June 3, 2005, The Guardian
It’s gone from screen to stage and now back again – and each time the stakes are raised for The Producers. Reggie Nadelson visits the set of the new film and witnesses the renaissance of the old-style movie musical
It is dusk in Central Park on a May evening, and the sun is just disappearing over the trees and cherry blossoms. People out walking their dogs are drawn like moths to the lit-up Bethesda fountain, where a couple of guys are dancing. One wears an overcoat and a fedora; the other is in a raincoat and an accountant’s suit. They break into song with ecstatic delight: “We can do it. We can do it … ” The dog-walkers start to applaud. It’s a magical, New York sort of night – the movie-musical kind. But, then, the two men on the fountain are Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and they are performing their roles in The Producers.
For the last few months, the movie version of the stage musical has been on location in New York City. For those who have been on the planet Zog the last four years, The Producers is Mel Brooks’ Broadway musical: songs by Mel Brooks, lyrics by Mel Brooks, based on Mel Brooks’ 1968 movie (which was not a musical). You get the idea. It is the story of Max Bialystock (Lane), the deliciously unprincipled, failed producer, who hits on little old ladies to fund his flops, and Leo Bloom (Broderick), a nebbish accountant who, yearning for a life as a Broadway producer, figures out that a Broadway flop can make a lot more bucks than a hit. One day, he will wear the producer’s hat. Sadly, having chosen the very worst play ever written – Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden- they find themselves with an enormous New York style, you-can-make-it-here smash hit.
“The idea was to stay faithful to the stage show, but to open the movie up, shoot some of it in the New York streets, where it belongs,” says the movie’s producer, Jonathan Sanger. “It is,” adds Mark Friedberg, the production designer, “an ode to New York City”.
This is the first great movie musical to be shot in New York for as long as anyone can remember and the city is lapping it up. There have been sightings of Will Ferrell, who plays Franz Liebkind, author of Springtime for Hitler, a man who keeps pigeons with Nazi armbands on the roof of his Greenwich Village apartment. And of Uma Thurman, who has been cast as Ulla Inga Hansen Bensen Yonsen Tallen-Hallen Svaden-Svanson, Max and Leo’s Swedish secretary.
Every morning for almost a year now, Sanger has awakened with a combination of dread and pleasure. When the stage version of The Producers was being planned, everyone was nervous about how faithful to be to the original 1968 film because it (with Zero Mostel as Max, and Gene Wilder as Leo) had always had a fanatical cult following. Now, everyone is nervous about the new movie because, from the second it opened in New York in 2001, the stage musical was a critical, popular, financial and iconic hit. (It transferred to London to similar acclaim in 2004.)
The Producers was the show that brought the great American musical back to Broadway after years – decades, even – of faux opera, British imports and gloomy storylines (sometimes all at once). New Yorkers who could not get tickets were desperate; those who could, smug. (I knew a woman whose apartment had been trashed by debris from the 9/11 attack. When her son managed to get into the flat for a few minutes, she told him: “Get the passports, if you can, and the tickets for The Producers.”) The stage show also had 14 producers of its own, all of whom might have opinions on the movie. It was enough to keep a guy like Sanger awake nights.
A tall, charming, bearded man, Sanger is one of Hollywood’s secret weapons – the producer everyone wants on their movies. “He is the calm at the centre of any movie storm, a cool head amidst a lot of talent and egos and shtick. Jonathan is definitely not a Max Bialystock,” says Tom Meehan, who co-wrote the book of The Producers with Brooks, as well as Hairspray and Annie and whose opera, 1984 just debuted at Covent Garden.
It took Sanger months to put together an elaborate financial deal for the movie. From the edge of the set, wielding a couple of mobile phones like lances, he fends off agents and lawyers and accountants, protecting his director, actors and crew. “You have to make people feel good, you have to know how to hire people who can do what you don’t know how to, the rest is smoke and mirrors,” he says. He has worked with Mel Brooks for a quarter-century since he made The Elephant Man for Brooks’ company.
“When I first used to hang out with Mel, the idea of a play of The Producers was already talked about,” Sanger says. “Mel always said, ‘I know I’m going to end my life as a lounge act in Las Vegas, I need to keep my trunk of tricks just in case.’ Mel was always a secret musician, he’s always written the songs for his movies, and like Woody Allen playing the clarinet, it’s where he lives.”
Back in Central park, we’re in another location. It’s now daylight, and 50 old ladies (some little and old, some tall and young) are tap-dancing on their Zimmer frames. In the theatre, this scene caused people to fall off their seats laughing. These ladies are tasty prey for Max Bialystock who sleeps with them all to get their money. The main little old lady is played by Eileen Essel, who has travelled from London for the part. She snuggles up to Max; he looks hunted and grabs her cheque.
As Max, Nathan Lane performs his routines over and over without a hitch, a stunning exercise in precision from this stage performer who is probably America’s best musical comedy star. So breathtaking is his ability to hit his marks every time that some of the shots elicit applause from the crew. Between takes, he sits at the side of the set, his producer’s hat – the famous fedora – on his lap. Matthew Broderick, his co-star, is quiet, occasionally visiting the set with his two-year-old son. Lane and Broderick have agreed to do another Broadway show together next autumn. This will be Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, the story of Felix and Oscar, two guys forced to move in together. The Odd Couple, of course, was another important film release from the same year – 1968 – as The Producers. The double act of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau remained the benchmark for borscht-flavoured kvetch comedy for decades. “If we did the Max-Leo version,” Broderick said, “I should be Felix and he should be Oscar. But, in real life, Nathan’s the neat one, and I’m the slobby sports fan.”
At the centre of the action is Susan Stroman, who choreographed and directed both the Broadway and London stage show. This is her first movie as a director, but she is utterly in control, a small intense presence with a dancer’s posture, in black leggings and jacket, her blonde ponytail pulled through her black baseball cap.
The Producers is absolutely Stroman’s movie, so it’s a rare day when Mel Brooks shows up on the set for more than an hour. Today he is sitting on a canvas chair surveying a sandwich. Every day, whether he appears or not, his assistant prepares a sandwich on brown bread for him. He is all too aware of the monster the Producers has now become. “This movie costs $52m, $53m,” says Brooks leaning back. He looks exactly the same as the last time I saw him five, or maybe 10 years ago. “The Producers we made in 1966 and released in 1968, it cost less than a million.”
Today, Brooks is surveying the scene at the brand new Steiner studios in the old Brooklyn navy yards; this is the waterfront where the ships for the second world war were built. On a glorious spring afternoon, a dance captain is rehearsing some chorus boys for Springtime for Hitler, the big number in the show within the show. The boys are blonde, gorgeous and dressed in jackboots and black with sparkly swastikas. Around the fence that divides the studios from the surrounding Williamsburg neighbourhood, a group of Orthodox Hasidic Jews, in the big hats and long coats that date back to the l8th century, begin to appear. “Let’s get this show indoors,” Sanger says.
Indoors on the stage, Gary Beach is singing Springtime for Hitler with gusto. He has wondrously floppy Führer hair and a stunted moustache on his upper lip. Without doubt, this is the campest Adolf ever portrayed. Down the hall are a group of dancers, the “beautiful girls wearing nothing but pearls”, who appear in a fantasy sequence in which Leo imagines his life as a producer. There were four or five prototypes of the pearl outfits, each individually made for every dancer. Each one cost about £5,000, and even the pearls had to be specially made of a squishy material so that when the dancers fell, they would not be injured.
On the sound stage next door is you can wander around Shubert Alley, the heart of New York’s theatreland, circa 1959. It has been reimagined down to the last art deco cocktail shaker in the Astor bar, the headlines on the newspapers on the period news-stands, and the posters for shows of the time: Fiorello, My Fair Lady, West Side Story. Look closely, though and some of the other shows have a history only in the seething mind of Mel: She Shtups to Conquer, King Leer and, my own favourite, Death of a Salesman on Ice.
“The point about the Producers,” production designer Mark Friedberg says, “is that this is a movie about New York made by New Yorkers. At the height of it, we had 400 people working and every one of them, every scenic painter, knew the city, the streets, how it looks, how it smells. We made it realistic – but it was always a stylised realism that harked back to the style of old Hollywood musicals.”
One afternoon, Stanley Donen, who directed, among other great movie musicals, Singin’ in the Rain, stopped by the set of The Producers. “It was fantastic when he came to see the sets. And he was excited that people knew his work, that we were in a way celebrating it, that everyone knew the Gotta Dance sequence of Singin’ in the Rain.”
Early one evening last week, as filming wrapped up, the sun went down against the Manhattan skyline in one of those flashy New York sunsets. This is an ineluctably New York production. It is also, always, of course, very much Mel Brooksland.
“You see, it’s about the blueberries,” says Jonathan Sanger, holding The Producer’s hat that Mel Brooks has given him. “When I was starting out, Mel said to me, ‘So I’m blueberries.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said: ‘You’re the milk-shake, the cream, the ice cream, the vanilla, but I’m like a few blueberries. You put me in, and it changes the colour. It’s about the blueberries.'”