Sunday, December 25, 2005

"The Synthetic Musical Comedy

I haven't seen the movie musical version of The Producers yet, but its release is as good an excuse as any for me to say a little something about the Broadway show it's (apparently very faithfully) based on.

When it opened on Broadway, The Producers got almost universally ecstatic reviews, swept the Tony awards, and was generally expected to be one of the biggest hits of all time. That hasn't really happened; the show was successful, but it's never been a big hit without the participation of its stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. As I explained earlier, this isn't an uncommon thing with musical comedies, which are often so closely tied to the personalities of their stars that they fall flat without a Bert Lahr or Ethel Merman or Gwen Verdon to headline them.

But time has also exposed some weaknesses in The Producers that the early reviews either ignored or glossed over. The tone of the early reviews of The Producers suggests that the critics were just so happy to see a brash, joke-filled, politically-incorrect musical comedy (it came along just before un-PC became the new PC; now "political incorrectness" is so common in entertainment that '90s-style sensitivity would be truly politically incorrect) that they were giving it the benefit of the doubt on all kinds of things: so the fact that Mel Brooks isn't much of a songwriter was glossed over or minimized by most reviews.

Now, there are some things to be said for the score of The Producers: the songs are short and concise like a musical-comedy song should be, not meandering or whiny as songs often are in modern musicals. But there's hardly a memorable tune in the score except the tunes that Brooks took directly from the movie. (And "Springtime For Hitler" is padded out with all kinds of unmemorable new sections that kind of kill the joke of the number.) And the whole score has a whiff of the amateurish about it, starting with the "on-the-nose" nature of the songwriting: almost every song starts with one idea, repeats it over and over again, and has no development or subtext, nothing to keep the song interesting after you know what it's about.

A great "simple" song, like most of the great songs of Irving Berlin, tends to start with an idea and then develop it right up until the end of the song. Either Berlin would start with an indirect idea and develop it into something else (e.g. in Annie Get Your Gun, "My Defenses Are Down" starts out as a complaint and ends as a joyous statement that "I must confess that I like it") or start with an on-the-nose idea but find new ways of expressing it (in "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," every section finds a great new joke about the basic idea of the song).

Brooks can't do any of that. If he has a song to write for Leo Bloom, he starts out with a song title, "I Wanna Be a Producer," that is so direct that he has nowhere to go in developing it; it's as if Berlin had written "I'm in Love Now" instead of "My Defences Are Down." Then Brooks doesn't even develop the idea at all; he just repeats the title over and over again, alternating it with a few random examples of living the good life. Finally, the song isn't even particularly in character for Leo or the show, since Leo is singing about wanting to be a successful producer, but the decision he's actually making is to become an unsuccessful producer; why does Brooks have him sing about wanting a hit, when what he actually wants is a flop?

Much of the rest of the score has the problem I described in my post on Snoopy: the Musical: they're songs that merely repeat what's already in the source material or in the dialogue that precedes it. Roger DeBris is a gay man who likes light and fluffy musicals, so he spends five minutes singing a song about being a gay man who likes light and fluffy musicals. Ulla is a sexy woman, so she has a number about being a sexy woman; but it's nothing that wasn't done better in Ulla's dance number in the original movie (and Uma Thurman and even Cady Huffman were hardly a match for Lee Meredith). A good musical based on a movie will usually create musical numbers to say what wasn't said in the movie, or develop something beyond what could be done in dialogue. My Fair Lady, based on the 1938 movie version of Pygmalion, takes one line from the movie ("The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Plain") and turns it into a number with a moment of release and celebration that wasn't in the original source material. The songs in A Little Night Music add depth to the characters from the Ingmar Bergman movie the show is based on, and the best number, "A Weekend In the Country," has no direct parallel in the movie. These adaptations make you understand why someone thought music and lyrics could add to the source material; the musical numbers in The Producers just succeed in padding a 90-minute source out to two-and-a-half hours.

If Brooks had hired John Morris to write the music for the Broadway version of The Producers, things might have been different. Morris, who composed music for many Brooks films (and wrote the theme song for Blazing Saddles) was a fine arranger and songwriter whose contributions to the original Producers movie probably helped Brooks's own songs sound better; Morris also wrote some great original pieces of music like the go-go music for Ulla's aforementioned dance. Imagine Morris composing the new songs to The Producers, and the whole show might have been better. But as it is: a musical comedy where most of the songs aren't particularly good or memorable is like a gangster movie where nobody gets killed: the other stuff may be good, but so what?

And it's not like the other stuff in The Producers, the musical, is that good. It's pretty good: it has a lot of good jokes and opportunities for good performers. But for a big Broadway production, the structure is surprisingly inept. The first act mostly consists of three long scenes, back-to-back, where Max and Leo meet and play Bud Abbott to a bunch of weird people: first a scene with Franz the Nazi playwright, then a scene with Ulla, then a scene with Roger. So a huge chunk of the first act consists of the two stars not doing very much at all. Then they don't do very much in the big first-act finale, the one with the chorus girls pretending to be little old ladies with walkers. And then that's the end of the first act; nothing much has happened, and all the plot development is saved for the overlong second act. (The classic musical theatre writers understood that the first act should end on a dramatic note and the second act be relatively short; Rodgers and Hammerstein rarely had more than three or four songs in their second acts.) Then the second act has to cram in so much plot that there's no time to develop the characters or their relationships; again, the original movie did this better in less time.

I've been rougher on The Producers than I thought I'd be when I started to write this; I liked the show when I saw it in 2001, and most of the audience did too. It's an enjoyable show. It's just not a great, nor even a particularly good musical comedy that happened to get rave reviews because there weren't any other musical comedies around. In 1960, when solid musical comedies were a dime a dozen, a show with such a weak score and structure would have lasted about as long as Max and Leo's hoped-for run for Springtime For Hitler.

No comments: