Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, January 04, 2007
      ( 1/04/2007 12:21:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"I'M WET!" – New Year's Eve is typically a good time to catch big laff-out-loud movie comedy on television (even as a kid, I recall watching Marx Bros. flicks on one of the local stations), so this year, we caught HBO's airing of the Nathan Lane/Matthew Broderick musical version of The Producers. The movie received mixed reviews when it was first released, though we generally found ourselves going along with it. Nathan Lane remains, as ever, a force of nature unto himself, though it took some time for us to warm up to Broderick, who is clearly not Gene Wilder. The movie's first act hysteria scene, which I can still hear in Wilder's manic high-pitched voice, blows its biggest laff, though once the movie put our nebbishy accountant in a scene that wasn't in the original Producers, (the song-&-dance at the accountancy firm), he made the part his.

Still, for all its big bux theatrical success, I have to wonder about the wisdom of making a musical out of this material in the first place. The original 1968 feature was a small-budget slice of insanity that took maximum advantage of its tatty New York theatrical setting; the musical is a palpably artificial construct that by its very nature can't help muting many of the original's best jokes.

Let's consider the park fountain, shall we? Both Producers have a scene where Lane's scheming Max Bialystock wins Broderick's accountant to his big money-swindling scheme. In both, a fountain in the background starts up dramatically right at the moment Leo Bloom sez he’s in. In the original, it's a funny bit because writer/director Mel Brooks plays this palpably artificial exclamation point against his New York setting: it's a movie musical moment, coming when we least expect it. In the current version, though, that fountain's just one more slice of scenic choreography. This open theatricality even manages to take much of the helium out of the film's big big number, "Springtime for Hitler." Isolated as the original Producers only musical number, its outlandishness is intensified: placed within a full-blown musical extravaganza, even the aerial swastikas don't have the kick.

Too, I didn't buy the tacked-on ending that Brooks and his collaborator Thomas Meehan concocted for their musicial play. The original ended – as so many great comedies do – with our heroes learning nothing: imprisoned in the big house, Bialystock & Bloom are shown putting on a new show with a prisoner cast, still bilking investors as they go. That they're doing this in jail, where they'll remain within reach of their victims after the show is over, makes this refusal to learn even funnier. Yet the musical sidesteps this by tossing in a last-minute reprieve that allows our boys to duck out on the consequences of their actions. While the list of schlocky B&B productions that we've given at the end is kinda amusing, it doesn't have the same comic boff as the sight of Zero Mostel directing a chorus of convicts doing "Prisoner of Love."

I'll admit we both laughed more than once (most often during the scenes with Uma Thurman, actually) watching the musical. But, in the future, when I wanna see the Bialystock & Bloom story, I know which version I'll select: the one where Gene Wilder does the whining about that glass of water tossed onto his puss . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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