In April of 2001, times were good. The country was at peace, the economy was strong, and America seemed on top of the world. Into this twilight of easy living, appeared a show titled simply: THE PRODUCERS.
Seeing the THE PRODUCERS in New York that summer was a unique experience. With six-month waits and people paying hundreds of dollars above face value for seats, the wall-to-wall applause and laughter was as much the audience congratulating itself for getting in the door as it was for the performers on the stage.
Seeing it again Los Angeles last weekend, the show could be appreciated on its own terms. Once again the theater was packed, and once again the audience roared with laugher throughout. THE PRODUCERS still has its problems, but this production proves that with two larger-than-life personalities in the leads, it will likely remain a crowd-pleaser for years.
THE PRODUCERS wins over its audience thanks largely to its chutzpah; but for devotees of American musicals, it remains a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, the show-s faith in the classic conventions of musical comedy is refreshing. But at the same time, the show contains little (if anything) that pushes the art form of the musical at all towards the future. Besides the use a few expletives, there is little in THE PRODUCERS that you couldn-t have seen on stage forty years ago.
Of course, what draws crowds to musicals these days is not theatrical invention, but stars-which here at the Pantages means: Jason Alexander and Martin Short. It was recently announced that Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick will be returning to Broadway to reprise their roles as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom. Some Angelenos are no doubt thinking of waiting until their next trip to New York to see the THE PRODUCERS, but the good news for locals is that Alexander and Short make seeing it here worthwhile. Sure, there is something delightful in seeing Lane seducing old ladies and Broderick playing a nebbish accountant, but the show still rolls along without its original stars.
In fact, Alexander and Short are cast closer to type than their New York counterparts, resembling Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder from Mel Brooks-E1968 film-but in most other ways, the theatrical PRODUCERS is a different beast than the movie. The biggest difference between the musical and the film-besides ticket cost-is the ending. Thirty years ago, people paid a dollar fifty to see the two Broadway hucksters wind up producing musicals in jail. Today, people pay $100 to see the same hucksters embezzle two million dollars and get pardoned.
Things may have changed a great deal since THE PRODUCERS first opened, but the applause and laughter hasn-t subsided, even as the main characters cheat their investors and walk off-Eliterally-into the sunset. This may seem troubling to some, but then again the show also stars a singing and dancing Hitler, which indicates that figuring out just what Americans will find amusing is impossible to predict. Appropriately, THE PRODUCERS proves there-s a fortune available to those who guess right.
This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.