On the cusp of having his Tony Award-winning musical “The Producers” staged this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl, Mel Brooks was quite willing to provide some tongue-in-cheek advice for nascent producers on how best to find funding to underwrite their productions.
“I lie,” he said. “I originally tell investors we’re doing something like ‘South Pacific.’ And these investors -- they are usually very old, people in their 90s -- they don’t know what they are going to be seeing, and they think it will be either that or like ‘The Merry Widow,’ which they saw and loved when they were 16.
“It worked for me every time.”
In “The Producers,” Brooks has lead character/shyster/worst-producer-ever Max Bialystock loudly -- as in, yelling it -- advise his young protégé, Leo Bloom, to “never, ever put your own money in the show!”
Has Brooks followed his own advice over the years?
“I have never put a penny of my own in my shows. I thought that very wise,” he said, before pausing.
“But maybe this was a stupid idea, because the people who invested money in ‘The Producers’ perhaps have done well, I think.”
The Friday-Sunday run at the Bowl includes three veterans of the Broadway production taking on their original chores: director Susan Stroman and actors Roger Bart and Gary Beach. The co-leads in the musical are veteran Richard Kind, who played the role of Bialystock on Broadway after Nathan Lane had finished his run, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, of TV’s popular “Modern Family,” as Leo Bloom. Also featured in prominent roles are actress Rebecca Romijn and comedian Dane Cook.
As a veteran producer, Brooks, who recently turned 86, was asked how he would have felt about hiring for one of his projects the wisecracking, young whippersnapper writer/performer Mel Brooks of the 1950s.
“Too upfront, too garrulous and loud,” he said. “Too much of a bother.”
Current-day Brooks sadly concurred that canning the young Brooks probably would likely have been the result of their working together.
As a triple-threat writer/performer/producer, Brooks is one of the few artists to experience the somewhat fabled “EGOT” of “30 Rock” parlance – he’s won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
Asked which he felt was most significant, Brooks revealed some personal beliefs about the art forms.
“Well, the Oscar, my God, that is the biggest sheer thrill you could get, when you hear your name called,” said Brooks, who won the original screenplay Oscar in 1968 for the movie version of “The Producers.” “But for a composer, a writer or a director -- personally, I think it is the Tony.”
“Because there are no falsehoods,” said Brooks, with growing animation as he elaborated. “What happens on that stage is what really happens -- people are sitting in the front row, and all the way back, and up to the balcony, and the words have to go or the song has to go or it doesn’t.”
Although he penned a 1962 musical for the stage called “All American” (80 performances on Broadway), and later retooled “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein” from movies into musicals, the bulk of Brooks’ writing for the past half century has been for film and TV.
“With a movie and television you can do technical magic after the fact, put in all sorts of cinematic design, cut stuff. You can also screen it 22 places and make fixes, hedge the bet.
“But a show is, someone once wrote, so much real. The goose bumps are right there -- the actors got ‘em, backstage has got ‘em and the audience has got ‘em.”
Brooks paused, and then, in a reflective voice that included a wince, he concluded: “Of course, some of the time you hear them groan an ‘oooooh’ when you do a joke and it doesn’t go and you feel terrible.
“But that’s an honest terrible.”
Though Brooks has attended numerous events at the Bowl over the years, he has never performed there. However, in a manner of speaking, he will make his debut during this weekend’s show.
In the original Broadway staging, and the subsequent recording of the song “Springtime for Hitler,” Brooks’ taped voice is heard singing the line “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/come and join the Nazi party.”
That recorded line will be heard here. It was pointed out that since this would technically constitute Brook’s official Bowl debut, he might want to demand more money for the performance.
Brooks cackled with glee at the thought, but decided to take the high road instead.
“Since the Bowl people obviously have great vision for staging the play in the first place,” said Brooks, “I think I’ll just be content if they like the way I sang the line.’’