' Producers' prepares for London opening after tumultuous few weeks

Tuesday, November 9th 2004, 10:15 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ After a choppy trans-Atlantic journey, ``The Producers'' is ready to take on London.

Three and a half years after it wowed New York _ and three weeks after it lost its star in disputed circumstances _ the Mel Brooks musical opens Tuesday in London's West End at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

The curtain goes up without Richard Dreyfuss, the Academy Award-winning actor who was to play the unscrupulous showman Max Bialystock. Dreyfuss left the West End production on Oct. 18, four days before the start of previews. He was replaced by Nathan Lane, Tony-winning star of ``The Producers''' original Broadway production.

The musical's producers said Dreyfuss, 57, was forced to abandon the physically demanding role because of complications from back surgery and a recurring shoulder injury. They have refused to comment on speculation that Dreyfuss was fired _ or that hiring the non-singing actor was the wrong decision.

``If Richard had been fit enough, it would have been a great decision,'' said one of show's producers, David Ian of Clear Channel Entertainment. ``Unfortunately, things happen; nobody could have foreseen it. We made a decision that was the right one for both sides.''

Dreyfuss' departure came after he told a British newspaper that ``I sing like a seal and dance like your Uncle Leo'' and advised audiences not to see the show before Christmas.

``Come from Christmas on. Do not come before that, OK?'' Dreyfuss said on the Oct. 14 edition of ITV television's ``The Frank Skinner Show.''

Dreyfuss added: ``The general manager just had a heart attack when I said that.''

The production was saved by the last-minute import of Lane, 48, whose presence has heightened anticipation and boosted advance box office above $9 million.

Although the Broadway star is not a household name in Britain, preview audiences have given the show standing ovations and praised Lane's strong chemistry with British comedian Lee Evans, who plays Bialystock's reluctant partner in crime, Leo Bloom. Evans and Lane starred together in the 1997 film ``Mouse Hunt.''

Based on Brooks' 1968 movie of the same name, ``The Producers'' is about an unscrupulous impresario who cons little old ladies into putting their money in a surefire flop _ the jaw-droppingly bad musical ``Springtime for Hitler'' _ so he can pocket their investments.

The stage version opened on Broadway to a rapturous reception in April 2001 and is still going strong, despite the departure of Lane and the musical's other original star, Matthew Broderick.

The London production is not out of the woods yet. It has been a tough autumn for London's West End, with many shows, even hits like ``Jerry Springer: The Opera,'' struggling to fill seats.

Lane is due to perform only until Jan. 8. A replacement has not yet been announced.

There's also the question of whether Brooks' New York sensibility will translate for British audiences. Ian said producers were confident the show would weather the Atlantic crossing: ``Funny is funny.''

The original production has also had its ups and downs. Ticket sales sagged after Lane and Broderick left the cast after a year, and Lane's replacement, British actor Henry Goodman, was fired after a month. Although the show continued to sell well, it only regained its sellout status when Lane and Broderick returned at the end of 2003 for a three-month run.

Now the musical based on a movie has inspired a movie of its own. ``The Producers: The Movie Musical,'' a $45 million production starring Lane, Broderick, Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell, is due to begin shooting early next year.