The Producers - St. James Theatre on Broadway - April 16, 2002

What all is there to say about The Producers? It was a phenomenon in the 2000-2001 season, capturing a record twelve Tony Awards, and not only being the huge, enormous, sell-out, lines-halfway-down-the-block hit, but one of the biggest hits of the previous 25 years. This was due, according to some people, in no small part to the wattage of the two stars in the lead roles, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

But now, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are gone. So what remains?

First, controversy. Nathan Lane's original replacement was Henry Goodman, a star of the English stage who appeared as Buddy Fidler in the original London cast of City of Angels, as Shylock in a major production of The Merchant of Venice, and in countless other significant roles. A stage veteran who sang well and could be funny when required. Sounds like a great Max Bialystock, right? Apparently, the producers of The Producers disagreed, and after 30 performances in the show, Goodman was gone.

He was replaced by Brad Oscar, whose own history with the show is the making of show-biz legends. Hired as a swing, he took over the featured role of the Nazi poet Franz Liebkind when Ron Orbach, whom he was understudying, hurt his leg and became unable to continue. But it was because of Nathan Lane that Oscar made his name--as the primary of Lane's two alternates (the other being Ray Wills), when Lane suffered severe vocal stress and had to miss lots of performances, Oscar played the role of the producer who plans to make a fortune by putting on the greatest flop in history. And he played it to great acclaim from both critics and audiences. Why Oscar, the ideal choice, was not made from the get-go is open to speculation.

If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that the producers wanted to prove this mammoth show, driven by star power, could survive without a Big Name in the lead. So, they came on the idea of putting Goodman in the Broadway production, to try him out before allowing him to originate the role in London. However, what the producers didn't realize is that, while the show may not need Big Name stars, it needs stars capable of handling the material as required, something Goodman probably actually couldn't do. (I heard few positive things about his performance from the people I know who saw him.)

Why so much backstory? It's necessary to understand the atmosphere present in the St. James Theatre on Tuesday, April 16, 2002, Oscar's first public performance as the billed star in the role. (The Playbill still bore Goodman's name, but the marquee had already been changed.) Anything could happen. Oscar was heavily experienced in the role, and richly qualified, but could he carry off the evening?

Yes and no.

Oscar sang Bialystock better than Lane did. Lane, while never a poor singer, obviously didn't have the level of instruction or experience necessary to carry a role as stressful as Bialystock eight performances a week for a year. It's a challenging, highly physical and comic role that has lots of songs, and Oscar is simply the more experienced and trained singer. In terms of sheer technique, Oscar also acted the show better. He had to create the character of Bialystock from the ground up without being able to rely on the "Nathan Lane persona" that was Lane's performance. Oscar had to be his own Max, and he succeeded.

But try as he might--and he tried very hard--Oscar simply is not a Star Comic. The role, written in the movie for the ultimate Star Comic, Zero Mostel, requires one. It needs a performance of a certain size and stature, someone who exists in the moment but on that other comic plane at the same time. Nathan Lane did that, and the role, in his hands (at least in his prime) was really a fascinating, unique, and very funny creation. Oscar can't match that--very few people alive, even the biggest stars, could.

I think it's safe to say that Oscar did the most any actor without that Star Comic quality could. There were shades of Lane in his performance, sure, but that can't be avoided. He made the role his own, he made it complete, and he constructed it very well. I can't believe anyone who didn't see Lane could possibly complain about his performance. It was, in every way, very solid, an excellent portrayal. It just wasn't something else. Lane's Max was something else.

Of Oscar's co-star, Steven Weber, the news is better--he's every bit an ample replacement for Broderick, even providing the semi-star name to the role that Broderick did (though Broderick has, unquestionably, more Broadway experience). I also thought he gave a more grounded, natural portrayal than Broderick, who always seemed to be affected and--I'll just say it--constipated onstage. You can argue whether or not this is correct for the character (should any character in a Mel Brooks construction really be real?), but Weber found a way to make it work. I've never been fully satisfied with the character anyway, but Weber does a pretty good job, even coming across as a better singer and dancer than you might expect.

Most of the rest of the cast is the same, though their performances have changed since I saw the show. Cady Huffman's Ulla, the Swedish bombshell who becomes an important performer in the play and a love interest for Leo (Weber), speaks with a more consistent "Swedish" accent now, but her song had a strangely clipped quality to it (she may have been having vocal trouble). Gary Beach is still manically comic as the director of Springtime for Hitler and Roger Bart (Beach's character's "common-law assistant") has grown broader and funnier in the ten months or so since I last saw the show, and Bart was over-the-top to begin with!

The one huge problem with the casting is Jim Borstelmann, who has inherited the role of Franz from Brad Oscar. He is simply not up to the task. He doesn't sing well enough and he isn't funny enough. I just don't know how else to put it--he has no business in that role. If they must hire someone from inside the company (which I'm not at all against), why not the funnier and stronger-voiced Ray Wills, then let Borstelmann play Wills's roles (most of whom, as a swing, I believe he already covered anyway). That choice--and Borstelmann's--made no sense. He was good in Chicago, but he is wrong--and flat-out bad--here.

Whatever else is whatever else, and the show as the show remains what it always was. The only difference is that the show no longer seems an event. It's still a lot of fun, and still very funny, but the wild paroxysms of laughter that once rocked the St. James are no more, and they will probably never come again. The Producers is now just another show, no longer a phenomenon, but merely a bright, funny musical comedy on Broadway. It was great while it was great, but now, it's merely very good, as funny as it ever was, if not the riotous experience it was in its early days. If you have never seen the show, you should go, and if you have seen it and want to go back, you won't be disappointed... exactly. The Producers has lost something, but even so, what remains is nothing to sneeze at.

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