If history has taught us anything, it’s that seeing a packed crowd cheering a line of swastika-emblazoned brownshirts is, as bad signs go, a doozy. Yet when it happens eight times a week at Broadway’s St. James Theater with Mel Brooks’ raucous musical The Producers, it’s the best kind of party. With over $27 million in ticket sales (long since covering the $10.5 million budget), orchestra seats sold out until February 2002, a record 15 Tony nominations (with stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick cohosting the June 3 ceremony — and you thought Poland got steamrollered), and near-unanimous reviews heil-ing it as the best thing to happen to Broadway since the invention of the curtain, it seems the entire theatergoing world is allied in Reichstaggering rhapsody over this latest movie-to-musical transport.
In the show, when the washed-up stage producer Max Bialystock (Lane) teams with mousy accountant Leo Bloom (Broderick) to sell investors more than 100 percent of the sure-to-bomb pro-Fuhrer romp Springtime for Hitler and pocket the leftover cash, they learn nothing’s a surefire bomb. But the musical itself proves you can have a surefire hit. That was first clear last November, months before the cast goose-stepped onto the stage, when the show ran a $75,000 newspaper ad offering American Express users the first chance to buy tickets for the February previews in Chicago, and the subsequent Broadway run. ”The rule of thumb is that if the ad pays for itself in ticket sales, you’ve done okay,” says co-producer Tom Viertel, of The Frankel-Baruch-Viertel-Routh Group (Angels in America, Driving Miss Daisy). ”We sold over a million dollars’ worth of tickets in that month.”
The Producers producers had practically begged to get in on the show. Three years ago, it was DreamWorks cochief David Geffen (a veteran Broadway producer with Dreamgirls and Cats among his credits) who persuaded Brooks to bring his 1968 film to the stage, but later had to back out as producer, citing his Hollywood workload. Brooks and his collaborators — choreographer-director Susan Stroman (Contact, The Music Man) and co-book writer Thomas Meehan (Annie) — kept on jawohl-ing along, and in April 2000 invited a who’s who of White Way producers to a reading with Lane. So many moneymen wanted in that Brooks auditioned them, before settling on several veteran teams, including Miramax’s Bob and Harvey Weinstein. During the reading, ”when Nathan said the line, ‘I was a lying, despicable crook. But I had no choice, I was a Broadway producer,’ they almost fell off their chairs laughing, as if they were looking at a mirror,” remembers Stroman. ”The whole reading turned out to be like a Mel Brooks scene in itself.” (These eager producers are likely already rehearsing their next suck-up, in case Brooks delivers the musical version of Young Frankenstein that he’s reportedly considering.)
The Producers is such an infectious hit that it seems incapable of engendering any ill will. When the show upped its top ticket price from $91 to $100 on opening night, any grumbling was drowned out by the stampede to ticket lines the next day. ”Right now,” says Broadway.com columnist Ken Mandelbaum, ”they could probably get $200.”