When Mel Brooks walks into a room, you can be sure he will say something funny, even if the room is full of Nazis.
This particular room—an enormous soundstage at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn’s old Navy Yard—contains precisely 54 Nazis, or, to be more specific, 54 chorus boys dressed in tight-fitting storm-trooper costumes, with shiny metallic helmets, and arranged in a giant dancing swastika. At their center stands Uma Thurman. Her head is resting on Hitler’s shoulder.
Brooks watches the scene from a canvas director’s chair off to the side; at 79, he looks a bit like, and has the commanding presence of, a comedy Yoda. (He did, in fact, play Yoda in his Star Wars parody Spaceballs; or, rather, he played “Yogurt.”) So when he launches into a story, everyone around him stops and listens. And Brooks is full of jokes, each delivered with the honed cadences of a lifelong showman. He explains that, during an early staging of The Producers, “a Jewish guy got up and stormed out of the theater. He saw me standing at the back with my wife. He said, ‘This is an outrage! I fought in the Second World War!’ I said, ‘You served in the war?’ ”—and here he stops, takes a beat, then pounces on his punch line—“ ‘So did I. I didn’t see you there.’ ”
By all appearances, this is a perfect day to be Mel Brooks: His jokes are landing, his audience is laughing, and the most famous scene from his Broadway show, the thrilling pinnacle to his life’s work, is being immortalized around him on film. If you’re among those eighteen or so New Yorkers who are unfamiliar with The Producers—both the original 1968 movie and the Broadway phenomenon—here’s the basic plot: Two Jewish producers, the bombastic Max Bialystock and the simpering Leo Bloom, conspire to make millions by mounting the biggest flop in theater history. Springtime for Hitler (A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden) is the offensive disaster they unearth, in hopes that it will close opening night and they can abscond with the millions of dollars Bialystock’s raised by seducing randy old-lady investors. The Producers unfolds in a barrage of broad gags and Borscht Belt groaners, but the “Springtime” sequence—with its fey, crooning Hitler and the kick line of menacing Aryans—marks the moment that the show transforms into something greater, from a slapstick musical to comic genius.
The number also beautifully illustrates one of Brooks’s favorite maxims: what he likes to call “ringing the bell.” When he was directing Blazing Saddles in 1974, he fretted to producer John Calley about a scene in which an old lady gets punched. “Can I really beat the shit out of an old lady?” he asked. “Mel, if you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it,” Calley replied.
Until now, the story of the Broadway production of The Producers has been one of triumphs on top of triumphs, a Hollywood ending that’s refused to end. By the late nineties, Brooks’s productivity had petered out; he hadn’t had a hit since Spaceballs in 1987, and his previous two films, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, left even his most ardent fans worried that his skills had finally failed him. But in a last-minute twist, Brooks reemerged as a Broadway impresario, delivering a retro romp that came off as strikingly fresh. There was a poignancy, to be sure, that this late-career success was a reworked version of the cult movie that had launched Brooks as a director—and that now that old story had given him new life. (Like many people, when I first heard Brooks was planning a Producers revival, I felt a twinge of embarrassment, not excitement.) But The Producers was irresistible, like being tickled mercilessly by a rascally uncle. It broke box-office records, won twelve Tonys, and left a trail of rapturous reviews, which doubled as excited declarations that the king was back on his throne.
Most of all, the musical was a near-flawless collaboration between Brooks and an artfully assembled team he’d personally courted and conscripted, just as Bialystock gathers his own troupe in the show. Brooks wooed Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who became famous for their onstage chemistry. For his director and choreographer, he approached the well-regarded Broadway veterans (and husband and wife) Michael Ockrent and Susan Stroman. They got a call one day in 1999 from one of Brooks’s assistants, asking them for a meeting. An hour later, Mel Brooks himself knocked on their door. He didn’t introduce himself but instead launched into a full-voice rendition of “That Face,” a love song from the musical, then danced down the hallway of their apartment, before hitting his big finish by leaping on their couch. “Hello,” he said finally. “I want to make a musical out of The Producers, and you’re the people I want to help me.”