From Film to Stage and Back Again

“The Producers” winds up being too close to canned theater

Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” in its original Broadway incarnation lived up to the hype—a deliciously satisfying musical and comedy with a brilliant cast. It would be nice to say that the movie adaptation—the film directing debut of the show’s Tony-winning director and choreographer, Susan Stroman—was as much of a delight, but, sadly, the term “canned theater” applies all too well here. It brings to mind the similarly hyped 1964 film version of “My Fair Lady,” in which every stage movement and utterance was preserved like the Holy Grail. What liberties the filmmakers have taken with this show are ill-chosen.

They’ve cut the opening number of Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane), “The King of Broadway,” which did so much in establishing the schlocky tone of this eternal purveyor of Great White Way wretched refuse. Also gone, perhaps in the misguided interests of political correctness, is the funniest moment of the accounting song by Bialystock’s nebbishy mouse of a partner, Leopold Bloom (Matthew Broderick), wherein the sole black accountant absurdly gets to shine.

While one applauds the retention of so many original cast members, Stroman should have helped them rethink their performances—grown stale after so many live forays—to a new cinematic freshness. I recently caught a Broadway performance of the show, now in its fourth year, and was dismayed to see all the hamming and shameless milking for laughs. A like overwroughtness pervades the screen version, from the over-extended “ssssss…” at the end of a simple “Yes,” delivered by gay director’s assistant Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart), which goes on for an abysmal eternity.

Talented Gary Beach also gets to recreate the role that won him a Tony, the madly camp director Roger De Bris. He gets his laughs again, but they feel more wrested than earned. Stroman keeps him, and the other actors, in punishing close-up.

Throughout, the camera angles and editing seem off. While Stroman should be applauded for not resorting to the MTV chop-chop cutting of every other recent movie musical since “Chicago,” the numbers just seem to lie there, flat on the screen. I recall how, at the end of nearly every one of “Chicago’s” songs, moviegoers burst into spontaneous applause. Here, something like the “Little Old Ladyland” number, such a gas on Broadway, barely registers. The Nazi pigeons, another genius effect onstage, transferred verbatim, just don’t register on film with the same surprise-filled hilarity.

What original cast replacements there are don’t bring much fun to the party. Will Ferrell has never been one to tone anything down for the big screen, and his Nazi Franz Liebkind is bullying and charmless, devoid of the magical innocence that Brad Oscar brought to the role onstage. As Ulla, Bialystock & Bloom’s ultra-nubile Swedish secretary, Uma Thurman comes off more as a blonde Olive Oyl. I once considered her one of the screen’s reigning beauties, but this actress really needs to put on a few pounds to be convincingly sexy, and her singing and dancing attempts, while energetic, have a bland quality.

Which brings us to the leads. Broderick particularly suffers. His timing is off a beat, like so much of the film. And haven’t we all grown weary of the by-now patented, adenoidal nerd-schtick he employs for every role, from “How to Succeed in Business” to “The Foreigner” to “The Odd Couple?” The always effusive Lane is another actor in serious danger of becoming a one-trick pony, but at least he brings that manic energy which, intermittently, pumps something akin to life into the proceedings.

All might have been forgiven, if the filmmakers had at least delivered the movie’s centerpiece, the “Springtime for Hitler” number with an iota of the unhinged joy it had in the theater. Again, failing marks must be given—it has barely been reconceived for the screen and I was reminded of what costume designer William Ivey Long told me about his wardrobe budget, “It’s half of what I got for Broadway!” Like the rest of the movie, it is in desperate need of some sort of stylization and just looks downright cheap.

My advice—save the ten bucks, rent the 1968 movie and, for all of its low-budget clumsiness and cheese, enjoy it for its still extant sparkle and fun.

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