Susan Stroman’s adaptation of The Producers is a reasonably accurate representation of the Mel Brooks musical she directed on Broadway, albeit as seen through opera glasses slouched down in a seat in the front row. The sense of magnified shtick—with Nathan Lane bellowing at the balcony from the fake confines of his impossibly vast office—is not unlike the moment in the new King Kong where the ape erupts into Times Square, grabbing blondes and petulantly tossing them away. Flaunt it, baby, flaunt it!
A flop in 1968 and a cult movie thereafter, The Producers popularized the term “creative accounting.” Max Bialystock, a washed-up Broadway impresario who finances his shows by romancing little old ladies, teams up with the mousy accountant Leo Bloom to bilk their backers by overselling shares in a guaranteed flop. But the scheme backfires when their carefully selected neo-Nazi musical Springtime for Hitler becomes a camp smash hit—just like the musical that Brooks contrived from his movie in 2001. Does the new Producers retain any of the original’s shock value? Need you even ask?
The perfunctory ’50s setting hardly restores the joke—although it celebrates a no-longer-extant Broadway. Brooks’s clever, not exactly parodic, score is pleasantly retro and better than serviceable. The “Springtime for Hitler” set piece still conveys a powerful inanity—it’s the best song in the show, and, like Brooks’s Sinatra-friendly “High Anxiety,” is a classic that no one, to my knowledge, has dared to cover. Some klutzy sub–Freed Unit choreography aside, Stroman’s direction flirts with vulgarity without ever crossing over. Lane and Matthew Broderick make a far cuter couple than the original Max and Leo, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Broderick is a genuine trouper, hoofing his way through his big numbers, while Lane’s antics are difficult to resist, despite his need to signify merriment by opening his mouth in a pantomimed hysteria. Gary Beach’s impossibly queeny director and even riper consort Roger Bart (both of whom originated their roles onstage) constitute a massive inoculation—not unlike the gay-baiting in last year’s prize movie musical, Team America.
There’s no business like show business, and the musical Producers‘ considerable success showed the original movie to have been prophetic—of itself. Thus, The Producers has mutated into a story of self-actualization. Is there a Saturday-morning cartoon series in Max and Leo’s future? The Producers: The Musical: The Movie insists, even as it demonstrates, that the show must go on . . . and on.