June 5, 2003
Delightful Offensiveness Key to ‘Producers’ Genius
To understand something of the success of "The Producers," it helps to understand something of its history. There is probably no person on the planet who doesn't know the story of how this sensation of a musical came to pass, but let me quickly recap: In the early '60s, Mel Brooks writes the book for the Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical "All American." Their last musical "Bye Bye Birdie" was a hit. "All American" was not. Brooks wonders: What if it was intentional? From that germ of an idea, and a character Brooks worked for briefly after World War II, came the movie, "The Producers."
This movie about a flop that becomes a hit followed a similar trajectory: the studio was so convinced the film was unmarketable that it sat on the shelf, the story goes, until Peter Sellers screened it and called it the funniest movie he'd ever seen. The movie was released and Brooks won an Oscar for the screenplay. That was in 1968. More than 30 years later, Brooks gets a call from David Geffen who insists it become a musical. Brooks tries to say no, but who says no to David Geffen? Thank God Geffen didn't call about "Spaceballs."
In the end, so many producers came aboard that Geffen stepped aside. Sometimes being smarter than everyone else is reward enough. The overwhelmingly talented Susan Stroman joined the creative team as director-choreographer; William Ivey Long did the costumes; Robin Wagner the sets. Brooks (with Thomas Meehan) wrote the book and Brooks, himself, wrote more than 20 songs. The show was a smash and the rest is Tony history.
The irony is that by the turn of the millennium, Brooks had pretty much worn out his welcome in Hollywood. He had not had a hit in years, his humor seemed too old-fashioned and shticky and he had a maddening habit of inserting musical production numbers into his movies at a time when no one was interested in musicals. Go figure.
In spite of all this -- and, at the same time, because of all this -- "The Producers" became a success. The staging, the sets, the costumes, the choreography, the supporting roles, the showgirls -- all great. The conceit of the show within a show, the flop that becomes a hit, became a hit. But that is not the main reason for its success: The whole production works because it is at the same time nostalgic and transgressive.
Transgressive is a word that I have always wanted to use in order to garner the attention and respect of academics. I'm not exactly sure what it means but I will tell you what I am referring to.
Brooks has created characters to bring tears of joy to any anti-Semite. The heroes, so called, are Max Bialystock, a theatrical producer who swindles old ladies out of their savings by seducing them (a cheat and a gigolo!), and Leo Bloom, a nebbish accountant who abandons his morals for the casting couch and finds his shiksa goddess in the ululating secretary-actress Ulla. Not to sound like Julius Streicher (or the punch line of one of my favorite jokes) but one could ask: What is it about you people and money? Yet I would venture to guess very few complaints have been lodged at the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
There are many possible explanations. First and foremost, Brooks' exuberance in both being Jewish and making fun of Jews forgives a lot of slurs. "The Producers" is brazen -- it is the very definition of chutzpah. I am reminded of my favorite moment in "Curb Your Enthusiasm": Larry David, overheard whistling Wagner, is accused of being a self-loathing Jew.
"Jew? Yes," he responds. "Self-loathing? Yes. But self-loathing Jew? No."
Second, Brooks is an equal-opportunity offender: Jews, Jewish women, Germans, Nazis, gays, cross-dressers, Swedes -- there's plenty of offense to go around.
Third, it is fair to ask: Is it really offensive?
Brooks has set "The Producers" in an idealized world that is post-World War II, but before any consciousness-raising. Bialystock and Bloom are Jews from the world of Noah's Bagels, a faraway land of nostalgic immigrant types. For Brooks, né Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, it is his own Anatevka. In fact, there is a number early in the first act where all the street people, including a homeless woman, dance a hora in front of the theater to the strains of klezmer music. 'Nuff said.
Most importantly, "The Producers" is funny. Funny with the original cast, funny with the stand-in cast, funny with Jason Alexander and Martin Short.
Over the last decade, many subjects have been labeled "off-limits" for humor first by the left -- the tyranny of political correctness; then by the right -- not a lot laughs in our post-Sept. 11, George W. Bush era of moral seriousness and high purpose. Over the last few decades, the Holocaust has become a subject to be confronted in classrooms, museums, monuments, movies and miniseries. In the last few weeks, "Hitler: The Rise of Evil" was a highly rated miniseries on CBS, and President Bush just visited and shed tears at Auschwitz.
"The Producers" is funny because it makes us laugh at things we're not supposed to laugh at. That's the transgressive part. Yes, it's a relief and it feels good to laugh at Jews, make fun of Hitler and Nazism, and leer at beautiful women who know they are sexpots -- all strictly verboten. Given what we know now, of the world and of the Holocaust -- and given how many Holocaust movies and documentaries we've all watched since then -- the pleasures of laughing at "Springtime for Hitler" are only increased, not diminished, because there is part of us that wants to walk away from the burden of our own self-seriousness.
Brooks accomplishes that for us. In this light, Nazis goose-stepping in a Busby Berkeley-like dance number is irresistibly funny. But that's only half the equation. Transgressive alone can be funny, but also edgy and uncomfortable. The reason "The Producers" is such a success is that it is also nostalgic. It does take us back to a kinder, gentler era, to that Anatevka in Times Square, where -- much like the '60s sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" -- Nazis are funny. The musical numbers, too, seem to come from a familiar world -- the world of musicals. No coincidence that the majority of new musicals each year are revivals (or increasingly adaptation of old films). Audiences are most comfortable with old-fashioned musicals. It should come as no surprise that Brooks straddles the old, the nostalgic and the funny with ease. He is, after all, "The 2000-year-old man."
Brooks is a genius. Geffen is a genius, too (this has nothing to do with the point I'm going to make, but it's a wise thing to say). Every so often an artist plying his trade becomes a genius. An idea comes to him or her that is so stupid -- it sounds like the worst idea anyone has ever had. Imagine, for example, a comic book about the Holocaust and the difficult relationships between Holocaust survivors and their children, in which all the Jews are mice and the Nazis are cats and the mice are sent to Mauschwitz. Who could think of anything sillier? Or an Italian clown who wants to make summer camp out of a concentration camp. Stupid. Yet somehow through the strange alchemy that is art, these works, "Maus," by Art Spiegelman, and "Life Is Beautiful," by Roberto Benigni, succeeded. "The Producers," in a similar fashion, creates magic. And it's funnier.
Alexander and Short will only get better in these roles. Alexander brings an aggressive edge and Short a zaniness to what, in the end, is a love story between Bialystock and Bloom. Although I'm sure people who've never left L.A. County will say they could have/should have seen it in New York, the show will sell out and soon people will be coming up with any ruse to get tickets to this most entertaining of productions. I should know: For my tickets, I had to write this article.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column on art and culture appears every two weeks in The Jewish Journal.