The Sunday Conversation: Mel Brooks on his ‘Young Frankenstein’ musical
Mel Brooks suddenly seems as though he’s all over Hollywood. The 84-year-old writer-composer-lyricist-producer-director-actor, based in Los Angeles, has a new star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The American Cinematheque recently paid tribute to Brooks and his close friend and co-conspirator Carl Reiner with a film retrospective at the Egyptian Theatre. And after 15 months on Broadway, “The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein” launched its national tour this week at the Pantages Theatre, where it’s running through Aug. 15.
FOR THE RECORD:
Mel Brooks: The Sunday Conversation column about Mel Brooks in Sunday’s Calendar section said that the musical version of “Young Frankenstein” closes at the Pantages Theatre on Aug. 15. It closes Aug. 8. —
When did it first occur to you that Frankenstein was funny?
I was in the middle of shooting the last few weeks of “Blazing Saddles” somewhere in the Antelope Valley, and Gene Wilder and I were having a cup of coffee and he said, I have this idea that there could be another “Frankenstein.” I said not another – we’ve had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law, we don’t need another Frankenstein. His idea was very simple: What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever. He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, “That’s funny.”
The biggest fight we had, honestly, shame on me, was he said to prove the monster was more than mechanically able to walk or move, he wanted the monster to do Irving Berlin’s “Putting on the Ritz.” I said, “Having the monster sing and dance is just going to be silly.” He said maybe you’re right, but can we try it? So we shot it and I said, “This is the best thing in the movie.” It turned out to be hysterically funny. And it is one of our best numbers in “Young Frankenstein” the musical.
Why do you think “Young Frankenstein” is the best movie you ever made?
Because of Mary Shelley. I wrote “The Producers,” and the bones of “The Producers” are very good, but I don’t know how enduring “The Producers” is and I know how enduring Mary Shelley’s characters are. What Gene and I tried to do in the writing of that basic script and then Tommy [Meehan] and I tried to do in the writing of the book was to stay somehow emotionally true to the characters and the events and not just have things reduced to nonsense. The other shoe that we drop in “Young Frankenstein” is emotion, great emotion. You can call it father and son, the creator and his creation, that’s the real love story that Mary Shelley devised. It’s all good funny stuff. It’s very risqué. There’s a lot of sexy innuendo. I don’t know if Mary Shelley would be so happy.
That’s more the case in the musical, yes?
Yeah. There’s a little in the movie. There’s a lot in the musical. That’s what musical comedy is. In the ‘20s they were risque. Talk to Cole Porter or Noel Coward. If nothing else, they’re blissful and sexy. I think it’s good. Had I done “Young Frankenstein” before I did “The Producers,” I think I would have won all those Tonys for “Young Frankenstein.”
Some critics said you were repeating yourself.
Yes, well, if you just keep the same name and do the next project, you’re repeating yourself. You’ve got to change your name too. My name should have been Shirley Booth on this one.
Are you writing the “Blazing Saddles” musical?
I’m toying with it. I don’t know whether or not it’s a good thing. I know I’ll walk into a storm of criticism, especially in New York. The Broadway guys will say, “What? Another movie and another.... How many movies has he done? Do we have to suffer through a dozen?” I could write the reviews.
Speaking of “The Producers,” were you there last year when “The Producers” made it to the Admiralspalast in Berlin, where Hitler used to go?
I couldn’t believe it. He actually had a box there. Amazing. I wasn’t there for many reasons. There’s an Ernst Lubitsch Award for the best play and/or musical of the season, and they gave me the Ernst Lubitsch Award. I mean, Germans. And we ran quite a while in Vienna. It was a hotbed of anti-Semitism. Can you imagine Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in Vienna for seven or eight months?
I read that you produced “The Elephant Man” and “The Fly” but you were uncredited.
I wasn’t credited because I didn’t want the name Mel Brooks near them. I wanted Brooksfilms only. The same thing goes for “Frances,” the story of Frances Farmer, and “84 Charing Cross Road.” I didn’t want the audience to be Pavlovian; with the name Mel Brooks, they might salivate for some laughs. I had to be careful.
What attracted you to edgy directors like David Lynch?
I saw this black-and-white picture [“Eraserhead”], and I was moved to tears. I met with him, and in walks Charles Lindbergh into my office with a white shirt buttoned to the neck and a leather flying jacket. This was a weird guy. We talked about the symbolism of “Eraserhead.” I said, “You were very clear in your symbolism that that infant was a monster that was throwing a net around its young parents.” I said, “It’s brilliant. It’s just a truth that every family has to go through.” And then he talked about “The Elephant Man.” … He wanted to sculpt the mask himself. He was halfway there and I said, “Stay with the script; we don’t have that much time.” But I would say he was an all-around genius.
What current film and TV comedies do you like?
I like “The Cleveland Show.” I love “Family Guy.” They’re edgy. They’re a little dangerous. I like Quentin Tarantino. I think he’s crazy, and I admire his personal ego and bravado and doing what he wants to do, whether or not it’s going to be politically correct or acceptable. There’s a little bit of outrage, it’s what I like to do, and I admire it when I see it in young filmmakers.