Is The Producers by Mel Brooks, a product of its time? Or does it retain an ability to spark outrage while retaining some relevance for each new generational audience? These were some thoughts going through my head as I watched the slick and polished production of the musical on Monday evening at the New Theatre, Oxford.
Mel Brooks is a very funny and clever person. As a child, I remember seeing him and Sid Caesar, two entertainers from European Jewish immigrant families to the USA, whilst sitting beside my mother in front of the television. Brooks was a writer on Caesar’s 1950s Your Show of Shows, a live series of sketches that allowed for improvisation. My Catholic mother, also a product of immigration to the United States, would wipe away copious tears as we watched sketch after outrageously hilarious sketch about the absurdities of everyday life. Immigrant, particularly Jewish, humour emanating from the lived experiences of the newest generation of Americans residing in northeast USA, through the new medium of television, informed, shaped and influenced a socio political outlook in those receptive to their messages. In the USA those numbers reached into the tens of millions.
This template for delivery can be seen in contemporary comedians such as Aziz Ansari whose parents moved from India to South Carolina. In a recent interview with David Letterman, Ansari challenged his audience to clap if s/he was feminist. Noticing a smattering in response, he then chastised them for not wanting there to be equality for all, the definition of feminism. He went on to cleverly critique the perception of the word, rather than its meaning and implications, while at the same time subtly promoting the importance of critically understanding for oneself what this fuss about feminism is. Thankfully, this is happening in the UK as well, with comedians such as Romesh Ranganathan, whose parents are also from India. Another is Trevor Noah, who hails from South Africa and who has honed his skills in the UK before securing a very public platform as host of The Daily Show, replacing Jon Stewart in September of this year. It is hoped that he will provide a needed critical look at an Anglo/American view of the world.
What were the messages that have been retained by a first generation televisual audience fed on comedic and sartorial commentary of American life? That every day life need not be taken seriously, but that the underlying reasons for discomfort about and complaints against political decisions and acts need to be understood. In this way humour serves as a subversive and disruptive act.
During the evening, I found myself prickling with annoyance at the predictable laughs towards the stereotypical Swedish characterisation of Ulla as blasé about sex and the allure she had on the two men who want to produce a play on Broadway. Max Bialystock fancies himself a misunderstood producer of plays, despondent after horrendous reviews of his latest play. He meets accountant Leo Bloom who, while looking at the numbers, comments that even though the play was a flop, it managed to make a profit. A cunning plan is hatched to create the most unpalatable play every made, thus securing them each a million dollars. Ulla facilitates their efforts with her secretarial and housekeeping skills. The office must be kept tidy especially for those times when Max entertains his harem of elderly, and wealthy, admirers. Much hilarity is to be had from this group – they want sex at any cost, they have trouble walking, hearing, (insert ageist joke here)…..
Gay people as well are not spared from having every cliché in the book exaggerated and exploited in what we now accept as the unacceptable. After women, and the elderly, this box is also ticked as a group that will be insulted and annoyed. Another is those involved in theatre making: don’t say ‘good luck’ to someone before a performance because the opposite is inevitable. Instead, say ‘break a leg’. Predictably, this has the disastrous effect of causing the star of Bialystock and Bloom’s money ticket, 'Springtime for Hilter', to do just that. The campest member of the backstory to this play, Roger De Bris, emerges to send up Hilter, the purpose of the play.
The backstory of the play’s creation offers up a palette of opportunity for personal offense and outrage of its (actual) audience, ie myself and others in the theatre. The premise of 'Springtime for Hilter', however is to insult the political sensibilities of its audience, which was acknowledged by Bialystock to be comprised of Jews. The play, to the dismay of Bialystock and Bloom, is critically received by newspaper commentators and audience alike, and is deemed to have been a huge success. Oh, the irony.
Given that the original movie came out in 1968, the very clever composition of commentary on various groups and a particular political situation is digestible still for a contemporary audience. Everything and everybody is fodder for comedic analysis. There is enough to pick at for any and all. I predict that future productions will tease out any transgender references that may be found hidden within the foodstuffs. Ditto on disability issues. How will a contemporary audience assimilate blatant personal offensiveness within a wider political context? No doubt they will, as The Producers has staying power.
I’ve not said much about the particulars of the UK tour of The Producers, A Mel Brooks Musical. It was faultless. The set was descriptive of the two major settings, that of New York and of Bialystock’s office. The performances were flawless, the comedic timing spot on, the costumes colourful and the ability to hear the words and music clear and concise. The performers seemed to be enjoying themselves, transmittable to the audience. The audience, whose ages ranged from my mother’s generation (people aged 80 and beyond), the middling group such as myself, a woman of a certain age, and younger people in their 20s and 30s. Laughter occurred in the expected places. Was it an enjoyable evening, or one of uneasiness for a variety of personal and political reasons? A total success!