For decades, Mel Brooks resisted turning The Producers into a musical. He’d written numbers for most of his movies, including The Producers’ mock-dreadful showstopper, “Springtime for Hitler,” but he’d failed once on Broadway, and maybe a big-budget show was just too daunting a prospect. So how did he get from “No thanks” to the $10.5 million show steamrolling toward its April 19 opening at the St. James? Well, Hollywood mogul David Geffen wouldn’t stop nudging him to do it. But he also had an ace up his sleeve in the form of Thomas Meehan – who, in addition to co-writing Spaceballs with him, wrote the book for Annie, one of the most successful musicals ever. Mel Brooks may be the funniest alter kocker alive, but it is this unassuming Irishman who cracks him up.
We’re sitting in the back of a handkerchief-size bistro next to the St. James after a Sunday preview: Brooks; his wife, Anne Bancroft; and Meehan. They began working on The Producers three years ago and the comfort level is high. A love letter to Broadway boondogglery, it stars Nathan Lane as roguish producer Max Bialystock and Matthew Broderick as his partner in crime, nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom (roles originated in the 1968 movie by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder). No one is safe on the stage: There are gay jokes and Jewish jokes; a Paul Robeson parody and a chorus line of little old ladies tap dancing with walkers; big bazoombas and high-kicking storm troopers. It’s not just an un-p.c. orgy, it’s the Plato’s Retreat of un-p.c. orgies.
“I can write lines that sound like he wrote them,” Meehan explains. “I lead him down the right path, then he comes up with the solution.” For example? Brooks wanted to open the show, like the movie, in Max’s office. Meehan thought otherwise, and so it begins with “The King of Broadway,” an exuberant production number on the opening night of Max’s latest flop that tells you everything you need to know about him. “Plus, I weed out his excesses,” Meehan adds. “Like an 8-year-old, he gravitates toward bathroom humor.”
Growing up in Suffern, New York, Meehan was determined to be the next Faulkner, but yuks kept getting in the way. He spent ten years writing humor pieces for The New Yorker, and still he wasn’t convinced of his fate. “While I was working on Annie,” he admits, “I told no friends. I was too embarrassed.”
Even now, despite rapturous out-of-town reviews and won’t-quit lines at the box office, Meehan’s nervous. The 2,000 Year Old Man, on the other hand, is having a ball. “Being back in show business again,” Brooks says, “I’ve been high for three years.”