Mel Brooks Updates 'The Producers'

Wednesday, February 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) — Mel Brooks feels like a kid again.

Some might see that as odd for the director whose filmography spans five decades and includes ``Blazing Saddles,'' ``Young Frankenstein'' and ``Spaceballs.''

But here's the ''2000-Year-Old Man'' (now 74) invigorated by his latest venture, a $10 million musical based on his Academy Award-winning 1967 comedy icon, ``The Producers.''

``This has been wonderful. It's awakened the child in me,'' he says one recent afternoon while awaiting rehearsal at the Cadillac Palace. ``I got in this business not even thinking it was a business. I thought it was just a joyous romp, a dream, you know, something you did after work.

``And then after a while, I didn't realize it but I became a cog in a big machine called the movie industry. I felt like I was just turning out boxes of Cornflakes and I got lost.

``It's the first time I've been back to why I'm in show business: Because I love it.''

``The Producers,'' Brooks' first feature film, won a best screenplay Oscar for the comedian, who gained early fame with a routine he and Carl Reiner developed called ``The 2,000-Year-Old Man.'' The movie also earned a supporting actor nomination for Gene Wilder.

More than 30 years after ``The Producers'' hit movie houses, Brooks has rewritten and reworked the film for the stage with the help of writer and friend Thomas Meehan and Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman.

Rehearsals began in New York in December, and the Chicago tryout runs through Feb. 25. The musical opens on Broadway April 19 with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the lead roles made famous by Zero Mostel and Wilder. The production is the most anticipated show of the spring season with an advance sale expected to top $10 million by the time it opens at the St. James Theatre.

Funny thing, reawakenings. They can be infectious and inspirational.

``He is one of the reasons we wanted to do it,'' says Lane. ``I wanted to make this journey and say I worked with Mel Brooks. He's been — I hate to use the word — he's been adorable. I've never seen a human being happier and obviously invigorated by this whole process.''

Fans of the film will recognize the story line.

Has-been Broadway producer Max Bialystock, played by Lane, seduces little old ladies for money, pining to get back on top. Broderick plays mild-mannered accountant Leo Bloom, who unwittingly gives Bialystock the plot to hit the jackpot. Together they scheme to find the worst play ever written, oversell subscriptions and abscond with the money when it flops. Unfortunately for them, ``Springtime for Hitler'' is a raging success and a ticket to jail.

``It's a peculiar thing to have it all in your head,'' says Broderick. ``We both know the movie so well that it's not like we can forget fairly anything except lines that are new for this. I don't have to turn on the VCR to watch that movie.''

While keeping the story line, the musical needed new material. Brooks wrote 17 new songs for his love letter to Broadway. Brooks and Meehan, friends for more than 30 years, collaborated on new plot twists and a new ending. Stroman set it all to dance and is directing with an eye toward a modern audience.

``An audience today has a more cinematic eye,'' she says. ``People want the lyric and the choreography and the staging to all push the plot forward.''

Stroman won a Tony Award in 1992 for her choreography for ``Crazy for You'' and her latest Broadway work was directing and choreographing a revival of ``The Music Man.'' Stroman's impeccable credentials notwithstanding, Brooks is taking new steps of his own by ceding direction.

``I'm not used to it because for the last 25 years I have been the director of everything I've written,'' he says. ``However, I can say today I am head over heels in love with Susan Stroman. She is singularly talented and she knows she owes the audience a great show.''

The feeling is mutual.

``I tell you he's been completely gracious of spirit and he has worked with me as a writer,'' she says. ``That's all he's here to do is write and add jokes and I think it's given him a sense of freedom to just let humor and jokes and ideas come out without having to worry.''

A fan of Brooks' work, Stroman first met him only two years ago.

``I opened the front door and he didn't even say hello. He launched full voice into a song called 'That Face,' which opens Act 2,'' she says. ``He sang 'That Face' full out, danced down my long New York hallway and ended up on top of my sofa, and then he said hello to me. I was endeared to him immediately.''

It took less time than a Brooksian production number up Stroman's hallway for Meehan to sign on to ``The Producers.''

``When he said, 'Would you be interested in working with me on a musical for Broadway of 'The Producers'? it took me about a nanosecond to say yes,'' he says.

The two wrote two movies together, ``To Be or Not to Be,'' which starred Brooks and wife Anne Bancroft, and ``Spaceballs.'' Brooks says he turned to Meehan because of his work on the book for the Broadway musical ``Annie'' in 1977.

``Tom gets all the laughs you need but he skillfully knows how to emotionalize and suddenly you're crying at the end and you don't know why,'' Brooks says.

``The Producers'' is ``a really brilliant piece of work and we've tried to keep exactly the truth of this work and not distort it and yet totally change it,'' Meehan says. And it's still the movie in a sense but it's a whole new thing.''

And that gives cover for Broderick and Lane, who are taking on roles with the imprimaturs of Mostel and Wilder.

``Everyone brings that up because the movie is a cult classic and beloved by many and has indelible performances from Zero and Gene,'' Lane says. ``Yes, they will always be Max and Leo to me, but you know they are such great characters, I'm very happy to be borrowing them.''

Stroman takes the sentiment further.

``Now when you see Max Bialystock sing and dance and when you see Leo Bloom sing and dance, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are these parts and the way they've been created now, Zero and Gene couldn't do this. So, in fact, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick have made it very much their own.''

The two actors have been able to create the roles in their likenesses partly through their developing offstage friendship. Broderick says it could lead to further professional collaborations.

``You don't want to put the whammy on it, you know — we haven't done this yet,'' he says. ``But, yeah, it feels like a good match.''

And so Mel, the adorable and endearing ex-movie industry cog, has not only rewritten his love letter to the theater, he's inspired a lovefest among cast and crew, played matchmaker, rekindled an old relationship and revived his spirit.

``He's a true genius,'' Meehan says without guile.

``Oh, I'm not a true genius,'' Brooks replies. ``I'm a near genius. I would say I'm a short genius. I'd rather be tall and normal than a short genius.''

But he likes being a kid again most of all.


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