If you leave aside the brutality, horror, devastation, and mass slaughter that it caused, Nazism was nothing but showbiz. Legions of commentators and comedians have pointed out the painstakingly manufactured illusion of everything from the Nuremberg rallies— staged for the cameras of Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi Busby Berkeley—to the diction of Nazi ordinances. Lubitsch and Chaplin kidded the ritualistic posturing of the Third Reich while it was going on; Syberberg displayed its roots in Wagner, Karl May, and other forms of German sentimental kitsch; Victor Klemperer sardonically noted down the “pure Aryan” propaganda machine’s every debt to American advertising; and Lenny Bruce imagined Hitler himself as a marketable object invented by MCA.
The tropes and images of the American musical theater, like those of Nazism, were invented as crowd-pleasing illusions; only the nature of the transaction involved made them different. The Nazis posed as a legitimate government, making preposterous claims of ethnic purity, historical inevitability, cultural preservation, and unanimous popular support. Showbiz, in contrast, has never asked to be believed for longer than it takes to get from your seat to the exit: One reason that puritans, and earnest types generally, have had trouble with musical theater and vaudeville over the decades is that they can’t help suspecting a form in which illusion is so often built up just to be punctured or burlesqued.
After decades of musical-theater pundits declaring that musicals have to be solemn, unpleasant, and good for you, The Producers, Mel Brooks’s new stage version of his 1968 movie, represents the inevitable recoil—a recoil so extreme that the aesthetic pendulum seems to have jammed at the other end. The ecstasy over The Producers almost outdoes in frenzy the gloating over the 20 years of humorless Brit-hits that preceded it, and will in due course produce its own negative reaction. Meantime the show is coining money and gorging on publicity, temporarily immune to anything you want to say about it, good or bad.
The stroke of marketing genius behind Brooks’s amiable joke is simply that it extends showbiz’s normal activity of laughing at itself to the big, lethal showbiz institution that nobody dared laugh at. The relief of being able to have fun at a silly musical again is doubled by its dealing with a topic on which laughter was formerly impermissible. And the show’s premise—two shyster producers scheme to make millions by wildly overcapitalizing a surefire flop—redoubles the laughter by relocating the comic Nazis inside a scam perpetrated by comic but lovable Jews: After all of Hitler’s rantings against the “international Jewish conspiracy,” guess who won?
Brooks and his colleagues are careful, of course, to keep their outrageousness within bounds. Lubitsch, in To Be or Not To Be (remade by Brooks in 1983), raised audience hackles by putting death at the center of his jokes. Brooks and director Susan Stroman don’t edge any closer than vague lines like “Winter for Poland and France.” Their Nazis are indeed just silly showbiz Nazis; it’s always been one of the work’s less rational jokes that Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-raising author of “Springtime for Hitler,” doesn’t notice the overt Jewishness either of producers Bialystock and Bloom or, where musicals are concerned, of Broadway itself. The Broadway version’s Liebkind, played with cabaret knowingness by Brad Oscar, is himself a total song-and-dance man in purest Jolson style.
Like most of the show’s Germanisms, the number has more to do with vaudeville “Dutch” comedy than with anything actually German. But then, everything in The Producers is effectively sealed off from reality. Its charm, which is real and substantial, comes from its ability to keep its feet firmly on the ground while its mind is wholly lost in a world of old jokes, old tunes, and old routines—all of which it exploits with the loving, sheepish smile of a daydreamer who knows he should be facing the unpleasant reality around the corner but has no intention of walking that way until he has to. True, Brooks makes mock of all his diversions—the numbers are a parade of spoof tributes to great musicals of the past, from the opening of Fiddler to Hello, Dolly!‘s courtroom climax—but the spoof is the most loving gesture Brooks commands.
Spoofing may not be the optimal way to create musical-theater masterworks, and The Producers isn’t one: It’s an assemblage of comic/tuneful shtick that works because Brooks, Stroman, and co-librettist Thomas Meehan know how to put them together. The effect is that of a big college varsity show, on a vastly enhanced and adult professional level. When fed the sounds and postures that everyone working in the theater grew up on, the cast seizes them instinctively, like cats that know just when to pounce. To watch Gary Beach, as the flossy director Roger De Bris, seizing a spotlit Judy Garland moment is to see the two halves of Brooks’s method merging: The trope itself produces the laugh, while the intense joy in Beach’s contortions produces a glow that defuses the laugh’s cruelty. It says, in effect, that we were right to cherish that moment, and to love the kind of musical theater that made it possible. In this regard, one of the show’s best jokes is Ulla, the Swedish bombshell who enraptures both producers—a rather cheap sight gag in the film, turned by Cady Huffman’s performance, without forgoing the joke, into a touching and even dignified three-dimensional person.
The two three-dimensional persons on whom the show rests, of course, are Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, both of whom come off better here than in any of their recent work. Broderick, less well-trained vocally, sounds strained in song, but his two comic personae—shy urban schnook and smug slyboots—combine in wonderful balance. Lane, working with stronger lungs and fiercer energy, has wisely picked up hints from Zero Mostel’s film performance without trying to duplicate it: He varies his Mostel moments with a pathos and fervor all his own, and a fastidious grandeur that suggests, of all people, Jackie Gleason. His climactic solo, a sort of retrograde “Rose’s Turn” in which he does a tab version of the entire show in under five minutes, should be preserved on tape immediately; it’s one of the musical theater’s historic moments. The rest of The Producers‘ box office stampede can be attributed either to New Yorkers’ relief at having a musical to laugh at again, or to Americans’ willingness to believe that Hitler was a swishy song-and-dance man whose middle name was Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s own theatrical shtickmeister, Shakespeare, also tried ridiculing a showbiz war myth once, in his famous flop Troilus and Cressida. Readers have learned over the centuries since to relish his joke—considerably nastier than Brooks’s—but theatergoers still find it a dry crust to swallow. Peter Hall, directing Theatre for a New Audience’s production, doesn’t make it easier with a deadpan, text-centered approach that sorts out the bits to see what they’ll add up to, rather than building an overall interpretation. This may be preferable to setting the show in a supermarket or making it Nestor’s wet dream, just as Sir Peter is preferable to idiots like Graham Vick or Peter Sellars, but it doesn’t illuminate a work that’s thorny and elliptical to start with. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, mixing bits of armor with casual slacks and turtlenecks, make the show’s strongest specific statement, and some of the performances emerge with sharp lucidity: Andrew Weems’s gravelly Thersites, David Conrad’s tautly dignified Hector, and most of all Tricia Paoluccio’s Cressida. Though paired with an actively embarrassing partner, Paoluccio is vulnerable, forthright, and touching, her clear-spoken lines seeming to come straight from the character’s perplexed, defensive heart.
World War II makes a tiresome excuse for an onstage family war in The Gathering, another in the long line of Jewish American plays about an oy and his father. In this one, dad’s a Holocaust survivor, son’s a Reagan speechwriter, and, yes, it’s off to Bitburg, where a humane, dignified, Bundeswehr soldier almost succeeds in explaining history and morality to the bickering Jews, proving that Germany at least won the education wars. Under Rebecca Taylor’s direction, the actors—especially Deirdre Lovejoy, Sam Guncler, and Coleman Zeigen—aren’t nearly bad enough for this shrill, muddleheaded script. Playing past it in juicily hammy, relentlessly grandstanding style, Hal Linden, in the lead, seems to be auditioning to replace Nathan Lane as Bialystock, and I don’t blame him in the least. If every Jewish play were like this, I’d become a Lutheran.