Springtime for Broadway

'The Producers,' '42nd Street,' & 'Stones in His Pockets'

Like Genghis Khan across the Asian steppes, like the tulip in seventeenth-century Holland, like J.K. Rowling on the shelves of juvenilia, Mel Brooks’s The Producers has rampaged onto Broadway, strewing headlines in its wake. With high-profile stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick cast in the leads, the show (which is based on Brooks’s 1968 movie and features a book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan) had nearly overwhelmed theatrical buzz circuits long before it opened in April. Then, the day after New York reviewers had chimed in on the hilarity of the script and songs (music and lyrics by Brooks); the cast’s impeccable acting; and the pitch-perfect touches by director Susan Stroman, the production broke box-office records, generating more than $3 million in ticket sales in one day. It then went on to win an unprecedented twelve Tony Awards, including best musical.

Everything has gone right, in short, for the producers of The Producers, a musical about producers who conspire to make everything go wrong. In this wicked spoof, the less-than-scrupulous impresario Max Bialystock (Lane) hooks up with a shy accountant (Broderick) in an ingenious scheme: create the worst show ever, raise funds like mad for it, and pocket the surplus money when the play flops-a cinch, the duo thinks once they’ve cooked up Springtime for Hitler, a musical about Der Führer himself.

Stroman’s production is decked from start to finish with brilliant gags (one may as well pay tribute here to the already much-remarked-upon mechanical Nazi pigeons), many of the best of them poking fun at theatrical history and show-biz clichés-the Busby Berkeley-style choreographed human swastika, the chorus line of hobbling, sex-starved little old ladies, etc. Two blocks away, the revival of the 1980s hit 42nd Street is billing itself as "The Broadway musical for people who love Broadway musicals." The Producers has the advantage of appealing to that crowd plus all the people who’d prefer to think they hate Broadway musicals.

The Producers and 42nd Street aren’t the only musicals-about-musicals to parachute into New York recently. Early April saw the much-trumpeted opening of Follies, a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s legendary elegy on lost innocence and the history of musical theater. Linda Kline and Lonny Price’s A Class Act attempts to fish from obscurity the story of composer and lyricist Edward Kleban. And critics have proclaimed the Off-Broadway musicals Batboy and Urinetown (yes, you read those names right) to be sly tributes to the form’s conventions.

Overinterpretation is a hazard here, but the themes of these shows do seem to echo the self-consciousness and nostalgia that have plagued the genre in recent years. Angst runs rampant in the field that once forged Oklahoma and now spawns The Full Monty. Why don’t new projects with impressive artistic credentials-for example, last year’s two adaptations of the Jazz Age poem The Wild Party-earn the kind of audience loyalty that, say, the current revival of Kiss Me, Kate has? Why do philistines continually accuse contemporary theater composers of being unable to craft a good tune? Why do staged movies with celluloid hearts (Saturday Night Fever, Footloose) flourish despite critical pans? And what is the significance of Disney’s sally into the arena (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast), commanding the breadth of resources that might typify a villain in a James Bond film?

If Disney is Goliath, shows like The Producers and A Class Act, with their focus (however waggish) on individuals cobbling shows together from scratch, sling stones for David. Even 42nd Street, about a glitzy spectacle mounted by a producer of Michael Eisner proportions, exults in the muse-courting abilities of creative men and women. Based on the plots of 42nd Street and other 1930s films, with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin (Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble wrote the book), the show takes the quintessential star-is-born story and inks in a lot of tap dancing and just enough characterization to give songs like "We’re in the Money" and "Lullaby of Broadway" a narrative framework.

Said narrative follows the initiation of small-town naif Peggy Sawyer (tap-dancing phenomenon Kate Levering) into big-time show biz. Recruited by legendary producer Julian Marsh (the frosty Michael Cumpsty) for his new spectacular, Peggy finds herself taking over the lead at the last minute when petulant diva Dorothy Brock (Christine Ebersole) is injured. But 42nd Street, which won the Tony for best musical revival, is less interested in personalities and plot twists than in the condition of being stage-struck. From Peggy’s gotta-dance optimism to Julian Marsh’s steely conviction ("Musical comedy: the most glorious words in the English language!"), the extravaganza exults in the passion that keeps a substantial subset of humanity signing up for Equity cards.

Compared to the inspired buoyancy of The Producers, 42nd Street exudes a vague theme-park air; it always feels like a slightly sentimental re-creation of a re-creation-which is what it is. Still, you can’t bear much ill will toward a theme park that’s so gorgeously executed, thanks to director Bramble, set designer Douglas W. Schmidt, costumer Roger Kirk, and lighting designer Paul Gallo. Scenes like the "In the Money" number, in which the dancers cavort on (and off) huge silver dollars, or momentary tableaux like an arc of chorines whose costumes create a full rainbow, red through violet, across the stage, are truly dazzling. Although the datedness of the book and lyrics propels you toward a certain ironic detachment ("They’re paying $4.40 a seat out there," one character announces solemnly of his audience), it’s tempting to succumb to the vision. Getting your paychecks by singing and dancing-that’s the way to live!

You get a more profound, and depressing, insight into the metamusical phenomenon if you turn to Stones in His Pockets, a work that actually has nothing to do with musicals. Marie Jones’s play contains neither tunes nor tune-related narrative, but it makes a sweeping critique of our addiction to entertainment in general-and it might as well be commenting on the Great White Way. Stones depicts a small Irish town that is invaded by a team of boorish Hollywood filmmakers. As the shooting progresses, the town’s residents give themselves over to vicarious glamour, competing for work as extras and ogling the stars, apparently indifferent to the film’s ersatz Celtic aesthetic ("He didn’t like the cows; he said they don’t look Irish enough," one local marvels after overhearing a comment by the director).

In Ian McElhinney’s production, which originated in Belfast and subsequently became the toast of London, virtuoso actors Seán Campion and Conleth Hill play fifteen characters, including an officious, mincing, female assistant director (Campion, brushing imaginary tresses from his shoulder) and the screen siren Caroline (Hill, perpetually twisting an imaginary earring). With apparent effortlessness, the duo juggle voices and mannerisms, conjuring up a bustling world without the aid of set or costume changes and lending intensity to a script that can be distressingly slack (lopping off a third of the show’s two and one-half hour length would greatly improve it).

Despite the often hilarious impersonations, Stones in His Pockets broadcasts a rather grim message: We succumb to pop culture-and narratives about the creation of pop culture-out of desperation. Jones’s characters fixate on the movie set because the filmmakers seem to be doing something rewarding and meaningful-it’s a way for the townspeople to distract themselves from the emptiness of their lives. One man who fails to talk his way onto the set, in fact goes on to commit suicide.

The modern world has placed so much emphasis on diversion, the play suggests, that entertainment has become a substitute for meaning. Stories about the making of entertainment (musicals, for example) have become mythic, but also addictive. It’s not an idea you can take 100 percent seriously, or it would be impossible to get up in the morning, but it’s something to think about while standing in line for The Producers.

Published in the 2001-06-15 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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