Review: The Producers (Movie, Musical Version)

I have a queer fascination for Mel Brook’s classic 1968 movie The Producers. It has been at least 25 years since I first saw it. I like the movie in part because it was so audacious, particularly for the year it came out. Some years back I tried to explain its appeal to my daughter. Born in 1989, from her perspective World War II might as well be The Civil War. Just what was it about a musical of Adolph Hitler that would be so shocking? Well, there was the horrific matter of the millions of Jews and other minorities he murdered. My fascination for it inspired us to go up to New York City in 2003 to see the show on Broadway.

A musical of the movie (it is about a Broadway musical designed to be a flop, so its producers could abscond with two million dollars) turned out to be even funnier than the movie. Mel Brooks, the creative comic genius behind both versions, outdid himself with the Broadway musical. Fortunately, Mel (now 81) is still very much among the living. As in the original movie, and in at least some shows on Broadway, and definitely in the movie musical version, Mel shows up for a cameo in the famous “Springtime for Hitler” number.

Over the weekend, we finally got around to seeing the movie of the musical The Producers. It stars its original Broadway attractions, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Having seen it on Broadway (but with different stars), I was curious if the movie could measure up.

As I mentioned in my review of the movie Rent transitioning a musical from the stage to film is a devilishly difficult chore, easy to screw up and hard to get right. Musicals are designed for the stage, not the wide screen. The movie Rent succeeded in part because it featured many of its stars from the original Broadway Cast. With Lane and Broderick, who have performed the roles of the washed up Broadway producer Max Bialystock and the shy accountant Leo Bloom literally hundreds of times on Broadway, the odds were that I would enjoy the movie.

I did very much enjoy the movie. However, after seeing it on Broadway I was sometimes dissatisfied with the choices made by director Susan Stroman in transitioning it to film. For the die-hard The Producers fans, the DVD does include the cut scenes in the bonus section. I feel removing these scenes really detracted from the movie. I would have preferred an uncut version that is more faithful to the stage.

Gratefully, most of the time Stroman gets the transition right. Lane is something of a serial Broadway actor. He inhabits the character of Max Bialystock with nearly, but not quite Zero Mostel’s sliminess. Broderick is looking a bit old for the part of Leo Bloom. Broderick tried hard to channel Gene Wilder, who played the original Leo Bloom, but gets only a B grade. Granted, Gene Wilder is a tough act to follow. I have yet to see an actor perform a manic role with more conviction than Gene.

Other parts in the movie soared while others hardly took off. Uma Thurmond was not quite right as the buxom and shapely Swede “Ulla”. Like Broderick, the 35-year-old actress looked at bit old for her part. On the other hand, Will Ferrell as the Nazi playwright of “Springtime for Hitler” is inspired. He should have performed it on Broadway. In playing the psychotic Franz Liebkind he finally graduates to the A comic actor list. Gary Beach reprises his Broadway role as the gay eccentric director Roger DeBris. He has lost none of his talent. The whole scene in the DeBris house may be the best part of the movie. It is funnier than it was on Broadway. I especially liked the parody of The Village People done at the end of the scene.

The sets of course are larger and more grandiose than on Broadway. The little old ladies, which Max uses as his source of financing (many of whom are performed by men), are no less funny than on stage.

Overall, there is little to complain about. The laughs come through a bit easier in the theater where there are hundreds laughing along with you. As a translation from stage to movie, it succeeds at about 85% of the time, which is much better than most. So I am confident that you will enjoy this rendering whether you have seen the version on stage or not.

Alas, soon it will be impossible to see it on the stage. The Broadway show, which premiered in 2001, is in its final weeks. So if you have not seen it staged you will likely have to content yourself with this movie version. It is nearly as enjoyable as seeing it on stage, but not quite. Thank goodness though it was brought to film. Otherwise, the staged version would be revived a few times, they probably forgotten. The musical deserves to be immortalized, and now it has been.

The movie gets a 3.2 on my 4.0 scale.

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