The new musical film version of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” is both a very entertaining update of a classic film and a valuable snapshot of the recent stage smash. While the film was largely overlooked during its recent release to movie theaters, it is very much worth seeking out.The film is a very faithful adaptation of the stage musical, all the way down to the sets and even specific elements of the staging. I saw the stage show during its 2003 Los Angeles run and found the film to be a very familiar parallel to that experience. This is not a negative, as the material generally translates well to film, retaining a very large percentage of the humor and charm of the stage version.
Part of this success comes from the fact that the material actually originated on film with Brooks’ 1968 non-musical version. This path of film to stage to film results in an unusual case where the new film is both a faithful stage adaptation and, at times, almost a shot-by-shot remake of the earlier film. While “Little Shop of Horrors” followed a similar path nearly two decades ago, the variation was much greater as the stage production did not as closely follow the content of the original film, which was also not nearly as good as the original film version of “The Producers”. This film is nearly unprecedented in the way that it is able to directly mine elements from both previous incarnations. The result is an interesting and entertaining mix of the two, although I wouldn’t consider it a replacement for either the original classic movie or the more complete stage version of the musical.
Among the most important accomplishments of this film is that it is able to capture several key performances from the original Broadway cast of the show. As Max Bialystock, Nathan Lane gives his all in what is easily his most impressive film role to date. Lane was really a perfect choice for this role in that he has a similar on-screen personality to Zero Mostel, who originated the role in the earlier film, but he also has the talent to make the role his own rather than an imitation. His performance is similar enough to be a convincing variation on the character as established through Mostel’s performance, but he brings a manic energy and theatricality to the role that gives it some new dimension. Some reviewers have argued that the performance is over-the-top for a movie and that Lane should have dialed back his performance, but I really think this would have been a mistake. The performance absolutely is more broad and dynamic than we typically see in modern movies, but that is exactly how his character should be.
In the other lead role, Leo Bloom, Matthew Broderick also repeats the role that he originated in the Broadway production. Broderick is generally good in the role, but it isn’t as clear a fit. Broderick is playing somewhat against type as the repressed and neurotic Bloom and it is a bit of an effort to accept him in the role. This isn’t the type of character role where an actor can truly disappear into the character, which did make it a bit more difficult to adjust to Broderick’s version. Both Gene Wilder, who played the role in the original film, and Martin Short, who was in the Los Angeles stage production that I saw, seemed to be much more of a natural fit for the part. Broderick certainly isn’t bad, though. He is often quite funny and generally very likeable. His singing voice is also quite nice and well suited to the songs. Finally, Broderick and Lane have a definite on-screen chemistry that reflects their fairly extended collaboration, both in these roles and in other productions as well. It is definitely good to see that collaboration captured on film.
Besides the two leads, the other major actors to have made the transition from the Broadway cast to the film are Gary Beach and Roger Bart as director Roger DeBris and his “assistant” Carmen Ghia. While neither actor is overly familiar to movie audiences, bringing their performances to film was extremely wise as both completely inhabit their roles. Beach played the part in the Los Angeles stage production as well and I really have a hard time imagining anyone else being nearly as effective in the part. These characters represent the most significant character alterations from the original movie, particularly in the switch to have Beach end up playing the title role in “Springtime for Hitler”, the show within the show. This is a wise decision as Dick Shawn’s stereotypical hippie version of Hitler is the one aspect of the original film that really seems very dated now. The stage production and new film make DeBris and his crew into a group of flaming homosexuals, which eventually is reflected in the very fey stage Hitler. While both versions are something of an anachronism for the story’s 1950s setting and are also definitely pretty much off-the-chart stereotypes, Beach and Bart play the roles to the hilt and the result is quite hilarious.
The filmmakers did forgo the stage casting in favor of movie stars for the two remaining lead roles. Will Ferrell joins the cast as the neo-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind while Uma Therman takes on the role of Ulla, the office secretary, lead actress, and ultimately love interest for Bloom. Ferrell fits into his role exceptionally well and is very funny throughout. He also handles the musical part quite well, showing that he could have some opportunities in musical theater going forward. I give him quite a bit of credit for stretching himself a bit by taking on a decidedly supporting role (which isn’t expanded for him) at this stage in his career.
Thurman seems to be having lot of fun in her role, which is significantly expanded compared to the original film, but pretty much intact from the stage production. She has a huge grin on her face pretty much throughout the film and I was left with a sense that aspect of the character probably wasn’t really acting. That overall attitude did help to win me over to her performance, despite the fact that her singing voice isn’t really strong enough for the part and there isn’t a lot of chemistry between her and Broderick. I do think that the film might have been better off had they kept the original Broadway performer (who also played the part in L.A.) for the film, but I can also understand the desire to bring bigger stars into the film and Thurman’s performance generally was fun to watch.
Clearly, the biggest difference between the stage and new screen versions of “The Producers” and the original film is the transition into a full musical. The original film, like many Mel Brooks movies, actually has some of the feeling of a musical, even including a couple musical sequences at key points. Because of this, the transition to a full musical feels pretty natural. The songs have a very old-fashioned feel to them, resulting in a movie that feels more like a musical out of the 1950s than a modern production. Just about every song is essentially played as a full, show-stopping production number without the more subtle, story-centric musical numbers that are common in most recent musicals. The approach is exactly right for this film, basically making the movie itself into exactly the type of show that Max would have been producing.
The new film does include two musical numbers that were used in the original film. One is “Haben Sie Gehurt Das Deutsche Band” which is a fairly minor song that Ferrell’s character uses to win the role of Hitler in the musical within the movie. The other carryover from the original is “Springtime for Hitler”, the relentlessly catchy and tasteless title song from the musical that Max and Leo choose for their surefire flop. As in the original film, they pretty much pull out the stops for this number. This film (like the stage musical) stages the number in a manner fairly similar to the original film, although with some obvious changes to Hitler due to the changes to the character of Roger DeBris. One key element to the original film’s staging of this number that couldn’t easily be duplicated on stage, but is restored in the new film, is the cutaways to the audience’s stunned reactions. This is a welcome restoration.
“We Can Do It!”, an early number featuring Max’s attempt to sell Leo on the plan provides a strong introduction to both characters. The staging is very similar to the stage production, with the number eventually taking the characters to the streets of New York and eventually to Central Park. Not surprisingly, film allows these exterior settings to be more convincing than they are on the stage, although I’m not sure that makes much of a difference in the effectiveness of the number.
Broderick has his best sequence in the film with “I Want to Be a Producer”, Leo’s very elaborate “wishing” number. The number opens and closes in an immensely oppressive accounting office (with Jon Lovitz in a funny cameo as the foreman) that is taken over by showgirls, enormous staircases, and stage lighting. The film version provides a little more freedom of movement and expanded stage area over the stage production, although it actually loses some of the spectacle since the oversized props and pyrotechnics used on stage probably wouldn’t have translated as well to film.
The best of the new songs is “Keep It Gay”, the primary showpiece for Beach and Bart. By giving the song lyrics that mainly use the classic definition of the word “gay” while having everything about the setting and performers crying out the more modern definition, the entire number is essentially a large, hilarious double-entendre. While this sequence rather emphatically shows the lack of subtlety in Brooks’ approach to humor, it also manages to be the film’s most uproarious and clever sequence.
The two movie star additions, Thurman and Ferrell, each have one big production number that introduces their character. Thurman’s Ulla is introduced and pretty clearly defined in the number “When You Got It, Flaunt It!” While Thurman’s voice falls somewhat short of the rather demanding range for the song, she generally makes up for it by basically taking the title of the song to heart. Thurman also duets later in the film with Broderick on the romantic duet “That Face”, a sequence that unfortunately falls kind of flat. Part of the problem is the limited chemistry between the two performers, but it was also something of a miscalculation to play the number a bit more blatantly for laughs than they should have. Specifically, the song leads to a somewhat forced, slapstick conclusion when it really should have ended up with a more traditional romantic embrace.
Ferrell’s ” Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” is the silliest song of the film, but Ferrell wisely resists going too far over-the-top, essentially allowing the silliness of the song and situation to speak for itself. I think it says quite a bit about Ferrell’s potential longevity as an actor that he was able to resist overplaying a character that could have so easily been played completely off the chart. In this sequence, the film does repeat one of the stage show’s best visual bits with the inclusion of choreography by Ferrell’s caged pigeons. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was brought in to provide the effects for this sequence. Ferrell also performs a hilarious “pop ballad” arrangement of this song, which plays over the end credits. This performance, as well as a special post-credits surprise, makes it very worthwhile to stick around to the very end.
The one song that seems to suffer the most in the transition from stage to screen is “Along Comes Bialy”, which was the act-1 finale in the theater production. This song focuses on Max’s unconventional approach to fund-raising in a number that includes chorus lines and tap dancing elderly women with walkers. It is a funny idea that works rather well on stage, but the sequence comes off rather flat on film. This is one case where the filmmakers definitely should have done some significant re-conception and re-working to accommodate the change of medium. The fairly linear choreography works well on stage, but on film this would have been better served by some Busby Berkley style camera motion.
To keep the running time manageable and address the different pacing that is sometimes needed for film instead of the stage, two songs are eliminated from the film and some of the others are trimmed somewhat. The eliminated songs are Max’s introductory number, “The King of Broadway”, and “Where Did We Go Right?”, which followed the opening night of the show within a show. Neither song is really much of a loss for the film, although it might have been nice for the film to be a more complete reproduction of the stage show. “The King of Broadway” does show up as a bonus track on the soundtrack CD, so it is likely that the number was filmed and will show up on the DVD release.
Even though writer/producer/songwriter Mel Brooks doesn’t start in the film and handed off directing duties to the stage show’s director, Susan Stroman, he still pretty much dominates the proceedings. Whether or not someone is really likely to enjoy this film is likely going to be heavily dependent on whether or not Brooks’ style of humor connects for him. The film plays pretty heavily on various stereotypes, basically blowing them up to a point of complete absurdity. It is pretty much fearless in its willingness to go after pretty much everyone, including Germans and Jews, gays and straights, men and women, old and young. I feel that this over-the-top, anything for a laugh attitude ultimately overcomes offense with good humor, but admittedly this type of comedy doesn’t appeal to everyone.
Fortunately, I think it is a pretty safe bet that most people who would tend to be offended or bored by Brooks’ humor probably already know that and will stay away. The behind-the-scenes on Broadway storyline also likely limits the appeal quite a bit for film audiences, making the story perhaps a bit more at home on the stage. When I saw the movie a little over a week ago, it was already down to a single daily showing at each of just 3 theaters in the San Fernando Valley. This was after only 3 weeks of wide release and a less than $20 million domestic box-office gross. The original film of “The Producers” is arguably Mel Brooks’ most acclaimed movie, but it also has not retained the mainstream popularity of some of his later hits such as “Blazing Saddles” or “Young Frankenstein”.
Fortunately, the stage production of “The Producers” continues to play on Broadway and is also likely to continue in touring and/or regional productions for many years to come. The stage will likely continue to be the most appropriate venue for this and I certainly encourage anyone to seek out opportunities to see it that way. The new film will soon be available on DVD, of course, and I definitely recommend it highly as an alternative for those that haven’t the opportunity to see the show on stage or as a way to re-visit the stage experience.