Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock
Matthew Broderick as Leo Bloom
Uma Thurman as Ulla
Will Ferrell as Franz Liebkind
Roger Bart as Carmen Ghia
Gary Beach as Roger De Bris
John Lovitz as Mr. Marks
Andrea Martin as Little Old Lady Investor
Debra Monk as Little Old Lady Investor
If “The Producers” isn’t the most perfect movie musical in years, then it comes pretty damn close thanks to the simple adage that if something isn’t broke, then there’s no need to try and fix it.
Accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) has always dreamed of being a Broadway producer, so when he meets Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane), who has been responsible for many a Broadway flop, the duo comes up with a clever get-rich scheme that could turn his next flop into a huge windfall. But first, they have to find the world’s worst director and star to make sure that “Springtime for Hitler” is the greatest abomination Broadway has ever seen.
When I reviewed “Rent” a few weeks ago, I let slip how much I hate Broadway musicals, but that wasn’t completely true. I’ve actually seen one Broadway musical in the last few years, and that was “The Producers” based on the hilarious Mel Brooks movie from the late ’60. When I saw it earlier this year, the Tony winning cast, including Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, had already moved onto other things, so the show had its fifth Bialystock, a third Bloom, and an understudy for Ula, and yet, it was still excellent and had me in stitches.
Here, we have a movie version of the musical that brought so many people into the St. James Theatre with most of the original players and the production’s original director and choreographer, Susan Stroman, behind the camera. It doesn’t take long to figure out why Mel Brooks had so much success on Broadway. After all, he’s often paid tribute to those great MGM movie musicals in his work, and it only makes sense that the movie version of the stage production would let him return to the extravagant glory of yesteryear in making everything even bigger for the movie.
For the most part, the story sticks very faithfully to the stage musical, the most immediate change, besides a bit more physical comedy, being the trimming of the opening number by losing Lane’s soliloquy “The King of Broadway” to get to the introduction of Leo Bloom faster. Most of the interior scenes look exactly like the same sets from the musical, only built on a larger scale on soundstages that can accommodate cameras. There are a few exceptions like when the musical numbers make a brief jaunt into New York’s Central Park or the opening shot of the real Times Square, but for the most part, it’s the same. Stroman doesn’t attempt to bring the stage musical into the real world, as much as playing with the ability to have cameras get close in on the actors’ faces to play up that aspect of the humor. Because of that, it’s not just that you just have the best seats in the house, but you actually feel as if you’re onstage.
It’s pretty obvious why Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were such a big draw on Broadway, since they have the chemistry of a classic comedy duo with Lane playing the love child of Jerry Lewis or Lou Costello with his over-the-top delivery as Bialystock. He offers the most laughs overall, and is especially impressive with his later solo number “Betrayed” in which he recaps the entire story so far in less than a minute. While they’re great when paired together, Broderick is clearly the weak link when left to his own devices and his numbers, mostly romantic ballads like “That Face” and “Til Him”, aren’t as strong as the lavish comedic numbers.
Which may be why Gary Beach and Roger Bart steal the movie from right under Lane and Broderick when they show up midway through the story, as the cross-dressing director Roger DuBris and his man-Friday Carmen Ghia who take gay stereotypes to a new level of hilarity. The film’s Hollywood ringers are also outstanding, especially Uma Thurman as Ulla (for shorther full Swedish name would be too long to repeat) who sings and dances her way into your hearts with a small but memorable role. The good news for Will Ferrell is that he’s finally found his perfect role; the bad news is that it’s as the singing and dancing Nazi Franz Liebkind, who also steals the scenes from the popular duo. If you’re a fan of Ferrell’s, you’ll want to stick around to the very end of the end credits for a special treat or two.
There are few chances in life where you’re able to capture something that worked well in one medium on film, but that’s exactly what Stroman has done with this wonderful movie that’s as much a tribute to Broadway and movie musicals, as it is to the unforgettable irreverent humor of Mel Brooks. Here’s hoping that “Blazing Saddles: The Musical” is next!
The Bottom Line:
Not everyone is going to appreciate Mel Brooks’ irreverent humor about Nazis and homosexuals, but if you’re able to laugh at the outlandish premise and characters, then you can sit back and enjoy some of the catchiest tunes seen in film since the days of MGM. Either way, Stroman and her cast have done a wonderful job capturing this musical comedy for posterity.
The Producers opens in a single theatre in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto and San Francisco on Friday, and then elsewhere on Christmas Day, December 25.