At the start of the musical The Producers, the audience meets Max Bialystock, a once great hit maker who is now only a legend in his own mind. Dubbing himself "the king of Broadway," Bialystock fondly remembers a time when "everything I touched would turn to gold." Now reduced to wearing a rented tux that's two weeks overdue and eviscerated by critics, Bialystock vows he will reach the top again.
Is there any doubt that author, composer, lyricist, and producer Mel Brooks was venting some of his own frustrations when he penned this number? Not a chance. "As the song says," Brooks said, smiling with satisfaction, "I am the king of Broadway."
All is forgiven if you happen to be one of the countless critics who long ago dismissed Brooks as irrelevant or past his prime. After creating his own genre of spoof comedies in the 1970s with classics that include Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Brooks seemed blessed with the Midas touch. He was bold enough to parody Hitchcock (High Anxiety) and paid tribute to the pre-talkie era with Silent Movie, which featured only one word of spoken dialogue—by a mime, no less. But Brooks' career seemed to falter in recent years. His last blockbuster success was 1987's Spaceballs, and the 1990s brought lukewarm offerings Life Stinks and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Brooks hasn't stepped behind the camera to direct a film since the ill-received Dracula: Dead and Loving It in 1995.
So, like Bialystock, Brooks opted to reinvent himself. At the age of 76, he's enjoying a second career as the mastermind behind The Producers, the stage adaptation of his 1968 movie, which opens its L.A. run at the Pantages on May 29. After winning a record 12 Tony Awards and breaking box office records, it seems a given that The Producers was destined to be a hit. But when Brooks was first approached by producer David Geffen about adapting his Academy Award-winning script to the stage, he said no. Although the film had won Brooks an Oscar for Best Screenplay, it was not at first the beloved film it has since become thanks to video and TV airings.
"When The Producers was released as a movie, it was not a success," Brooks recalled. "The New York Times trashed it. It took 25 years for it to become a cult hit. Finally, I would get mail on my desk from people praising it. And I said to Geffen, 'It's finally good, let it alone! It's becoming accepted. You're going to kill it again. If you make it a musical, you'll let the critics in'!" How does he feels about turning down Geffen? "Chagrined," said Brooks, in what is probably as close to sheepish as he can sound. "He was right."
By the time Brooks decided to bring The Producers to the stage, Geffen had moved on to concentrate on his company, Dreamworks. But Brooks still managed to attract several high-profile producers, including Miramax Films' Bob and Harvey Weinstein. He also had the good fortune to land esteemed director/choreographer Susan Stroman, whose years of experience on hits such as Show Boat and the recent revival of The Music Man helped shape The Producers into what it is today.
"I'm in love with Susan Stroman, I'm crazy about her," said Brooks. "I begged her to throw out one of the numbers that wasn't working, and she said, 'No, I can rescue it.' And she did. She has amazing ideas. She has little old ladies dance with walkers and beautiful girls come out of filing cabinets."
Echoed Jason Alexander, who plays Bialystock in the Los Angeles production, "The more time you spend with these guys, you hear more and more about the history of the show. Mel can kind of go on, and something's got to give form to that, and [Stroman] really rode roughshod over those guys. She threw out numbers, she demanded different numbers, she demanded eight more bars for a set change, and Mel had to go off and come up with another melody. She's really spectacular. And so specific and so clean about where the focus is and how it works."
The collaboration clearly paid off: Stroman won two of those 12 Tonys in 2001 (for directing and choreography), and Brooks won three (as producer, writer, and composer).
In person, Brooks is a ball of energy packed into a 5-foot-4 frame. Above all, he remains an entertainer. "Ask me anything!" he dared, and meant it. He never stopped talking, pontificating in that famous rasp on everything from reality television to his love of the Marx Brothers. And he's still with the one-liners. He referred to Anne Bancroft, his spouse of almost 40 years, as "my best wife." When asked about landing Alexander and Martin Short as his stars, he dryly said: "I wanted to make sure they loved the idea as much as I did. And they did. So the only question remaining was: Would they do it for scale?"
It's virtually impossible not to adore Brooks, which his peers do openly. Short recalled first meeting Brooks in the mid-'80s at the commissary on the Universal Studios lot. After introducing himself, Short wasn't even sure Brooks knew who he was until Short was leaving. "I was at the end of the door and he stood up and screamed: 'Get your price down and we'll work together,' " said Short, laughing. "I did. And we are."
Ask Alexander what people might be surprised to know about Brooks, and he's at a loss. "There's not much you don't know. Mel's an open book. He doesn't edit much. That's kind of the glory of Mel." Thomas Meehan, who co-wrote the book for The Producers and was a co-writer on Spaceballs, believes people would be surprised to know the serious side of Mel. "He's a public clown and he's endlessly funny," Meehan noted. "But he has so many interests. He's a great expert on wine, Russian novels, and all kinds of strange things that people don't associate with him. He's very interested in medicine, he reads all the journals and can diagnose illnesses. Carl Reiner had a stomach attack five years ago, and he didn't call a doctor, he called Mel. And Mel got Carl to the hospital. He may have saved his life."
Brooks is also a hopeless romantic. He purchased the rights to the book 84 Charing Cross Road as an anniversary present to Bancroft, and his company Brooksfilm produced the movie. Ask Brooks what it might surprise people to know about him and he'll point out that his company produced such varied fare as The Elephant Man, Frances, and The Fly. "I'm very proud of those hidden talents," he stated, adding that he purposely doesn't publicize his involvement with dramatic films. "I don't want to confuse the public."
Brooks is riding high on his stage success and is considering musical versions of Blazing Saddles and Life Stinks, but he will most likely adapt Young Frankenstein next. "It's a natural for the stage," he noted with visible excitement. While most directors with his resumé would be loath to pick a favorite among their films, Brooks admitted to having a special place in his heart for the original Producers.
"Only because it's the first accomplishment on film," Brooks said. "I never thought I could write it and anybody would make it. It's like your first-born child