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History of 'The Producers': Part III

Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman (with producer Jonathan Sanger, far left) on the set of The Producers.  

In December 1999, however, Ockrent, who had been ill that year with leukemia, died. After Stroman took a two-month break, Brooks asked her to step up and direct. The assignment wasn’t totally unexpected: Stroman was directing two shows at the time, Contact and The Music Man, both of which premiered in the spring of 2000. Initially, Stroman wasn’t sure she could continue, but Brooks and his co-writer, Thomas Meehan, urged her to get back to work, in part because they knew it was the best way for her to deal with her grief.

Like the odd-couple pairing of Bialystock and Bloom, Brooks and Stroman turned out to be a perfect complement: Brooks was the Borscht Belt genius who’d never staged a Broadway show, and Stroman was the Broadway talent with little experience in comedy. So Brooks brought the gags, and Stroman brought her eye for dazzling set pieces and clever stage play, such as the moment when long-legged showgirls step out from filing cabinets during a Bloom fantasy sequence, or the outlandish number in which little old ladies do a tap dance with their walkers. Despite its cinematic origins as an acidic, zany satire, The Producers has always been, at its heart, a love note to great musicals—and together Brooks and Stroman turned that note into the real thing.

So when it came time to make a movie of the musical, Brooks wanted Stroman. It didn’t matter to him that she’d never directed a film before, let alone a lavish, old-school musical full of extravagant sets and complex production numbers. He was determined to keep his original dream team intact. (With two exceptions, at the studio’s insistence: Will Ferrell and Uma Thurman were drafted to play Franz Liebkind, the Nazi playwright, and Ulla, the leggy Swedish secretary.) Nor did it matter to Brooks that, despite its Broadway pedigree, the movie was not a guaranteed hit. For starters, The Producers hasn’t toured as well as expected. Productions in Toronto and Australia closed early, and even a version in Los Angeles starring Martin Short and Jason Alexander had trouble selling out. And unlike, say, The Lion King or Mamma Mia—spectacle-heavy, plot-light shows for which an audience doesn’t even need to speak English—The Producers is verbal, manic, Jewish, and very, very New York. The show’s met with mixed reactions in other parts of the country—especially a line delivered by Nathan Lane in the opening number, “The King of Broadway.” He stands on a garbage can, shakes his fists to the heavens, and translates the Yiddish words of his mentor: “Who do you have to fuck to get a break in this town?!” In New York and Chicago, it got big laughs. In Pittsburgh, however, it drew only a gasp, so Brooks and Meehan changed it temporarily to “shtup.” (Lane also said “shtup” in a command performance in London: “You can imagine how well that went over with British royalty,” he told me.)

Even Brooks was worried about the line in early rehearsals. “We can’t say fuck in a musical!” he told Lane. But Lane—who’d come up with the line—reminded him to ring the bell. “I said, ‘Wait a minute? Have we met? You’re Mel Brooks!’ ”

On a soundstage at Steiner two months into filming this summer, Susan Stroman is wearing the same outfit she wears every day on set: black sneakers, black warm-up pants, a black zip-up jacket, and a black baseball cap, with a long blonde ponytail dangling out the back. No one calls her Susan; everyone calls her Stro. She’s not a tall woman, and in the constant swirl of technicians, assistants, actors, onlookers, dancers, stagehands, and friends who mill on the darkened soundstage, you’d be hard-pressed to pick her out as the ringleader of this $50 million production. As a scene plays out, she leans in closely to watch the action on the video-assist monitor, grinning at each joke, mouthing the lines along with the actors, and waving her hands frantically as though trying to conduct them from afar.

Stroman, who is 51, is warm and approachable, greeting me with a kiss on the cheek each time I arrive. When I ask Meehan, who spent nearly every day on set, how Stroman gets what she wants as a director, he laughs and says, “She could charm the birds out of the trees.” Over the course of the filming, she explains to me that making this film is the culmination of a dream—the opportunity to make just the kind of musical she loved as a girl growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, where her salesman father would play show tunes to her on the piano. She has a savant’s knowledge of old movie musicals—Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Royal Wedding—that inspired her to move to New York to become a dancer and then a choreographer. She even went so far as to invite the director of Singin’, Stanley Donen, now 81 years old, to stop in and visit the set. “I thought this kind of genre was over,” she told me. “I feel like I was meant to direct, but not just any movie—a movie musical.”