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!”