You’ve Got Mel

I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but when the time came to check off the box for “Best Musical” on my Tony ballot, I paused for about a week and then did something quite unexpected: I cast my vote not for The Producers, which is an almost perfect musical that cost nearly $11 million to mount, but for A Class Act, a decidedly imperfect musical that cost about 35 cents. Not that my vote among the 705 will make much difference. When the Tony Awards are handed out on June 3, a sweep by the Mel Brooks musical is about as inevitable as the closing of A Class Act that will quickly follow.

I realize this admission may provoke howls of laughter as hearty as any heard at the St. James Theatre, where The Producers has settled in as the “Now and Forever” show of the twenty-first century. To most of my colleagues on the aisle, and certainly to most of the regular Broadway patrons who have been offering everything from stock options to sexual favors for the chance to see “Springtime for Hitler,” The Producers is a Rolls-Royce, and A Class Act is, I don’t know, a Vespa. I don’t entirely disagree with that notion. All the people involved in it, including director-choreographer Susan Stroman and actors Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, are doing the best work of their formidable careers. I laughed harder at The Producers than I have in any theater in a long time.

But it was a guilty pleasure. Consider “Springtime for Hitler,” the showstopper in what Bialystock and Bloom are banking on to be the world’s fastest flop. In the 1968 movie, it’s a decidedly cheesy affair that runs about three minutes. At the St. James, it’s grown to nearly fifteen minutes and been turned into a Busby Berkeley extravaganza worthy of Ziegfeld himself. In the transition from screen to stage, The Producers morphed from sneaky satire into toothless burlesque with hardly a thought in its head except to delight an audience. Later, when I walked out into the night, I felt an uneasy mix of exhilaration and discomfiture; something about scintillating showmanship in the service of storm troopers on the hoof didn’t sit well. It was so … palatable.

A Class Act, by contrast, isn’t especially well directed. It looks as if it was produced on a shoestring (though its backers have continued to pour money into it to keep it going – not a wise move, yet a valiant one). And its hero, the late composer-lyricist Ed Kleban, is so neurotic and annoying he makes Woody Allen look like a model of rational behavior (am I selling this show or what?). Nevertheless, A Class Act moved me – actually to tears at one point. It pays homage to a life devoted to musicals that, with one quite spectacular exception, didn’t work out as planned.

The tear-inducing scene comes in the middle of Act II. After years spent writing songs that many admired but no one produced, Kleban auditions for the director and choreographer Michael Bennett, who’s impressed enough to hire him to write the words for his show about Broadway dancers. The music is to be composed by Marvin Hamlisch, at the time already in possession of three Oscars for his film scores. Kleban reluctantly agrees and, proposing their first song, explains to Hamlisch that what the dancers tend to have in common is miserable childhoods occasionally palliated “at the ballet.” Hamlisch breaks into an upbeat soft-shoe, scatting nonsense syllables and flashily ending with at the ballet as if he were Al Jolson and every word were punctuated with exclamation points. It’s so completely wrong you have to laugh as Kleban says, “What I got here is foster homes, orphanages, incest …” while Hamlisch continues in his smiley-faced way. “Think philandering fathers, frustrated mothers … alcoholic frustrated mothers …” Kleban says, growing desperate. Finally, Hamlisch returns to earth, humming the first bars of that haunting trio from A Chorus Line, “At the Ballet,” and you have a sense of history being made. Heart has triumphed over razzle-dazzle.

And maybe because you know that Kleban would never see another show of his produced before dying of cancer in 1987, during the twelfth year of A Chorus Line’s astonishing fifteen-year run, A Class Act – imperfect and wobbly-kneed though it most certainly is – moves you. Several songs in A Class Act are equally memorable – a word that is unlikely to be applied to The Producers’ pastiche score.

The Producers and A Class Act do have something important in common: They represent a return of the domination of American showmanship on Broadway, a fact shared with the third of the four Best Musical nominees, The Full Monty (all three of which, weirdly, are shows about show biz). Include Canada and you can even throw in the fourth contender, the Toronto-bred Jane Eyre. The happy success of David Auburn’s drama Proof, which entered the Tony race with the Pulitzer Prize already notched on its belt, bodes well against its chief competition, Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, in this season’s Copenhagen slot.

Next season, the trend looks like more of same. Yes, there’s Mamma Mia!, a pleasant enough excuse to hang ABBA’s greatest hits loosely – very loosely – on the 1968 film Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. There’s the return of Cameron Mackintosh – not with the latest from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, but with the oldest from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Trevor Nunn and Susan Stroman’s acclaimed staging of Oklahoma! Yet another new work is due from Stroman (already represented on Broadway by The Producers, The Music Man, and Contact): her collaboration with Harry Connick Jr., Thou Shalt Not. And there’s the latest movie-to-musical adaptation, Sweet Smell of Success, which promises John Lithgow’s return to Broadway, as the ruthless columnist J. J. Hunsecker.

None of these is likely to knock The Producers from the top of the heap any time soon. Since opening in Chicago in February, this show was fated to displace The Lion King as the ticket everyone wants and no one without a lot of patience, clout, or disposable income can get. Though it will increase the wealth of everyone associated with it, The Producers won’t, as some have suggested, save Broadway (not that Broadway needs saving at the moment, but wait till tomorrow). The folks queuing up at the St. James’ box office and jamming the Tele-Charge phone lines aren’t likely to be diverted elsewhere. They know what they want, and it’s “Springtime for Hitler,” winter for everyone else. Bring on those tap-dancing Nazis.

You’ve Got Mel