It only took a minute or two for The Producers to bring the funny. “Who do you have to fuck to get a break in this town?” wailed Nathan Lane in the show’s opening number, and all at once Max Bialystock’s comic desperation burst forth in its vulgar, conniving, hilarious glory. No such catalyzing flash cuts through the fog of hype surrounding Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’s follow-up to his Tony-grabbing smash. And there’s an awful lot of fog to cut through.
There is, for one thing, the cult that has sprouted around the 1974 film, in which Dr. Frederick Frankenstein returns to Transylvania to take up the family’s monster- building business. As at Spamalot, fans arrive so keyed up to see their favorite bits—cheering the first glimpse of Frau Blücher, mouthing “What hump?” with Igor—that if you don’t share their ardor, you may feel you’ve wandered into a tribute act for the wrong band. (I’m more of a Blazing Saddles guy myself.)
This isn’t to say that Brooks (who is the show’s composer, lyricist, and, with Thomas Meehan, co-librettist) has settled for merely aping the movie. As with The Producers six years ago, he has reshaped and polished his story to please a Broadway crowd. Roger Bart’s Frederick is more of a straight man vis-à-vis the weirdness around him than was the divinely weird-in-himself Gene Wilder. Brooks has written a couple of good new songs (including “Deep Love,” with some agreeably dirty double entendres), and director- choreographer Susan Stroman has devised some energetic, old-school tap numbers. The show also gets captivating work from Sutton Foster (the yodel-happy Inga) and rising star Christopher Fitzgerald (a relentlessly goofball Igor)—to say nothing of TV’s Megan Mullally, who sings the daylights out of the Madeline Kahn role. Yet the result doesn’t have anything like the buoyancy of the musical’s Broadway predecessor. Brooks’s mild comedy of swear words and tits (oft-mentioned, never seen) suited the world of Bialystock and Bloom perfectly; now it just feels quaint.
But I don’t mean to say that Young Frankenstein elicits a shrug only because it fails to live up to its mighty precedents. The show turns out to be longish and dullish in its own right—so much so that paying the much-buzzed-about top ticket price of $450 seems at least as silly as anything on the stage.
Meanwhile, on a less schlocky stretch of Broadway, Rock ’n’ Roll is uneven, unoriginal, funny, wise, and, in the end, triumphant. Throw any criticism you like at it—I’ve been watching my colleagues do it all week. They do no harm to Tom Stoppard’s astounding new work, a history play and alternate autobiography rolled into one.
Some theatergoers are sure to ask: Stoppard again? It’s a fair question. We’ve only recently seen the end of The Coast of Utopia, his three-part, eight-hour play about the nineteenth-century intellectuals who helped think modern Russia into existence. In fact, Rock ’n’ Roll turns out to be a reprise of that epic’s more provocative themes, a coda that gets things right. Jan (the memorably dynamic Rufus Sewell) is a Czech grad student who returns to Prague after the Soviets invade in 1968, leaving Professor Max Morrow (Brian Cox) to stew in his Marxist juices at Cambridge.
As the two men and their loved ones spend the next quarter-century riding out the fall of communism, the play has plenty of chances to dry up or grow clinical. Yet Rock ’n’ Roll turns out to be one of the most personal things Stoppard has written. Like Jan, he was born in Czechoslovakia and brought to England as a schoolboy, making this an imagined trip through a life he might have led. Playwright and protagonist also share an abiding love of pop music—so much so that Stoppard’s play seems a geopolitical answer to High Fidelity. The script punctuates each scene with a carefully chosen song from the era: Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, U2, and plenty of Pink Floyd. If a 25-year-old wallowed in his record collection this way, it’d be self-indulgent. Coming from Stoppard, the septuagenarian we’ve grown to know over four decades, it’s charming.
That telling detail—that a play ostensibly about politics is really a play about music—reveals an irony that people seem to be missing: After 40 years of being derided for his overly intellectual tendencies, Stoppard has written a play that is, if anything, anti-intellectual. Sure, he’s included some knotty disquisitions on Sappho’s poetry and obscure exchanges about Czech politics. But in a terrific scene in Prague, Jan convinces a friend that the real threat to the régime isn’t the dissidents and their theories, it’s the scruffy rockers in bands like Plastic People of the Universe. Meanwhile, in England, Max’s cancer-riddled wife, Eleanor (played with sensitivity and fire by Sinéad Cusack), puts the professor’s materialist principles to flight. “I am not my body,” she bellows in a scorching scene. “My body is nothing without me, that’s the truth of it.”
A few scenes land much less gracefully than that one, and Trevor Nunn, the director, shows a distracting tendency to keep the actors shouting even when Eleanor’s passions are absent. Late in the play, when Max’s Marxism begins to waver, Stoppard’s play also sounds like a less eloquent, less strongly felt version of Tony Kushner’s Slavs! Still, he has pulled off the most difficult trick of all for a history play: arranging the lenses just right, so the very near and the very distant snap into focus.
Stoppard’s characters live through the mass arrests, social upheaval, and ideological collapse of the seventies and eighties, but he keeps these crises offstage, showing us only their repercussions. His play renews your awareness that history is what happens while we live our day-to-day lives—or, if you like, the other way around.
On its surface, the finale looks like a happy ending. Yet I loved it precisely because of its contradictions. When the show’s last rock anthem begins to blare, the characters have arrived at 1990. It’s a delight to watch them celebrate the freedom that followed the Soviet collapse. If you look and listen closely, though, Stoppard reminds us of the compromises necessary to reach that point, the bitter truth that Utopia will always slip out of our grasp, and, above all, the havoc that newly triumphant market forces have begun to wreak. I left the theater feeling elated and depressed, and walked through the scrubbed-clean Times Square mulling two of Jan’s resonating lines from Act Two. “Life has become amazing,” he says—then, a few minutes later: “We don’t yet understand what we’ve done.”