Thursday, June 03, 2004

Autumn For Hitler

Consternation is afoot here in Toronto, as Mel Brooks' The Producers is closing early. It seems this show, once hailed as the successor to the great musical comedies of yesteryear, can't truly succeed without its original stars (Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick). And people continue to be consternated -- or is it consterned? -- about it.

But, you know, the fact that this show can't succeed without its stars is probably one of the things it has in common with classic musical comedies. Most of the musical comedies that The Producers is trying to harken back to, the raucous, innuendo-filled, schtick-laden musical comedies, were star vehicles, so associated with a particular talent or talents as to be unrevivable without them. DuBarry Was a Lady had a funny book and a score by Cole Porter, but it could never work without its stars, Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman; people have tried reviving Animal Crackers without the Marx Brothers, and it's painful. An old-fashioned musical comedy is, in many ways, like a very big, elaborate nightclub act: it may employ more and better talents than the average nightclub act, but it is basically tied to the talent at its center.

This is why the musical comedy flourished in the '20s and '30s, when Broadway musicals were not expected to have long runs. A show could make a profit much quicker than it can now; a show that ran out the season was considered a success, and a show that ran a year was a huge hit. Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey, for example, ran 374 performances in 1940, and it was one of the longest runs they'd ever had. With that kind of standard, you didn't need to worry about replacements and who was going to play the part in five years; you got Bert Lahr for a year on Broadway, and maybe for a tour, and that was all.

With Oklahoma! and the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution came the idea of the musical as something that could run years, even decades. And that in turn made it more dangerous to tailor a musical to the skills of a particular performer: when that performer was gone, so was the show, and bang goes your chance at a four-year run. Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't stop writing star vehicles (South Pacific) or producing them (Annie Get Your Gun). But their shows, and the shows that followed them, tended to be written and staged in such a way as to be performer-proof: the story was the star, and new performers could be inserted into the show without changing the impact of the material.

Even musical comedies after Rodgers and Hammerstein tended to be story-first pieces that didn't depend so much on who the performers were: Guys and Dolls, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Zero Mostel tried to turn A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof into his personal showcases, but they went on fine without him. Those shows that did associate themselves too strongly with one performer wound up paying a price, just as The Producers is paying. Wonderful Town, one of the very best-written musical comedies of the '50s, was very specifically tailored to the talents and vocal range of Rosalind Russell. When Russell left the show, she was replaced by Carol Channing, certainly a star and reportedly quite good in the role -- but the show closed almost immediately; audiences couldn't accept the show without Russell, because it had become associated in the public mind with that star and that star alone. This probably has something to do with why Wonderful Town has always been more of a Broadway conoisseur's piece than a real popular favourite: no matter how good Donna Murphy or anyone else may be in the show, it somehow feels like it's not really "her" material, and the audience can't lose itself in the onenness of star and show.

The thing about The Producers is that, as originally reviewed and as hyped, it was thought of as a performer-proof show, like Guys and Dolls. The producers clearly thought it was, since they had Brad Oscar (who was great as Franz Liebkind but is anything but a star name) as a replacement Max Bialystock. What we're increasingly discovering is that it is an old-fashioned, '30s-style star vehicle after all; without Lane and Broderick, it just sits there. This might be because of the weaknesses of the material -- a fun but amateurish score, a book where the plot doesn't really get in gear until the second act (one thing Brooks should have learned from Rodgers and Hammerstein: bring the curtain down on a suspenseful moment and make the second act relatively short) -- or it might be because of the weaknesses of those who have succeeded Lane and Broderick. One local critic even suggests that the show suffers from being insufficiently gay-friendly, because of course we all remember all the gay characters in Carousel and the cultural sensitivity of Annie Get Your Gun.

But one way or another, what we have here is a throwback to the performer-specific musical comedies of the '30s. The sad thing is that in today's theatre, that's a bad thing; the need to make musicals into franchises is so overpowering that a star-vehicle show -- the lifeblood of Broadway musicals in their first 30 or 40 years -- is at a disadvantage. When will it be economically feasible to write a musical for a specific star, let it run a year, and then close it down, leaving happy memories and maybe a cast recording?

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