So I suppose I should begin this by saying that if anybody has tickets to The Producers which they can’t use, I would be delighted to take them off your hands. Of course I’ll watch The Producers, but this makes for a much better title than “Why I’ll Never Forgive Mel Brooks for Making a Musical Version and a Movie Version of the Musical Version of the Funniest Movie Ever Made.”
The original The Producers is the funniest movie ever made. Don’t believe me? Watch it. Still don’t believe me? Watch it again. Humor dates, but this is a movie that can never stop being funny. The whole point of The Producers is to make the grandest possible joke in the worst possible taste and then watch people be offended by it. And because the joke is meant to be every bit as offensive as it seems, you can never help yourself from laughing at the very fact that The Producers exists.
The very existence of The Producers is the joke. We’re watching people put on the worst Broadway Musical ever made in the hopes that it will fail. It can’t just be bad, it has to be the most spectacular flame-out in the history of Broadway. It has to close by the end of the opening number. And after months of searching, they find it: “Springtime for Hitler - An Early Morning Romp with Adolf and Eva.”
Hitler: the baddest bad person ever. The guy who killed a third of the world’s Jews and 44 million goyim. A guy whose depths of badness the the world did not even realize until sixteen years after he died at the Eichmann trial. A guy who in 1967 was still spoken of with living terror by a New York that still spoke Yiddish and an Israel whose very existence was threatened from all sides and a Europe which feared annihilation - even nuclear incineration would be better than Hitler. This is the guy who killed my Aunt Tzipporah and my Great Aunts Rachel and Chaya and Chaya’s family and my Great-Grandmother Miriam and countless other relatives.
And yet here were two Jewish seeming characters, clearly somewhat loony but nonetheless lovable, with the brilliant idea of exploiting people’s terror and grief and humiliation and trauma so that they could make a bundle of money. Max Bialystok and Leo Bloom took the most inhuman horror of human history and made it into a banal all-too-human scheme to get rich. For the first time ever, Hitler was human. This is not the Charlie Chaplin/Bugs Bunny caricature of Hitler, but the Hitler with a song in his heart. In 1967, with the stench of the ovens still in our noses, we were given permission to laugh at Hitler.
Whatever the musical’s virtues might be, this is why it will never be the real thing. I never saw the musical in the theater. But I’ve heard the soundtrack plenty and, god forgive me, I even saw the movie version of the musical. The original movie is a look back at the horrors of 1943 from 1967. The musical is a look back at the joys of 1967 from 2001. The original is an overwhelming assault on every front of good taste we know. The musical is pure nostalgia for a past in which there was good taste to assault. There is not a single moment in which the original Producers trivializes Hitler. It fully knows how outrageous Hitler is, and in that way it pays homage to all the people Hitler killed. The musical uses a movie about spoofing Hitler as an excuse to pay homage to things that had nothing to do with Hitler. The musical is the one that trivializes Hitler.
By the twenty-first century, the world of everything which the musical celebrates has vanished. The world of The Producers depends on people remembering an era before the movie house. This is the world of Vaudeville: variety shows, silent shorts, concert saloons, minstrelsy, dime museums, burlesque, cabaret, freak shows, trained animals, magicians, Shakespearean actors, jugglers, classical violinists, acrobats, mimics, chorus lines, strong men, poetry recitations and striptease. Whatever it takes to entertain the audience - The Show Must Go On.
If you’ll permit me some ridiculous fancy here, I would say that this is the era in which Max Bialystok grew up, and it’s probably an era which Leo Bloom has only heard stories, yet about which he dreams. Max Bialystok might produce a musical about 1943 in 1967, but in his mind it’s still 1926. In my mind’s eye, Bialystok was trained as a vaudeville producer, and his entire mentality shows that he is only comfortable when chaos is all around him. Chaos of the level that can only be provided by an eight-hour variety show. No doubt his training served him well at the beginning of his career, in which he could assemble shallow Broadway musicals with all sorts of empty spectacle. But as the American musical moved towards ever-more substantial fare, there is no place for a Max Bialystok in the age of Sondheim.
Ironically, it would be less than a dozen years later that the musical would lurch back into Max Bialystok territory, a place from which it still hasn’t escaped. If he hadn’t gone to jail, Max Bialystok would could have been the King of New Broadway - able to bring back the ‘let’s put on a show’ mentality without skipping a beat. All the old ladies he shtupped would be dead, and some of them would have left him money in their wills.
This is also the paradox of Mel Brooks himself. While Woody Allen was very clearly a hip New York intellectual of the 60’s and 70’s (even today he is...), Mel Brooks is a throwback to the early part of the century - so important to the comedy of his time because he is so clearly out of step with it. But he never evolved from there, and as a result, the quality of his work suffered immeasurably. He is one of the few filmmakers to have started his way at the top and worked his way down. It is almost a hard-and-fast rule that every one of his films will be slightly less funny than the last. Anyone who begins with The Producers and works his way to Dracula, Dead and Loving It has to answer for a lot. And even if The Producers musical revived his career, it might have been the most egregious step of all. Talk about Bad Taste.
And if you still don't believe me: read Roger Ebert