By Ron Fassler
Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as The Producers (2001).
It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around it being twenty years ago tonight that The Producers opened at the St. James Theatre. At the time, I was a mere child of forty-four, as was my old friend and ally Nathan Lane, then a strikingly young forty-five. ☺️ Significantly, not only is that original production still fresh in my mind, but so is the imprint on my funny bone of how uproariously hilarious a musical comedy could be. Mel Brooks based the musical on his own 1968 cult classic which starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder and, at the age of seventy-four, suddenly found himself the new kid on the block.
In rehearsal: Thomas Meehan (co-book writer), Mel Brooks, Nathan Lane,
Susan Stroman (director/choreographer) and Matthew Broderick (2001).
As a musical, The Producers was a brash reminder of shows like 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Broadway musical comedy at its most irreverent and side-splitting. Oddly enough, its composer — Stephen Sondheim himself — became the one most responsible for seeming to change musical theatre overnight with Company in 1970. In his brilliant and challenging scores that followed, Sondheim re-invented how musicals were conceived and dramatized. Then in 2001, after thirty years in the wilderness, The Producers’ throwback-style was just what the doctor ordered. Three months prior, George W. Bush had been inaugurated after a no-holds-barred fight for the Presidency in the Supreme Court. A lot of people were… well, let’s just say concerned. And people needed to LAUGH!
In the aftermath of its success, similar and often absurdly comic musicals became the norm. Prime examples include Hairspray (co-written by Thomas Meehan who co-authored The Producers with Brooks), Avenue Q, Spamalot and The Book of Mormon, all of which won Tonys for Best Musical. The difference with these musicals was that the comedy wasn’t being played straight anymore, allowing for a certain coarsening that audiences widely accepted. Four letter words creeped in and the fourth wall was smashed time and again amidst a “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” attitude; a self-reverence and self-parody, if you will. The Producers also marked another sea change as, due to the scarcity of tickets, it brought out the greed in the show’s actual producers when they began “premium pricing,” which spread like a California wildfire. Themselves charging the extra fees that were once the exclusive territory of ticket brokers, it not only drove the brokers out of business, but killed the chance for an average ticket buyer to afford theatre forever forward. Once it was perfectly fine for a box office to charge in the neighborhood of $450 a ticket (a very pricey neighborhood), a pall was cast over the theatre district from which it has yet to recover. Now with the face value of an orchestra seat priced at close to $200, it makes people feel like they’re getting a discount.
With all that as a precursor, on a personal level from my own experience attending Broadway shows for more than fifty years since I was a child, The Producers continues to rank among the funniest shows I have ever seen. Every element of it worked and I laughed so hard both times I saw it that I thought my face would crack from my ear-to-ear grin. Those two times early in its run with its original cast were a night and an afternoon I will never forget (for individual reasons) and to which I would like to devote the rest of this column.
The first time concerns one of my very best friends, Christopher Gorman, a casting director and CBS programming executive, who had died right after The Producers opened. He, too, was mine and Nathan’s age, forty-five, and the reason for his early death was due to complications from AIDS. In the hospital, where I was with him many hours during his final week, I had asked him one day if there was anything I could get him. With genuine sincerity he said, “A seat on the aisle for The Producers. Row G.” Christopher passed away on May 20th, a month and a day after the show’s opening night. And when I flew from Los Angeles to New York for his funeral and where he was to be buried, I of course intended to see The Producers as much for Christopher as for myself. I was on a mission.
“They were fated, to be mated, they’re Bialystock and Bloom! Ahh! Ahh!”
How tough would it be to get a ticket? Think Hamilton when it opened and double that! EVERYONE wanted to see The Producers with a white hot fury. Even though I had friends in the show, I wasn’t going to bother any of them for their house seats. Not only was the cast already inundated, but no way anything would be available on such short notice. So, what else could I do but on the Saturday morning after Christopher’s funeral, wake up early and get to the St. James by 7:00 a.m. in hopes to land one of the eighteen standing room tickets that would be freed up when the box office opened at 10:00. Or maybe a cancellation would get me a seat? There was a light drizzle when I jumped in the taxi, which made me optimistic that the line wouldn’t be too long. But when I arrived, thirty people were already in place (I counted). Thirty minus eighteen meant if those dozen people in front of me hung on, I had to hope for thirteen seats to open up or I had no shot. What else could I do? At that moment, I knew I was in it for the long haul. I had no other choice.
Six hours later, at 1:20 p.m., twenty minutes before curtain and beginning to get a little worried, an elderly gent approached the line with one extra orchestra seat he wanted to sell at face value. Because the half dozen or so people in front of me all were paired as couples, the ticket was mine. I was in. And when I took my seat I was so, so damn happy to be there, exactly like everyone who had gone through whatever they went through to get their ticket. When the lights began to dim and the audience roared, I looked up and said, “This one’s for you, Christopher.”
At intermission, I took a card that Christopher’s good friend Joanna Gleason had made for the many people who knew and loved him. Taking his elegant signature off one of the letters he had written to her, and offset by a background of blue sky, it said “Love, Christopher.” Joanna suggested we might distribute them where we saw fit; places Christopher loved and would want to be remembered as once being a part of. I had brought one with me and I went downstairs below the St. James where the lounge is located and I slipped the card behind a large sign on the wall that once hung outside the theatre about a hundred years ago. It felt like the right thing to do. Naturally, I returned years later to see if it was still there, but it wasn’t.
My second time at The Producers was three months later on the occasion of a birthday theatre trip to New York with my son, Jeremy, who was turning twelve. By then the CD was out and the show had swept the Tonys with a record-breaking twelve wins. Tickets were tougher than ever but with advance notice, I was able to ask Gary Beach to help me. Dear, dear Gary. It’s been almost three years since he passed and everyone who knew him misses him terribly. As Roger De Bris, he not only won the Tony, but reminded the theatre community how indispensable he was. A uniquely talented actor and singer, he was also that rare thing: a pure theatre animal. Someone who specialized in long runs and uplifted everything he was in. You can ask anyone who was a part of any production he appeared in, from fellow actor to stagehand to wardrobe assistant, and the same thing would be said: he was simply the best.
With all that was funny about The Producers,
Gary Beach as Roger De Bris may have been the funniest.
The seats Gary provided for us were in the seventh row on the aisle in G 2 and 4. Specifically, the seats Christopher had requested (believe me, it didn’t go unnoticed). Everything felt so right and I was going to share this joyous production with my son, who adored musical theatre. After the show it was a treat for Jeremy to spend time with Gary in his dressing room. And when one of the incredible women of the chorus passed the open doorway, she saw Jeremy and said, “Hey, it’s the little boy who was dancing at the curtain call!” As Gary was ready to exit the theatre, we got the chance to walk around the stage with him and view things from that extraordinary perspective the actors have when performing; especially magnificent with the St. James designed having two balconies atop one another. We then snuck out a side door away from the autograph seekers (a secret exit Gary was fond of using) and we walked him to the subway. Yes, even Tony winning stars take the subway. All told, it was a very special night for a father and son.
The next morning, August 23rd, Jeremy and I went as tourists to the top of the World Trade Center. I wrote in my diary, “Had a wonderful time.” Less than three weeks later, back home in Los Angeles, Jeremy and I watched the September 11th attacks that marked the worst day in New York City’s history. And when the theatre was suspended for a few days, it fell to The Producers, Broadway’s biggest hit, to lead the cry imploring people to return to the city to share in all the artistic endeavors it offers and not to be afraid. The gathering in Times Square, represented by the photograph below, was on the front pages of newspapers around the world.
Elaine Stritch shoved them over at the last minute,
but you can still see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
Lest we forget, making people genuinely laugh in the theatre is the toughest thing to do. Providing someone with a good, honest laugh is the best feeling in the world. Making people cry? Not nearly as satisfying. Besides, comedy is much more of a challenge than drama (ask most actors). And when you score big, nothing’s better. Sometimes, in rare cases, everything lines up perfectly and that is what The Producers was blessed with. It sounds insane, but what the actors played the very first time in front of an audience out of town in Chicago was essentially the same show on its opening night on Broadway weeks later. For obvious reasons, that’s relatively unheard of.
The Producers closed at the St. James Theatre, April 22, 2007, six years and three days after its opening night. Besides earning fortunes for its creatives and its investors, it had by then played in twelve countries around the world, running in Budapest, Copenhagen, Israel, Italy, Korea, Las Vegas, Mexico, Prague and Spain. Sometimes there’s something to be said for making people laugh.
For me, director and choreographer Susan Stroman summed up what was really best about The Producers when she said: “This show is first and foremost a tribute to Broadway.”
And that it was.
The opening night curtain call, April 19, 2001.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to follow me here and email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.