From the pages of
A New York Theater Lobby - Springtime 2001
No one walking into New York's St. James Theatre last night for the premiere of Mel Brooks' stage musical of his cult movie "The Producers" was smiling. The minimum facial expression in view was a beam. And many were grinning from ear to ear. The reason - in a word used so lyrically by Carly Simon - was Anticipation. Not a soul could be entering the theater unaware of the broad elements of what they would see. While Mel Brooks' 1968 film was a commercial disappointment on its initial release - it has grown to considerable stature in the past 30 years and has been recognized as a comedy classic. Dialogue from the film has entered the vernacular - particularly among the entertainment community. "When you've got it - flaunt it!" "money is honey" and of course the now familiar term "creative accounting."
Since the late 60's - a stranger's reaction to the simple word "springtime" tells one everything. If the reflex is a burst of "Springtime For Hitler" - Brook's jauntily satirical paean to "the Hitler with a song in his heart" - then the person has "knowledge." A blank look or a refrain from "Springtime In The Rockies" informs one that the the person is 'uninformed."
So the beams, grins and giggling were because the first night audience was full of anticipation for a night of communal celebration of their shared delight in the movie and eagerness to experience how the glory would be transformed into a stage musical.
The crowd was well-heeled, well-coiffed and in several instances well-caped - a nod to the flamboyant old Broadway garb of the show's hero Max Bialystock as portrayed by Nathan Lane. I chatted to a couple of the caped heroes. One elderly gentleman - John French - told me he'd been waiting for years to for a premiere worthy of his cape. David Schneider, an opthamologist from Cincinnati had seen the show in its pre-Broadway run in Chicago - and had been inspired by Lane's scarlet-lined cloak to get his own and to attend the New York premiere.
I'm no Elsa Klensch - but I firmly predict that by the time of this year's Tonys we will see a plethora of capes, cloaks and fedoras gracing the dandies-who-dare. Who would think that a Mel Brooks musical might influence fashion?!
The crowd seemed to range in age from the young and hip to the old and hip-replaced. Several elderly ladies bore a strong resemblance to the sex-crazed grannies of "Little Old Lady-Land" - the source of much of Max Bialystock's money, and practically all of his weariness. But the vast majority were in their solid baby-boomer prime. Old enough to have grown up with the film as it matured from obscure oddity to full-blown classic.
This was an audience of professionals. There seemed to be doctors... lawyers... all the things a halfway decent Jewish mother would want you to grow up to be. And the crowd certainly included a splurge of stars. They poured into the crowded lobby like the swarm of would-be Hitlers in the film's famous audition scene. Singing Hitlers here - Dancing Hitlers there.
Singing celebs included Paul Simon and wife Edie Brickell (and I guess you could count Kathy Lee Gifford in that category.) Acting celebs ranged from Alec Baldwin and Mary Tyler-Moore to Michael J. Fox and wife Tracy Pollan. And - looking liking the dictionary definition of diaphanous - Matthew Broderick's wife Sarah Jessica Parker in an elegant white gown.
Then there were the TV Host celebs... Larry King accompanied (or strictly speaking towered over) by his young and vibrant fourth wife; Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace looking remarkably like Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace. Columnist celebs included the ubiquitous Cindy Adams refuting any trace of little old lady-dom and Variety's famed Army Archerd (the chap who is also the longtime official announcer of Oscar arrivals.)
The stars mingled. The Michael J. Foxes chatted with the Mary Tyler-Moores. Quincy Jones rubbed shoulders with Walter Cronkite. Alec Baldwin - who had that svelte "getting-trim-for-market" look of the newly-separated - greeted old friends merrily. Director John Waters - the king of cult movies - entered with a mischievous grin. I asked him if he relished the idea of a cult bad-taste movie being reinvented for mainstream Broadway. He grinned even more mischievously. (Can "Polyester On Ice" be far behind?)
And then I spotted the brand of celebrities celebrated in the show itself - producer celebs. There was famed film producer David Brown ("Jaws," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Chocolat") - a spry 80-year old accompanied by wife Helen Gurley Brown (whose classic "Sex And The Single Girl" book and film launched the sexual revolution that inspires today's little old ladies.) And then I see two of the key producers of "The Producers" - the Weinstein brothers of Miramax Films fame. Having recently branched out into theater (winning a Tony Award as co-producers of "The Real Thing") the brothers invested heavily in Mel Brooks' vision and seemed exultant at the enthusiasm of the crowd.
As Harvey and Bob Weinstein gazed at the surging crowd my mind flashed to the moment in the film when Max Bialystock adds the icing to the disaster cake he thinks he's baked with "Springtime for Hitler". The producer hands the New York Times critic his tickets with a hundred dollar bill wrapped around them. "It's no mistake" he tells the outraged critic. "Enjoy the show." I see no evidence of that scene being replayed in this lobby. Certainly my ticket envelope is uncontaminated by anything resembling even a single dollar bill. This show is going to have to earn its good reviews the hard way.
Amidst the groomed, moussed, teased and swept-up hair - I espied two heads wearing yarmulkes - the skullcap worn in public by orthodox Jews. Not a common sight at Broadway openings. And certainly not at shows boasting Adolf Hitler, a legion of goose-stepping Nazis and enough swastika armbands to costume a Leni Riefenstahl flick.
They introduced themselves as Ali Scharf and Eli Rabinowich and told me that they were also producers of this show - though a subsequent perusal of the credits didn't yield their names. (And I finally lost count after 186 names of non-cast members listed in the program!) Since they explained that they were primarily "in real estate" I suspect that they were actually investors - the real-life equivalent of the little old ladies who fund "Springtime For Hitler" - but had been told that they too were "producers." In New York and especially for this show - there is no higher honor.
I asked them if they felt strange as observant Jews wearing their yarmulkes at a show featuring so much Third Reich imagery. Ali laughed and said that it was quite the contrary. They were exuberant at the glorious irony. "Hitler tried to exterminate the Jews and despite all his vile acts - in the end he failed to wipe us out. We are still here and he is despised." For them - Mel Brooks' lampoon of showbiz excess and bad taste is a kick in the seat of Hitler's pants. The jackboot is now on the other foot.
My quick trawl through the acknowledgments in the program whetted my appetite for the show to come. For example how often does one read credits for a Broadway show that include: "Stormtroopers fabricated by Entolo" or "Schmeisser machine guns by Costume Armour" or even "Tanks and pigeon puppets designed by Jerard Studio" Not often enough in my book.
It was now getting close to showtime. As the lights flashed, gongs chimed and ushers bellowed - there was the grand finale of the first act. The last-minute arrival of the unexpected star dashing out of an over-stretched white limo.
Recent supermarket tabloid headlines (not that any of us read them of course) have indicated that Demi Moore has now forsaken her life of glamor to live like a farmer's wife (or more accurately a divorced farmwife) with her kids on a little ranch in the heart of Montana or somewhere similarly rural. So my visions of a plump, homely, rosy-cheeked granny in gingham were rather dashed when a sylph-like Demi with long dark hair, wearing what looked like a size 6 slip and the air of a 23 year-old nymph, scooted by the paparazzi into the theater. So much for all those fantasies of Demi as Old Ma Kettle.
However - proving that some women age better than men - I did spot Eric Idle - who looks so youthful in all the Monty Python reruns from his 1970's heyday - shuffling into the theatre - and as if to compensate for Demi Moore's Dorian Gray act - he did rather resemble a grizzled Montana farm hand. Nature is sometimes a cruel mistress....
With the stragglers cantilevered into the packed auditorium and the cries of the paparazzi and red carpet reporters fading into the distance - attention turned to the orchestra tuning up. Then the lights went down, the crowd burst into anticipatory cheers and the curtain swooped upwards to reveal....
A large chintzy ballroom in mid-town Manhattan. Later that night.
As the cast took its final curtain call to thunderous applause and cheers - the moment the crowd had been waiting all night for occurred. Flanked by co-writer Thomas Meehan (of "Annie" fame) and director/choreographer Susan Stroman ("Contact" and "Crazy for You") the show's creator Mel Brooks took the stage and acknowledged the audience's adulation. Then with the cast waving in unison the curtain finally rang down and the audience bubbled out of the auditorium in high spirits - looking and sounding exactly like the fictional theater-goers at the climax of "Springtime For Hitler."
For friends, family and the numerous producers it was now on to Roseland - the sprawling concert and dance hall eight blocks north of the theater - which was the location for the post-show party. The after-show bash of course is a treasured part of Broadway fable. It's where the cast and crew mingle with the backers, flacks and hacks (investors, publicists and journalists) to celebrate the night - and most importantly - wait for that all-important first review.
Now in actuality a show with the credentials of "The Producers" including star names (Lane and Broderick), sensational advance publicity and record-breaking box office advance ($13 million and bookings into the fall) will not live or die by that New York Times review. But as Joe Lieberman says of his mother's chicken soup "it can't hurt." And having invested so much time, muse and craft in a production - not to mention the cash - naturally everyone involved is keen to see what the theater critics will say.
I enter the venue and discover that the entire room has been lovingly set-up like it was a bar mitzvah in Mel Brooks' hometown of Brooklyn. Though Brooks' own celebration would have been in 1939 - the mood was that of 1959 - the year in which the stage version of "The Producers" is set (rather than the film's then present-day flower power era.)
Round tables with gilt-dipped chairs are everywhere - except in front of the stage where a small dancing floor has been left for those who want to dance to the cheerful band cranking out Brill Building hits like a Phil Spector assembly line.
The arriving guests swoop by the bar and then to two long tables where good kosher-style nosh is being heaped onto plates before your mother can tell you that "you're all skin and bones already." None of that fancy-schmancy nouveau cuisine here. No arugula... no raspberry-balsalmic vinaigrette.... no mesquite-grilled cilantro. There's glorious beef Stroganoff with noodles. ("Go on! Have a little more!") And on and on the dishes go. "Maybe a little whitefish salad you'd like?" And for those who are a little strange in their eating habits ("What's this vegetable-arian business with you now? What's wrong with meat and fish please God?!) there is the concession of a vegetable lasagna.
One loving touch for buffs of the original movie is the presence of a Sabretts hot dog stand - the al fresco dining experience which Max Bialystock uses as foreplay to his seduction into chicanery of Leo Bloom. Not everyone is in on the joke. I bite into the genuinely delicious hot dog and tell the server "kindly tender my compliments to the chef" (Max's line) but the server refuses to growl "Kindly tender a quarter" in response. He merely promises to pass on my expression of appreciation to the hot dog cook. (These youngsters...!)
I wander the room and see most of the stars who'd been squeezed into the theater lobby. And their grins are even broader than they were three hours earlier. Larry King tells me that the show is "simply wonderful." Mike Wallace breaks into giggles as he recalls a moment. Paul Simon chuckles and reminisces about Mel Brooks' "2000 Year Old Man" with Carl Reiner. Lauren Hutton hobbles by with a rather odd-looking crutch (she's recovering from an accident) but looking utterly glamorous despite the unpleasant accessory. Everywhere there are audience members whooping it up and toasting the show with gusto and other spirits. Fortunately the bar mitzvah theme has not extended to the bar - and no one is forced to drink Manischewitz - the notoriously saccharine kosher red wine.
The walls and tables are decorated with artifacts from the fabled production team of Bialystock & Bloom. On the wall there are posters for such Broadway disasters as "South Passaic," "Katz" and "Maim." The table centerpieces include framed Playbills from shows such as "She Schtupps To Conquer" "A Streetcar Named Murray" and most treasured - the "Springtime For Hitler" program - with a litho of the Führer surrounded with flower petals.
None of these remain at the end of the evening. (I spot one or two men leaving the ballroom going into the chill night air not wearing their jackets or coats - but carrying them on their arm casually draped over objects the exact shape of a small picture-frame!)
But as much as people want to eat, drink, celebrate and schmooze at a Broadway party - what lifts the bash to its next level is the arrival of the stars. They drift in to much applause.
Roger Bart who is a fabulous Carmen Ghia (the director's outrageously camp "common-law assistant") is breathless and jazzed about the show. He is photographed, interviewed and processed through the line of assembled media tucked behind a velvet rope in the ballroom lobby. Then Matthew Broderick arrives resplendent is a white suit as would befit a colonial British Governor of the Bahamas - with his wife Sarah Jessica Parker exuding pride and joy at her husband's latest triumph. I've chatted to them at many events over the years from Oscars to Emmys - including occasions where a winner's statue was on their table. But I've never seen them quite so excited or happy. They greet pals and unfamiliar well-wishers with equal grace and slowly make their way to the center tables.
There surrounded by pals sits a very glowing Nathan Lane. The show calls for an energetic performance from Lane - and one might expect any actor to show a little wear and tear after such a momentous night. However he is relaxed and seems energized. First Night endorphins must be pretty potent.
At a nearby table I see Harvey Weinstein, literally one of the souls of the party - being greeted by an endless procession of celebrities. Demi Moore chats animatedly with him. Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan are torn between standing on line for the whitefish salad or chatting with more pals. They elect for the latter. Michael tells me that he's a little hungry but he's having such a good time that it doesn't matter.
Mel Brooks is apparently somewhere in the room with his wife Anne Bancroft - but just quietly visiting tables to see old friends - not making the grand entrance.
Suddenly there's a flurry of activity around Harvey Weinstein. Though the newspapers have not yet hit the streets - he has managed to obtain a fax of an advance copy of the eagerly-awaited New York Times review. He looks at it, scans it - and breaking into a big smile he immediately scurries over to share it with Nathan Lane. Sensing a moment worth experiencing I tag along.
Lane seems excited but nervous to read the fax - which has obviously been received on one of those ancient fax machines with curly thermal paper. It looks almost like a parchment scroll.
Lane reads as Weinstein beams. The review is beyond a positive. It's a total unreserved rave. Lane reads down to the end of the scroll. He looks up at Weinstein gratified that the show has been so appreciated. They share a few warm words - and Weinstein moves on to the next table where Sarah Jessica Parker sits. Nearby Matthew Broderick is succumbing to requests for photographs. Sarah can't wait for Matthew and starts to read the curling fax. She whoops with excitement - and scrolling down - accidentally sets the fax on fire as the top of it grazes the centerpiece candle! Friends extinguish the little flame and the now scorched fax is read to the end.
There is naturally no photocopier on hand in this gloriously old-fashioned ballroom - so Weinstein has one more mission he wants to accomplish. He wants the show's creator Mel Brooks to savor this moment. He looks around for one of the show's other producers Rocco Landesman (who is billed first among the eight individuals and companies listed as the show's producers) - but cannot see Rocco. He asks a female assistant to try and locate Mel.
I wander off towards a knot of celebrants who seem particularly animated - and lo and behold there is the man himself. For someone who has such a huge appetite for life and such a gregarious presence he is calm and almost serene. He is famous for being shy around cameras when he's not performing - and tonight is no different. But he is taking the time to chat with all around him. We have known each other for over 20 years so I greet him warmly and offer my congratulations. He is very affectionate in his response and seems utterly exhilarated by the response he is receiving from friends and strangers alike. I whisper to him that Harvey Weinstein has just received an advance of the New York Times and that it's a rave. His eyes twinkle. This little kid born into a poor immigrant family in Brooklyn in 1926 as Melvin Kaminsky has reached a new height in his life. He is literally the toast of Broadway.
Weinstein's assistant spots Mel and moments later Weinstein bounds over to greet the man of the hour. He simply puts the scorched, well-thumbed curling scroll of fax paper into Mel's hands - and he, I and a roomful of well-wishers watch as Brooks reads and savors every word. The night has reached its pinnacle. Brooks and Weinstein embrace. Two of the producers.... of "The Producers."
Mel turns to share the news with wife Anne Bancroft... Weinstein goes in search of Rocco Landesman.... and I look slowly around and know that I have witnessed a brief moment of magic.
Nothing can top the night. Except it turns out, the joyful smile and summation of the evening by the 80 year-old David Brown and Helen Gurley Brown. I see the couple standing on the corner of 8th Avenue looking for a taxi. There's quite some competition at that hour so I try to do my good deed for the day and I manage to snare a cab for them out of the clutches of some boisterous tourists who were also racing for it.
As the sprightly Brown slid into the taxi I asked him as a seasoned producer what he thought of the show. "It'll last a Thousand Years!" he smiled - knowingly twisting Adolf Hitler's boast about the Third Reich and applying it to this show that has demonstrated that Jewish humor and resilience have far outlasted Hitler and his diseased beliefs.
I walked one block over to Broadway with a skip in my step. And as I ambled down the street the tune just crept into my mind and before too long I was singing "Springtime For Hitler." But as I reflected on the success of the 75 year-young Melvin Brooks (né Kaminsky) I discovered myself singing "Springtime for Melvin" and I found myself marching to a faster pace...