If Max Bialystock wanted to be a hotshot producer in 2018, he’d probably need to reconsider his main source of funding.
Nowadays, he’d be paired with the likes of Harvey Weinstein. But back in 1959, his money-hungry story in The Producers — alongside his anxious accountant Leo Bloom — keeps the satire light, keeps it bright and keeps it gay.
Mel Brooks’ Broadway blockbuster will run at the Bristol Riverside Theatre from March 6 to April 1, directed by Keith Baker.
While he doesn’t think the “revolutionary” Blazing Saddles could have been made today, Baker said The Producers still holds up because “it’s just so darn funny.”
“No one had ever seen some of that kind of comedy so explicit before and with such a lack of reverence for anything,” he noted of Saddles, “as is the case in this play.”
The Bristol production will stay true to the original 2001 musical, though Baker said unlike other shows, Producers doesn’t really allow for “different ways of doing it,” aside from a few artistic licenses.
“This show is set down to the word, practically, as to the way they want it done,” he said.
Although the hysterical (“and wet”) show remains true to itself, it’s worth noting how it factors into today’s world, in which allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior is commonplace in the news.
“Since that has happened, you now look at these plays — and this play has, as its centerpiece, a casting couch. It has two producers that are after every chorus girl they can get their hands on. These are two producers who are out romancing old ladies for their donations. These are producers who pinch butts,” he said.
But this is a 50-year-old story, which takes place even further back in ’59. That was the world then, Baker said, something he said his own mother had to navigate as a woman in the arts.
“This is an accurate picture of that time, and it walks a very fine line between the fact that you can do these things, but there are consequences,” he said.
Those fine lines crossed over into Baker’s direction — and Michael Doherty’s hesitation, who plays Bloom.
In the grand number “I Wanna Be a Producer,” Bloom fantasizes of his dream job while surrounded by a series of chorus girls — each of whose tucheses he promptly pinches.
“[Doherty] felt very uncomfortable,” Baker recalled. “It’s a very slippery slope. You can’t smoke on stage anymore. Drinking is no longer charming as it used to be. … And now, we get into this thing of, ‘Can we say this still on stage?’ A year ago it may have had one effect, now it has another. How do we navigate those waters to keep true to the story that we’re telling and the period that we’re in?”
As actors, he explained, they’re taught not to judge their characters. “And yet, we’ve never found ourselves in this kind of situation.”
As for Doherty, who Baker said plays Bloom “beautifully and truthfully,” he advised just that — driving “those chorus girls insane” is in the nature of the song.
“So to suddenly get squeamish about it because things have changed,” he continued, “seems, to me, a treacherous road.”
(Moving forward, they worked out a different choreography omitting some aforementioned pinching.)
Doherty noticed the changes made between the 1967 film and the 2001 stage production: Although the male gaze is central to some characters, they gave Ulla more depth and agency in the musical; “they brought it into the modern era a little bit more.”
“So I’ve just been trying to lead and highlight the sweetness of Leo and the actual heart of the love interest. Let Max take all the lusty, sort of creepy things of the era,” he laughed.
Gawking aside, Doherty said we need a laugh in society today. “Mel Brooks’ mission of wanting to make Hitler a laughingstock — that’s still really important today because we’re wearing these swastikas [on stage] and we’re like, we’ve seen these far too recently.
“We do need to make Nazis a laughingstock still because we can’t give them that much power.”
The stage production is also an incredibly elaborate show to put on, since it honors Brooks’ love for the spectacle of old Broadway musicals he saw growing up, equipped with a dancing chorus, singing chorus, and sets that changed — for every song.
“It doesn’t get produced a lot because it’s such a huge show,” noted Doherty, who graduated from the University of the Arts and has called Philly his home ever since. “It’s rare to see one of these roles that’s funny, there’s a lot of heart in it, and you get to be the song-and-dance guy.”
The show is an “equal opportunity offender,” Baker added, poking, prodding and lampooning at just about every stereotype or idea in society.
“It’s very interesting how this piece that is a satire on everything — from casting coaches to Adolf Hitler to Irish cops — [sexual misconduct] makes us bristle,” he said. “We don’t condone murder, but we do it on stage. We don’t condone thievery, we don’t condone corruption, and yet without it, we lose most of the plays we work with.”
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