When you audition for a musical, you’re usually asked to sing, dance, read a scene, maybe perform a monologue. For The Producers, every auditioning actor not only had to sing and dance, they also had to tell a joke – and they had to tell that joke in front of Mel Brooks! Everyone we cast in that show was a true triple threat, and all of them had a real funny bone. And a bonus for me – I now had really good joke material to last me for years.
We were blessed with the lead actors – Matthew Broderick, Cady Hoffman, Brad Oscar, Gary Beach and Roger Bart, all led by the incomparable Nathan Lane. They knew how to deliver the material and played to the lovable eccentricity of their characters, somehow finding truth in the most outrageous situations. And they loved hearing the audience roar with laughter.
That is the greatest sound in the world – laughter. Nothing is more joyous than hearing a live audience laugh. It’s truly a tonic for the soul and the cast of The Producers ate it up.
I believe certain musicals have their moment, and their success can either be helped or hindered by what’s happening in the world. The Producers came along when there was a dearth of laughter onstage. Shows like Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, and Phantom of the Opera were the rage. The Producers has more laughs than even most musical comedies do, which is one of the reasons why audiences embraced it so. You know that old saying about people rolling in the aisles? In previews, I witnessed a man laugh so hard that he actually fell out of his seat and rolled in the aisle. I knew that wasn’t happening over at Phantom!
My collaboration with Mel Brooks was one of the best I’ve ever experienced. Everything about Mel is alive and living and present. He is noisy and colorful and funny all the time. He’s the type of writer who is very used to working with people – he feeds off other writers and actors. Not all writers are like that. Some need to lock themselves in a closet and not come out for a couple of days – but not Mel. He thrives off the life force of people, that’s how he creates, so our sessions together were completely energized. During our many meetings – which were always accompanied by bagels, cream cheese, and whitefish spread – Mel would become each character from the play. He would deliver the lines as Max Bialystock, Leo Bloom, or even Ulla! He would dance around my living room, imagining the production numbers and his co-writer Tom Meehan would write all of it down. Tom was excellent at structuring a show and knew just how to take a screenplay and transform it into a musical comedy. He and Mel were perfect together – a Jew and an Irishman. As they bantered back and forth, Mel would sometimes quote himself from Blazing Saddles – “WE DON’T WANT THE IRISH!”
For any show I do, I immerse myself in research from whatever era the story takes place in and its geographical location. That knowledge informs my staging and choreography, as well as the look of the show. This time I had to immerse myself in the world of Mel Brooks. The show needed to be more of a “Comedy Musical” instead of a “Musical Comedy”. And everyone was on the same page – especially legendary designers Robin Wagner, William Ivey Long, and Peter Kaczorowski.
A lot of the success of Mel’s comedy comes from characters who are familiar to us. For example, Mel’s idea of the ultimate “Little Old Lady” was a short, funny, blue hair with a walker. I asked myself what would be funnier than a little old lady with a walker? How about 25 little old ladies dancing with walkers!
So I went to a studio and worked out all the things you could do with a walker – jump on it, balance, tap, run, and even slide. And the “Walker Dance” was born! With the help of Robin Wagner’s valentine heart set and William Ivey Long’s identical blue lace dresses, we created “Little Old Lady Land”. The entire ensemble – men and women – were dressed as little old ladies, topped by wig master Paul Huntley’s perfect blue-haired wigs. Glen Kelly, an exceptional music arranger with an equally exceptional dry wit, drove “Along Came Bialy” to an explosive musical feast for the finale of Act One. In that one production number, I was able to show how Max Bialystock raised all the money for his productions by taking checks from – and wooing – many, many little old ladies. Nathan would weave in and out of the choreography, collecting checks and dancing with the likes of ‘Hold-me Touch-me’, ‘Kiss-me Feel-me’, and ‘Lick-me Bite-me’. I delighted in watching Nathan dance. I felt “everything was alright in the world” when I watched him dance.
Music and dance arranger Glen Kelly’s contribution to the score was immeasurable along with Doug Besterman’s brilliant orchestrations. They added wit to the music and made it dance. We really were blessed with a magnificent music department splendidly led by conductor and musical director Patrick Brady.
There are so many stories from the creation and run of The Producers. Our first preview out of town in Chicago was like a rock concert. The sound of the audience that night was deafening – like the roof was going to blow off the theater! It was overwhelming to think someone would love your show that much! We had worked so hard to get to that first show. Robin Wagner’s glorious set served the story and the comedy perfectly. With so many different set pieces in play, it was initially tough to navigate backstage. But we cracked it! After that first night, all of us – the full company and the creatives – went to the restaurant connected to the hotel where we were staying. Everyone was so elated and the mood so celebratory that, all of a sudden, a conga line formed! We all hopped on, creating a line that snaked around the restaurant several times. Everyone was dancing – Mel, his wife Anne Bancroft, Tom Meehan. Even Nathan – who is not the conga line type – got on that conga line!
The show’s principals were totally unique talents. Each one gave 100% that night and every show after. Nathan is a true powerhouse, born to play the part of Max Bialystock. He drove that show. Mel loved him so much in the part – it’s a beautiful thing when a writer is beyond happy and content with how his words are being delivered.
Nathan had a magical chemistry with Matthew. And Matthew was a perfect foil for Nathan. Mathew found so many small, interesting quirks that made Leo Bloom such a wonderfully nuanced character. The audience actually learned how to become a Broadway producer through the eyes of Leo Bloom.
Cady Huffman is a true triple threat. In “When You Got It, Flaunt It”, she did a back flip off of Max Bialystock’s desk and landed in a split – all while singing. And besides being just gorgeous, she also made Ulla smart. Ulla always knew exactly what she was doing.
Roger Bart was extraordinary as Carmen. Roger can find the funny in anything. When he initially auditioned, he read for the role of Franz Liebkind. He was fully prepared and fantastic, but ultimately not right for the part. As he left the room, it occurred to me that he should read for Carmen Ghia. I jumped up from the table and ran down the hall to the elevator, reaching it just as the doors were closing. I stopped the doors and asked Roger to please come back and read for another part. I told him I would give him time to prepare in the hallway before coming back in to see us. He took about five minutes. Then, Carmen Ghia came through the door and stood before us - making us laugh - and Roger got the part.
Brad Oscar, who played Franz Liebkind, was our hero. Mel wrote a song called “It’s Bad Luck to Say Good Luck on Opening Night”, which ends with Franz falling down the stage door stairs and breaking his leg. In real life, during previews in Chicago, our original Franz broke his knee. So his understudy Brad Oscar, who was swinging about six different roles, went on instead. Brad was brilliant – so brilliant – he took over the role. He got us through Chicago, opened on Broadway, and got a Tony nomination. He always tells swings and understudies how important it is to be ready to go on at any moment. And I always bring up Brad’s name when I talk about how swings are the true heroes of any show.
Gary Beach was perfect as Roger Debris. He and Roger Bart made an incredible team. Gary was so innately funny and somehow found a way to portray this capricious, over the top character and make him completely believable at the same time. He loved wearing the “Chrysler Building” dress – a William Ivey Long masterpiece – and he especially loved sitting on the edge of the stage á la Judy Garland.
As we started previews back in New York City, I was feeling good about the shape we were in. I was sure the show was funny, sure the show was beautiful, and sure the show was clearly telling the story – the journey of two men who began as unhappy adversaries only to become devoted friends and successful Broadway producers. What I was still slightly nervous about was how audiences might react to “Springtime for Hitler”.
I had created what I thought was a big, entertaining, show-within-a-show production number, but I was always apprehensive that perhaps one night an audience member would be aghast at seeing tap dancing Brownshirts, swastikas dangling from women’s breasts, and Hitler singing on stage.
Whenever we rehearsed “Springtime for Hitler”, I would ask stage management to lower the shades of the large studio windows because I worried some poor, unsuspecting person going about their daily life would look out their window and see 25 people goose-stepping and Sieg Heil-ing and ultimately call the cops. Out of context, the number worried me. So for every run through, the moment we hit that number you would hear the motor roar as the enormous shades were lowered. It became part of our everyday norm.
I even asked our clever costume designer William Ivey Long to attach the armband swastikas with Velcro so if at any point I felt the audience was uncomfortable, we could simply rip them off. William understood and happily obliged. I knew this was a big ask because if you were to question William Ivey Long about the sound he dislikes most in the world, his answer would be, “The sound of Velcro during a quick change.”
Still, we had made it through the entire Chicago run without any problems. In fact, the audience went crazy at the finale of the number. Brownshirts pirouetting, girls in red pointe shoes dressed as tanks, parachuters flying in from above, and Gary Beach dressed as Hitler standing center stage atop a giant globe – all buttoned with the sounds of gunshots and exploding cannons.
As we say in the business, the number killed in Chicago. So I was calmer as we went into our New York City previews, and felt certain that people would be following the plot and understand the satirical nature of this 15-minute-long musical number. And then, it happened...
We were in our third preview at the St. James Theater. I was sitting on the stairs at the back of house, noting the show. The spectacular Gary Beach, playing Roger De Bris dressed as Hitler, walked to the edge of the stage, sat down and sang:
I WAS JUST A PAPER HANGER
NO ONE MORE OBSCURER,
GOT A PHONE CALL FROM THE REICHSTAG,
TOLD ME, I WAS FUHRER
An older man who had previously been enjoying the show, but clearly not paying much attention to the plot, became incensed. As far as he was concerned, Hitler himself was sitting on the edge of the stage four feet away from him. He leapt from his seat and started toward the aisle. This tall, lanky man, maybe 80 years old, seemed slightly confused and was struggling to make his way to the end of the row, loudly cursing and hollering about the audacity of it all. “How could you? This is abominable! You are all an impudent group of bastards!” He went on and on and on. I jumped up from my seat on the stairs and headed to the top of the aisle. My biggest fear had come true. Was this going to happen every night? Why was tonight different from all other nights?
As the man stomped up the aisle toward the exit, he spotted Mel sitting at the end of a row. The man raced towards him, screaming. Mel stood up. As the man reached Mel, he yelled, “How could you? I was in World War II!” I thought for sure Mel would say something profound to calm this poor man. But, without missing a beat, Mel yelled back, “You were in World War II? I was in World War II and I didn’t see you there!”
So now these two alter kakers were fighting full voiced at the back of the house. Out of nowhere, our no-nonsense company manger Laura Green grabbed both men by the scruff of their necks and tossed them out onto 44th Street and locked the doors.
Watching from inside the lobby, I could see Mel outside shake hands with the man and watch him walk away. He then came up to the theater doors and knocked on the glass to please let him back in. I opened the door and he rushed right back to his seat. After that night, nothing like that moment ever happened again. “Springtime for Hitler” played to roaring laughter and applause. It was strange that my big fear had come true, only to come and go in a matter of five minutes and never return again. Proof that you can’t judge your previews by one audience.
As I said, there are so many wonderful stories from The Producers. This show made many people very happy – the people watching it and the people working on it. Of course, how I took the reins as director and choreographer is a much more poignant story.
Originally, my husband Mike Ockrent and I were set to be the director and choreographer team for The Producers – just as we had been on Crazy for You, A Christmas Carol, and Big. For a few glorious months, we worked and laughed with Mel and Tom to turn this beloved cult classic into a musical. Then Mike was diagnosed with leukemia and all meetings stopped. Only 18 months after he was diagnosed, Mike lost his battle. Even as I write this, it is still hard to believe. I was the last one to know he was dying. I so thought he would rally. He passed on December 2nd, 1999. That remains the worst day of my life. I loved him more than words can say. And I know he loved me. It was the kind of romance I only read about in novels. I had experienced a deep, deep, true love and I was so heartbroken. For months the grief felt as if it was living just under the surface of my skin, that if I squeezed my arm, something dark and awful would ooze out of me. I missed him terribly.
In February of the new year, Mel and Tom came to visit me. I had not seen either of them for a while. I sat in a big chair in my living room. Mel and Tom entered and came down the hallway. I stood and hugged them both very hard. They had become good and fast friends over the last year and I felt extremely close to them.
Mel said, “Tom and I have been thinking this over. We know this is a bad time to ask, but we want YOU to direct The Producers.” I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t speak. My first thought was to say no. And then I decided to just let them talk. To be honest, I was already drained of any emotion.
Tom spoke next. “We’ve seen you direct Contact. We’ve seen you direct The Music Man. And you have been on this journey with me and Mel every minute. You know the show inside and out.”
The whole situation was making me very uncomfortable. Nauseous, actually. I told them I didn’t think I was up to the task. I was leaning towards saying no. My mind flashed to a conversation I had had with Mike a few months before he passed. He told me “If anything happens to me, see these projects through.” At the time it was impossible for me to take in his words about show business.
Then Mel Brooks said to me, “If you want to feel alive again, you will do this. You will wake up every morning and cry, and you will go to sleep every night and cry. But in between, you will laugh. I will make you laugh.”
And that is how I became the director and choreographer of what would become the most awarded musical in the history of Broadway.
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Robin Wagner
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design by Steve Canyon Kennedy
Musical Direction by Patrick S. Brady