It’s not always easy to tell when Mel Brooks is joking. Well, sometimes it’s obvious, as when he’s asked how the Broadway adaptation of his 1974 cult hit Young Frankenstein, currently in tryouts in Seattle, is coming together. “Well, I’ve fired the principals, and I’m getting rid of the director, and I’m bringing in Max Reinhardt’s grandson. He wants to switch it more toward Dracula.”
This is vintage Brooks, Young Frankenstein edition: digressive, antic but dry, loaded with obscure references. More ambiguous is his reaction when I tell him that I’ve heard he’s considering adapting the broader, bawdier Blazing Saddles—in short, that he’s making a lucrative second career of repurposing his movie classics for deep-pocketed theater folk (the re-repurposing of The Producers, back into a movie, having not worked out so well).
“Who do you hear from?” he shouts into the phone. “Who the fuck do you hear from?!” Pause. “Kachka!” Pause. “I’m pulling your leg.” That’s a relief. He lowers the volume—slightly. “People draw conclusions. ‘What’s in his bag of tricks? He still has Blazing Saddles. He still has High Anxiety, that might make a mint. Ooh, I know, Life Stinks! Spaceballs, the Musical!’” So what would he like to do? “Something unforeseen, something completely original. I’m capable of that. I’m very good.”
That will have to wait, because the past three-plus years have been sunk into the book and music for his “gothic opera,” an homage to the thirties horror classics of James Whale. “The Producers was a backstage musical,” says Brooks. “Tits and legs and sparkles and spangles, and Broadway producers’ larceny, which is indigenous to being a Broadway producer.” Young Frankenstein, on the other hand, is “much slower to get off the ground.” Working on it, “I was like Dr. Frankenstein. I had to reanimate dead tissue.” The musical includes all the movie’s big gags, some of which have become songs. Megan Mullally, in a role immortalized by Madeline Kahn, sings a lascivious aria to the monster called “Deep Love,” that’s “a little shocking, to tell you the truth.”
Brooks was already hard at work on the musical when Anne Bancroft, his wife of 40 years, died in 2005. It’s said to have left him deeply depleted. How did he pull himself out? “We don’t talk about that—nope!”
One thing he’s surprisingly candid about is the gossip over the show’s finances. There is the projected price of weekend premium tickets ($450), and the fact, recently published by the New York Post’s Michael Riedel, that Brooks stands to make an unprecedented 24 percent of the show’s gross. Brooks confirms that number, but emphasizes that he only gets the usual 5 percent or so until Young Frankenstein breaks even. “You work for three or four years on a show. Okay? Stay with me now. And your salary is zero.” For The Producers, “I wound up with about 5 or 6 percent of the show. If I were God and I had a big overview of it, I would say, ‘Hey, Mel, you were undercompensated.’ Now, I think right from the first dollar, I should be entitled to 50 percent of all the money that comes in.” As for the premium tickets, “We’re taking it out of the hands of scalpers—parasites who are taking our blood.”
To be fair, it’s easy to forget that only one Broadway hit separates the showman from two decades in an entertainment wilderness littered with scripts that made him virtually nothing. He rattles them off one by one. “So I hit dry holes. I get a gusher, and part of that oil is mine. Why would they turn such a gifted guy like me, who gives the world so much pleasure, into a scoundrel, instead of just saying, ‘Gee, Mel, thanks for High Anxiety’? I should be on a throne! Beautiful girls should be kissing me. There should be hosannas, hallelujahs, money thrown at me, maybe a few raisins and prunes, who knows?”