane — who is something to behold onstage — screams so loudly in one scene that Matthew has taken to putting "a bit of wax" in. "Otherwise, my ears are ringing." Lane has only just noticed that Broderick is doing this. "I think he understood," Broderick laughed.
Meanwhile, here's a little trivia: It turns out that Stroman was forced to cut a gag from the show because of copyright problems. Lane was supposed to do a riff on "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy, but writer Arthur Laurents refused to allow it. "Stephen Sondheim signed off on it," said my insider, "but Arthur said no, so it had to be cut."
Stroman told me when I asked her about this: "It was just 20 seconds and it didn't matter. I just asked the master joke writer — Mel Brooks — to write a new joke. And he did."
I could go on and on about The Producers — like: How interesting it is that Broderick made his name on Broadway with Neil Simon, who wrote for Your Show of Shows, and now does it again with Brooks, who was sort of Simon's boss. How Brooks has managed to synthesize his physical, visual humor from the screen into something so perfectly stage-like (with the help of Thomas Meehan). And so on and so forth. But for now, know this —Broadway is different this morning. It's managed to relocate its voice.
As Matthew Broderick said as he looked at the premiere, with stars and lights flashing, and people talking about the songs and the funny lines: "It feels like it's 1957 or something."
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