Friday, February 11, 2011

I Wanna Thank 'The Producers' -- Celebrating Leo & Max on the 10th Anniversary of their first producing tremendous enjoyment

The original Chicago Tribune announcing
The Producers pre-Broadway tryout
This past Tuesday in Chicago I saw a new touring production of Les Miserables, which I believe to be the best Broadway musical ever created. But as I noted in my review, Les Miz is not quite my favorite musical of all-time.

Given my title and graphics here, I don't think you're exactly in much suspense. But when I saw the full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune at left on November 12, 2000, I had attended only a handful of other musicals and had never seen the classic Mel Brooks movie on which he based his stage production of The Producers. And as this was to be the musical's "pre-Broadway tryout," with tickets going on sale weeks before the start of its February 2001 run at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre, I knew virtually nothing about it.

So it was somewhat fortuitous that I had enough of an appreciation for the greatness of Nathan Lane--and an American Express card--to buy advance tickets for a Sunday night performance on February 11, 2001, or exactly 10 years ago today.

As I'll elaborate upon, I've now seen The Producers on stage a total of 11 times, but as the cliche goes, there's nothing like the first time.

With my mom, sister Allison and myself in prime fourth row seats for what was just the 14th public performance of a theatrical work that would go on to be seen by millions around the world, I still don't think I have ever laughed harder. I'm sure Brooks, who wrote the music & lyrics, director Susan Stroman, co-book writer Thomas Meehan and other creators continued to tinker throughout the rest of the run of previews--it wouldn't officially "open" in Chicago until the following Sunday--but they had clearly produced a magnificent, monster smash from the get go (as corroborated legendary Tribune theater critic Richard Christiansen in his review on Feb. 19, 2001).

Offensive jokes insulting just about everyone (Jews, gays, blacks and more), audacious dance routines and a central conceit featuring Adolf Hitler went over as well as anyone--certainly not Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom--could ever have imagined. And with Ron Orbach, who was to play Franz Leibkind, himself the ironic victim of an injury, the central Broadway cast--Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Brad Oscar (as Leibkind), Ron Beach, Cady Huffman and Roger Bart, all of whom would go on to earn Tony nominations, with Lane, Beach & Huffman winning--was in place...and absolutely phenomenal.

If I wasn't already sold on Broadway musicals as an art form about which to be passionate, I was fully enraptured after my initial viewing of The Producers. So in planning a trip to New York City in June 2001 to see U2 at Madison Square Garden and catch the Mets play the Expos at Shea (two of which are now extinct), I bought a ticket to see The Producers on Broadway.

Beyond getting a chance to see the original cast on the Great White Way in catching the show a second time--Lane and Broderick still rank as the best Max/Leo pairing, by far--this worked out in incredibly fortuitous fashion. To begin with, while planning my trip I bought an excellent balcony seat at face value for $46. By the time I got to the St. James Theatre on June 17, 2001, The Producers was likely the hottest ticket in the history of Broadway, having won a record-setting 12 Tony Awards (out of 15 nominations) just 2 weeks before.

And while I would have been quite happy with my balcony seat, a woman next to me said she had a friend sitting by herself in the orchestra section. 'Would I mind switching seats with her friend?' she asked.

Once I ascertained that there was no way this was a scam, I happily made the trade and wound up sitting six rows from the stage, in a seat that was probably being scalped for a grand and that the box office would subsequently start selling for hundreds ($99 was the face value on the ticket at the time, but the lady & I made an even trade).

Although the shock value the second time obviously couldn't match the first--patrons around me seemed puzzled as to why I wasn't loudly guffawing like they were--the quality of the show (both the source material and the performance) was every bit as wonderful as I initially experienced. So beyond simply being someone who enjoyed "The Producers," I became something of a groupie (sans any stalking; even the signed program above was admittedly an eBay purchase).

If you really care, you can click my collage of Producers tickets to see it larger, but I next saw the show upon a trip to Cleveland in October 2002, where the first national tour was playing before routing back to Chicago the following Fall.

In May 2003, I traveled to Los Angeles and saw The Producers at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.
I really don't ever need an excuse to go to LA, where I lived in the early '90s and still have friends. But even though I also attended a Coldplay concert at the Hollywood Bowl--the only time I've ever been there--the true impetus for my trip was seeing the West Coast premiere of The Producers.

It starred Jason Alexander as Max Bialystock and Martin Short as Leo Bloom, the only time that pairing played the leads, as far as I know.

I also caught the show early in its London premiere in late 2004. Richard Dreyfuss was supposed to play Max, with British comedian Lee Evans as Leo. Dreyfuss dropped out before the run began and Nathan Lane stepped in, only having to bow out himself after just a few weeks due to back problems. But he was there when I was, on November 15, 2004, making for the third time I'd seen him in the role.

By February 2005, I had seen The Producers on stage seven times in its first 4 years in existence, but that didn't stop me from catching it again that May in New York, with Richard Kind as Max and Roger Bart, who had won a Tony for originating the Carmen Ghia role and was then having TV success on Desperate Housewives, as Leo.

I've since seen it three more times, including the regional theater premiere at Marriott Linconshire in fall 2007, in Leo was well-played by Guy Adkins, an accomplished local actor who would pass away from cancer in 2010 at just 41.

But it has now more than two years--my longest stretch ever--since last seeing The Producers, which closed on Broadway in 2007, despite initials predictions of a 20-year run, and also ended its touring cycle after many years.

Fortunately, the stage musical based on Brooks' 1968 comedic classic--which I have now seen--begat a 2005 musical film, which I own (along with the Original Broadway Cast Recording) and can watch anytime. However, I don't love the movie musical nearly as much as live renditions, though it stars Lane and Broderick. 

Although I have found that the quality of the piece--including very much so Brooks' score--has held up exceptionally well at every level, even without celebrity stars, I don't know that given all its raunch, The Producers will ever make to the high school or community theater circuit. But as referenced in its Wikipedia article, the show has played in dozens of countries, in myriad languages, and I have no doubt that I will see it on stage again someday. Somewhere.

And if only I could sing, I think I would make a helluva Max.

(Here's a clip from the 2001 Tony Awards, where The Producers won 12 trophies, still the most ever for a musical.)

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