The Producers

Sony Classical - Original Bway Cast

CD Review by John Kenrick

This is what all the fuss is about?

The major critics have lavished praised on The Producers, hailing it as the triumphant return of musical comedy to Broadway. Judging by this cast recording, the score is an amateur effort dressed up in extraordinarily professional trappings. I'm not saying the Emperor has absolutely no clothes on, but he better put some sunscreen on his tush.

Mel Brooks is one of the most brilliant comic minds of our time, and his best films (The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein) have always featured campy musical send-ups, some of which Brooks composed himself. The Producers showstopper "Springtime for Hitler" and History of the World's "Inquisition" have kept audiences laughing for more than a generation. But popular tastes change, and with big screen comedies getting dumb and dumber, Brooks has not had a hit film in years. Falling back on one of his classics, he has reworked The Producers as a Broadway musical. Although an experienced scriptwriter, Brooks had the good sense to have veteran librettist Thomas Meehan help with the book. So why did he think he could take on the music and lyrics of a full length score single-handedly?

The result is a series of tongue in cheek pastiches. Most fall quite pleasantly on the showtune-lover's ear, and there are loads of laughs, but something is missing. Like maybe a little heart and a little art? So long as a show is funny, craft means nothing? I beg to differ. A musical comedy score needs variety, and Brooks offers no songs with genuine sentiment to balance out the laughs. His lyrics can be very funny, but his rhymes are often obvious and – although it marks me as out of date to say it – I never respect a lyricist who resorts to the "f" word to force a chuckle. Come on Mel, we deserved something better.

(Alright, alright – "hotsy-totsy Nazi" is a good one, but its a lonely moment.)

How sad that none of the major critics had constructive criticism for this score. Mind you, these are the same critics who dissect the hell out of every other score that comes to town – and for Brooks they throw any sense of professional standards to the wind? How silly. This all affirms the old Russian proverb – "In the garden with no birds, the croaking frog is the king of song."

Some folks insist we should be grateful that there are new musical comedies, no matter how clunky. But I refuse to pretend that Brooks' score for The Producers is a praiseworthy professional product. If the Broadway musical comedy score truly is a thing of the past, why stoop to acclaiming false resurrections? As a full-length CD, Brooks' songs ultimately make for some damned dull listening. Anyone other than Brooks would have been roasted for bringing this to Broadway.

Mind you, there is fun to be had. "Springtime for Hitler" is a riot, but we've known that for more than thirty years. (Fellow Brooks fans will be delighted to hear him on the CD, singing the same "Don't be stupid, be a smarty" line he dubbed in the film.) The new songs range from the obvious old-school fag jokes in "Keep It Gay" to pseudo-ballads like "That Face." "Along Came Bialy" is a tribute (?) to the horniness of old ladies on walkers, and there are several mock-German spoofs for those who still find that sort of thing funny.

But Brooks never lets his characters sing with any genuine heart. Every song keeps things at a cartoon level. A case in point, is "You Never Say Good Luck on Opening Night" – the performers have to bend over backwards to keep this prolonged one-joke wonder afloat. The lyric itself has no real emotion to back it up. Worse, it is not really funny. Even the ballads never stop kidding. That may not sound so bad, but musicals are like people – after more than two hours, a tongue planted firmly in your cheek is bound to feel worn out.

You can't blame the incomparable cast. Nathan Lane audibly confirms his place as Broadway's reigning musical comedian, but the only song that really meets his level is "Betrayal," a dizzying one man re-enactment of everything in the show leading up to it. Matthew Broderick has long since perfected the art of playing a nebbish, and his singing has improved since How to Succeed. It is high time these two Tony winners got to create great new musical characters of their own.

Gary Beach sounds like he's having a scenery-chewing blast as the effeminate director, and his "Springtime for Hitler" (he steps in at the last moment to play the role on opening night) is a camp triumph. I was disappointed to find the delightful Roger Bart musically underused. Brad Oscar and Cady Hoffman do their damnedest as ethnic caricatures. Doug Besterman's orchestrations are classic Broadway all the way, and both musical supervisor Glen Kelly and conductor Patrick S. Brady turn in flawless work here.

The CD packaging is outstanding, providing photos, lyrics and more, and the recording is technically excellent. It must have been hell making the taps on those walkers (yes, you read that right) sound so good! With Kiss Me Kate, Music Man and now The Producers to his credit, historian Hugh Fordin has firmly established himself as the top cast recording producer in the business. More power to him!

Hey, why should we complain? The Producers will run for years – or at least as long as Lane and Broderick stay the course. Audiences are lined up around the block and the ecstatic reviews (the usually understated Time called it "a gift from the show-biz gods") keep piling up. I would not be surprised if the book, the stellar performances and Susan Stroman's staging are so hilarious that the score hardly matters. But if the score hardly matters what was the point of making this old film into a musical?

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