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A R T S   &   C U L T U R E
The Nazis Take Manhattan
Michael Yaeger • A review of the musical The Producers
September 2001

Years from now, long after The Producers has finished its first run, the show will probably be revived, and it will probably fail. 

This is not because The Producers is a bad show. On the contrary, the excellent cast, costumes, and direction make the current production great, and the book and the music are good. The story flows roughly in spots, and sometimes the show seems more a collection of great bits than a unified whole, but on the whole The Producers delivers what you would expect. The show is laugh-out-loud funny. 

The problem for the hypothetical 2030 revival is that the musical’s book, indeed, its central premise, will age poorly. No matter how good the future cast or the one-liners, the plot will resonate less.

The basic storyline follows Mel Brooks’s 1968 movie of the same name. Max Bialystock, the has-been producer, and Leopold Bloom, the accountant who dreams of life beyond a green eyeshade, team-up to produce a flop. 

Their plan is 1) pick a horrendous play; 2) sell 25,000% of the show to various investors and 3) abscond with the money when the play closes after its first performance. If Max and Leo keep their costs low enough they will not have actually lost much of the seed money, yet their backers will assume that they have because the play will have failed. Leo will show the backers a doctored set of books and all will be well. 

The play they decide to produce is a musical, “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden.” Naturally, the play succeeds when, instead of being offended, the audience takes it as satire. “How could we have succeeded?” asks Max. “Half the audience was Jews!” (The New York theater crowd roared in delight.)

The problem here is that today this plot summary just sounds zany, whereas in 1968 it was vulgar, even scary. A good portion of the movie’s original audience had fought in World War II or supported the troops from home. People had personal memories of the conflict, so laughing at Hitler was harder and thus more liberating. 

By 2001, however, the audience not only has less experience fighting Nazis, it has more experience laughing at them. The TV show Hogan’s Heroes and movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade spring to mind, and readers with better memories and probably recall other examples. 

In this context The Producers musical seems more sweet than transgressive, and this is true despite the added power of theater. That is, seeing flesh-and-blood people wear red armbands and dance around in swastika phalanxes is much more disturbing than watching the same events on film, yet the movie’s initial reviews indicate that audiences were much more disturbed by the spectacle than we are. 

For many years Brooks’s first film was a cult classic; now the musical is the toast of New York society. Were Brooke Astor alive she would have tickets. 
Not that chronology is the only factor. The musical is also less powerful than the movie because Zero Mostel made a more grotesque Max Bialystock than Nathan Lane does. Mostel was all appetite, all stomach and libido and dripping with sweat. He was always a little gross even at his most charming. Lane manages to be wholly likable even when he’s greedy and lustful.

Yet even if the fatter and greasier Mostel were onstage in all his ripeness, the musical would still say less than the movie did in 1968 because the show’s other object of ridicule, musical theater, has also become a common target in the last thirty years.  No well-known movie or musical before the original Producers was quite as outrageous as Brooks’s script. 

Since then, however, similar visions have become famous in The Simpsons and Off-Broadway parodies like Forbidden Broadway, a collection of parodic sketches, Bat-boy, a pointy-eared coming of age story, and Urinetown, the story of a community that banned public toilets. Even my brother Adam has contributed to the genre with Prison!: The Musical, a singing and dancing extravaganza about a man locked away for driving without pants. In sum, the musical version of The Producers is the caboose of a long running trend. It explores territory actually charted long ago and it does not point musical theater in any new directions.  

Musicals have always been more sly and self-deprecating than operas, their highfalutin cousins, but the best musicals are earnest. They are more than parodies or collections of vaudeville bits. One could argue that even the various Disney productions—Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aida—introduce more promising trends. 

Again, The Producers is often hilarious and always entertaining (the list of Bloom and Bialystock’s later shows, e.g., “She Shtupps to Conquer,” is irresistible). See it if you can; it’s great fun, and it’s the play of the moment. But future producers looking for a good show are forewarned: it’s also a period piece.  

Michael Yaeger is a second-year student at the law school.
 

 
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