Nearly 78, Mel Brooks Still Has a Song in His Heart, A Skip in His Step and a Monster Hit on His Hands
By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page N01
Tips for interviewing Mel Brooks:
1) Show up on time.
2) Turn on tape recorder.
3) Ask one question.
4) Make sure tape recorder is working.
5) Sit back. Maintain eye contact. Laugh at jokes.
It's a stinky-humid June day, but the temperature is mild. Brooks -- he is also at times known as "the King of Broadway" or, simply, "Jew Extraordinaire" -- has showed up early and is seated at the far end of a publicist's conference table, waiting to hold court. Before him is a plate of gravlax (looks like lox but "lightly smoked and just a little salt") from Michael's, where, he announces, all theater people take their power lunches.
For Brooks, who turns 78 tomorrow, things are good. This summer he and his wife, Anne Bancroft -- one of show business's most intriguing couples -- will celebrate their 40th anniversary. And he is deep into what he describes as the Third Act of his loony and illustrious career. Having made his mark as a television writer on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" and having spent decades as a filmmaker ("Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "High Anxiety"), he's reinvented himself as a theatrical songwriter and librettist. His maiden effort, as everyone surely knows, is "The Producers," a musical version of his first movie. The show is now in its fourth year on Broadway and last week arrived for a rather tardy first visit to Washington. (It's playing at the Kennedy Center through Aug. 22.)
"The Producers," like any other musical megahit, has grown into a franchise, with five companies running and London yet to come. In addition to his authorial credits, Brooks is a producer of the show, and "I'm very involved in the casting, and in the design and opening of each company," he says. "We feel like Tiffany's. I mean, everything has to be perfect, you know. We're the best."
It certainly was the best in its premiere season at the St. James Theatre, hauling in a record 12 Tony Awards and, buoyed by the definitive star performances of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, becoming an almost unattainable ticket.
Brooks is in an expansive mood today, and he looks mighty dapper in a black shirt, light-colored sport coat and burgundy kerchief. Having polished off the gravlax, he now wants to tell the story of "The Producers." A couple of latter-day controversies have attached themselves to the show, and he'll get to them, but first, The Story.
"It's a wonderful story," he says assuringly, spooning foam from a cappuccino cup.
History of 'The Producers,' Part I
The musical, based on Brooks's 1968 movie, is the saga of Max Bialystock, a failed impresario who enlists a nebbishy accountant named Leo Bloom to help pull off a surefire score: They'll find a project so atrocious it's guaranteed to bomb, then raise, oh, 250 times the capital they need to stage it. Once the show's been murdered by critics, the extra money's all theirs. But when "Springtime for Hitler" opens, it's a smash, and Bialystock and Bloom are in a world of hurt.
Some people -- but not Brooks -- have forgotten that "The Producers" was never a hit on the screen. Critics mostly trashed it, and even after its creator somewhat surprisingly walked off with an Oscar for his story and screenplay, it never earned back its meager $941,000 budget.
"It was like a cult favorite," he says, "and a kind of a hip and smart sort of success, but it never played Texas or Kansas. Never played the Midwest."
A few years back, David Geffen, the Hollywood producer, decided the movie had theatrical potential and began to hound Brooks to get on board.
"And I said, 'David, it's just beginning to sell on DVD now.' . . . I said, 'Geffen, things are good. Let's not spoil -- you know. "The Producers" is just -- actually making a profit as a DVD.' "
Geffen persisted. "He's like a terrier," Brooks says. "He gets the cuff of your pants, he growls. . . . When he gets excited, he's crazy. He gets crazy. So he calls me every day. Every single day. 'Who is it?' 'It's David Geffen -- he has to talk to you, it's urgent!' I said, 'What? It's urgent? What is it now, David?' 'You've gotta do -- ' I said, 'I'm not doing it!'
"So finally I said, 'All right.' "
Geffen thought Jerry Herman ("Hello, Dolly!," "Mame," "La Cage aux Folles") should write the score and sent Brooks to meet with him.
Two steps forward, one step back: The composer thought the project was a great idea but said he wasn't interested in writing it. "He said, 'Springtime for Hitler' " -- the deliriously tasteless number from Brooks's show-within-a-show -- 'is already your "Dolly!" . . . It's the musical centerpiece of the show.' He said, 'But I have a guy who would be great. A lyricist and composer for you. Let me play some of his songs. He's the best one for this job.' . . . The first song he played was 'High Anxiety.' And Jerry played everything I'd ever written. And he picked up the phone and he called David, and he said, 'David, you're crazy. Mel is a great songwriter. He's unexplored and unexploited as a composer.' "
Brooks wrote a song on spec, and Geffen liked it. Then he wrote another, and Geffen liked it, too.
"And then -- then I got very excited," he remembers. "I got very excited. The next song I wrote was 'I wanna be a producer, with a hit show on Broadway.' . . . You know? And so we were on our way."
Happy days. "For a writer, especially for a composer like myself, the greatest joy is writing new songs, new tunes," he says. "And I think I'm out of fashion, because I write like -- I mean, it's silly for me to say this -- but I do write like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Which is so out of date. . . . It's so passe. But it's so, for me, forever. Yah. 'Embraceable You' still works, you know. 'You're the Top' or 'De-Lovely.' . . . I grew up worshiping Gershwin and Kern and Porter and Berlin. And Frank Loesser. 'Guys and Dolls,' such a masterpiece. So I'm not gonna change my style."
History of 'The Producers,' Part II
It seems like a pretty fancy word when you think of those cowboys breaking wind around the campfire in "Blazing Saddles," but in the movies, Brooks was an auteur. He wrote his pictures, he directed them, he did the music and lyrics for them, he acted in them. Yet when he turned his attention to the theater, he emerged as a thoroughgoing team player, bringing in a collaborator for the book and handing over the directorial reins.
No surprise there, says his co-librettist, Thomas Meehan ("Annie," "Hairspray"), who worked on two of Brooks's movies.
"He was always a team player on his movies," Meehan says. "He likes to have a lot of people around him to bounce things off of. He loves the creative process. . . . On his pictures it was always a lot of fun. He was the head writer, but he wanted other writers around all the time."
Brooks says he never considered directing the musical: "I thought taking on the job of writing 20 songs was such a Herculean task that I needed -- Tom said to me, 'Geffen has somebody in mind to direct, but I met a guy I fell in love with, and I want to work with him someday. . . . The guy's name is Mike Ockrent.' " Ockrent had made a name for himself with "Me and My Girl" and "Crazy for You."
The two writers got together with Ockrent. "He says, ' "The Producers" is my favorite movie' -- I'm not making this up -- 'of all the movies I've ever seen in my life, and that includes "Citizen Kane," "Grand Illusion," you know.' . . . He says, 'It's the best movie. It's the best movie ever made.' So he says, 'I'd be privileged and honored.' And he introduces us to his wife, Susan Stroman. So we meet Stroman, and she's the one who did all those great dances in 'Crazy for You.' And such a talented lady."
Work proceeded steadily, and then Ockrent, who had battled leukemia in the past, suffered a relapse and died at 53.
Stroman "was crushed, we were crushed," Brooks recalls. But after a time, he and Meehan returned to work on the show and became convinced that Stroman was the person to direct it.
"She was just, just in tears, she was just in tears all the time. So we didn't let up. Just like Geffen never let up on me. I never let up. I just said, 'You can't. What do you do? You just go home and cry.' I said, 'You can work all day and cry all night. That's your job. Work all day, cry all night.' She said no, and finally she said, 'All right, I'll try.' And little by little we got her crazier and crazier and more interested, until finally . . . she was just on board, running everything brilliantly, energetically -- and she did go home and cry every night. But . . . she met my insanity, you know, wildness for wildness, joke for joke. She was right there. Amazing woman."
And, of course, together they brought it home. Lane and Broderick had signed up for a year's run, and throughout that time the show was so popular that Broadway historians were peering deep into the past to find a comparison.
(The show acquired a stain of notoriety when the producing team -- there are a lot of producers -- decided to begin charging an astounding $480 for the best seats. Asked about that, Brooks raises his voice. "Shaaaame," he says. "Shame on them. . . . The producers said, 'Look, if we opened and we closed in two weeks, and it cost us 10 or 12 million dollars, there's not one mention in the paper -- 'Oh -- oh poor, poor producers. Oh, we're so sorry that this happened.' So they said, 'You gotta strike while the iron is hot.' . . . I said, 'I don't know -- I just think, you know -- promise me this: For the "La Boheme" crowd, for the people in the third balcony, $30 tickets. For way in the back.' So they did. . . . We did have $30, $35 tickets. And they needed an oxygen mask and binoculars. But -- you could see 'The Producers' for 35 bucks.")
From its opening day, "we've never looked back," Brooks says. And every company we've ever done -- we've only made one hiccup. Henry Goodman. Who was great, but he was playing it like Iago."
Goodman, an esteemed British actor, took the part of Bialystock opposite Steven Weber after Lane and Broderick left. Critics were not amused, and even after Goodman's abrupt departure -- he was replaced by Brad Oscar -- there was speculation in the press as to how strong the show was without stars. The producers counter that although the ticket frenzy largely abated once the replacement casts began stepping in, they've never had a losing week. Today, more than two years after the controversy arose, the production is averaging a healthy $900,000 a week or close.
Brooks is ready for the topic, and he ratchets up the volume just a tad. "Look," he says, "Brad Oscar was terrific! Steve Weber was great! Every cast we've had -- Roger Bart is one of the best Leo Blooms that ever lived! . . . You know, he's a genius! He's a great Leo Bloom. We're getting Hunter Foster, who was in 'Urinetown.' . . . And he is maybe the best Leo Bloom we've ever had! I mean, we just keep getting guys that are better and better -- I mean, so -- it's not true! It's like I'm tooting my own horn, but the show is so strong and the parts are so good that if you get really good singers and dancers and really good show people, the show is gonna work."
With that he consults an 8-by-10 cheat sheet and turns his attentions to the touring company:
"We've got this guy, Lewie J. Stadlen -- he's a fantastic Bialystock," he begins. "Leo Bloom is Alan Ruck -- you know Alan Ruck? He was on 'Spin City.' He is so good as Leo Bloom. He's like a Jimmy Stewart. We have a great, great Ulla. Her name is Charley Izabella King. I've never cheated on my wife, but if she said yes, look out, Anne! She is dynamite! She can sing, she can dance, she has a nonstop body -- it's worth a venal sin any day for this woman, I tell you. We've got the best, the best -- and I'm not making this up -- the best Franz Liebkind we've ever had. . . . This guy steals the show. His name is Fred Applegate. He is the best. He plays Franz Liebkind. You have to take handkerchiefs and stuff them, stuff them in your mouth with this guy. You'll ruin the show for everybody else."
Lewis J. Stadlen is enjoying the longest run of his career as Bialystock. He's played the role more than 560 times ("but who's counting?") on tour and on Broadway. Brooks, he says, "was omnipresent when we rehearsed. That's one reason I wanted to do the [tour]. When one replaces on Broadway, one rehearses in a vacuum with the stage manager."
Stadlen adds of the touring company, "We had a collective goal, and that was to be better than the Broadway production."
Brooks lauds the entire touring cast, right down to the chorus. And then, as if speaking through an invisible microphone directly to the ears of the nation's capital, he wraps it up:
"We've got these wonderful songs, great jokes by Mel Brooks and Tom Meehan. It's simply worth the money. Listen, I would say if tickets get scarce, especially in the first month, push a little old lady out of the way. God will forgive you -- get that ticket! . . . It's a terrific show, and it's going to do very well -- very, very well, because the Kennedy Center will get a lot of tourists anyway. They always come there in the summer. But for Washingtonians -- they ought to get there first. . . . Why should a thousand Japanese tourists see it before you do, you know? They won't understand what the hell we're saying!"
Life Doesn't Stink
So how does he stay young? It's a puffy question, intended to elicit a funny riff about his exercise program. However.
"I don't!" he cries. "I get older and older! I can't stop it -- it's terrible!"
He pauses for about a second and continues. "Actually, you know, I'll tell you what keeps me young: Tom and I are working on two things. Tom Meehan and I are working on, one, the movie of 'The Producers.' . . . We're gonna try to break some rules in the movie, break some fourth-wall rules of reality, and just go crazy."
Stroman will direct. Shooting begins in February 2005 for an end-of-year release.
"We've got Nathan," he says happily. "We've got Matthew. We have got Will Ferrell to play Franz Liebkind. It's amazing. So we're expanding [the role of] the crazy Nazi. And we also have Nicole Kidman. She's playing Ulla."
And then there's the second project: "Tom and I are already mapping out the musical of 'Young Frankenstein.' It's going very well. I just finished a song called 'He Vas My Boyfriend.' For Frau Blucher. I'm very excited. There's your answer. And that more than anything else keeps me young."
Meehan: "He's Mr. Procrastination. I'm the other Mr. Procrastination. We can spend the whole day and get two sentences done. . . . He's endlessly entertaining."
Of the creative process, Meehan says: "One of the best things I can do for Mel is say no. He has so many ideas. I'll say, 'You're Mel Brooks -- you can do better.' "
Brooks has finished "about nine" numbers. "Some of them are very" -- long pause while he considers -- "crazy. You know, what you do is, you write 25 songs, and you take the ones that fit the best. . . . And Stroman will tell me. Stroman -- I wrote a song at the beginning for . . . No one knows this. Maybe they do. For 'The Producers.' The first opening I wrote for 'The Producers' was a song called, 'Hey, Nebraska,' an outrageous takeoff on 'Oklahoma!' "
He leans back and recites a snatch of lyric that rhymes "grit" with -- oh, take a guess.
"It's the craziest song I ever wrote. 'Hey, Nebraska.' And she had no hesitation in saying, 'Mel, this is not the opening of "The Producers." ' I said, 'Is it bad?' She says, 'I can't tell you how bad. Go back to the drawing board and get me an opening number.' "
Once the movie of "The Producers" is completed, he says, he has no further ambitions on-screen.
"By the time you finish a movie," he says, "you don't know if you're comin' or goin', and you know, they open it in 2,000 places, and in less than three months, it's gone. And the only -- you can catch it on a DVD. But Broadway -- I finish with you, I can walk over to the St. James Theatre. Right?"
Right. "A Broadway show is a much more profound and personal expression of a writer's soul than a movie is," he says. "There's no greater experience than being in a big theater, seeing your ideas portrayed onstage by people like Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, and having the audience whoop with delight -- what could be better?"
He smiles. "Broadway -- living Jews sitting in a big audience, screaming with laughter. It blows the dust off your soul."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
"We feel like Tiffany's," Brooks says of "The Producers," now at the Kennedy Center. "I mean, everything has to be perfect, you know. We're the best."