The classic Mel Brooks movie “Young Frankenstein” had an inspired concept, adroit lampooning and memorable gags. It also had a killer comic acting ensemble (Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn, for starters), whose buffoonery is welded onto our collective consciousness.
The new, reportedly $20 million Broadway musical of “Young Frankenstein,” which has its world premiere at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre this month and opens on Broadway in November, can’t re-create that dream film cast from 1974.
But Brooks (who composed the show’s music and cowrote the book with Thomas Meehan) and Susan Stroman (the show’s director) did the next best thing: They skimmed off the cream of a new generation of fine comic scamps, and set them loose in Frankenstein’s Transylvanian castle.
Among the cast is a trio of notable stage and screen jesters, who chatted in the Paramount’s basement bar one recent afternoon about “Young Frankenstein” and the art of being funny.
They should know, people. Dressed stylishly, but less flamboyantly than her madcap character on the TV sitcom “Will & Grace,” was Megan Mullally, who really does sound like she just took a wee hit of helium. (In the musical, Mullally plays Dr. Frankenstein’s aloof fiancee, Elizabeth.)
Curled up in a big chair, the tiny, chic Andrea Martin (a Broadway veteran and one of the grand imps from the old “SCTV” TV series) pondered her role as the creepy housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman on film).
And genial, spiky-haired Roger Bart, second-banana extraordinaire in “The Producers” musical and a crazed pharmacist on TV’s “Desperate Housewives,” reflected on following in Gene Wilder’s zany footsteps as Dr. Frankenstein (that’s Fronken-STEEN, bitte, not Franken-STINE).
Some tidbits from the freewheeling conversation:
What’s it like to play stage roles so identified with the stars of the movie of “Young Frankenstein”? Are you copying them in any way?
Roger Bart: When something is based on an iconic film, and we found this out with “The Producers” too, you’ve got to pay homage to what I’d call the greatest hits. ... People expect certain lines and moments they love.
But there’s a point where the part has to be your own. Most of the time, it’s going to be funnier if you come at it from your own sensibility, rather than as an impersonator.
Andrea Martin: There are moments in the movie when I couldn’t improve on what Cloris did, so why would I try? Her part was small, but very impactful. But this is a 2 ½-hour musical, so there’s room to expand, and I’ve got new things planned. I’m going to incorporate a little Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca.”
I’m also playing with the idea that Blucher falls in love with Roger’s character. You might not notice it, but it’s in there.
Megan Mullally: I’ll be a little bit the same as Madeline Kahn’s Elizabeth, a little different. I definitely want to do a tip of the hat to her. My role was reworked a lot, too. Roger and I had to find in rehearsal the love between Elizabeth and Frederick.
RB: Yes! They’re engaged, and in love. It’s just not a love that lasts till the end of the show!
So what’s it like working with a comedy genius like Mel Brooks? Does he want to hear your ideas? Does he let you add lines and bits?
AM: Mel thrives on collaboration! Like me, he comes from sketch comedy, from Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” in the `50s, which was all about group ideas and writing. It wasn’t like, “That’s my joke! I want credit!” It’s more like, “What do we got? We need something here!”
Mel hires great people, and gives them freedom to collaborate. And when you have that freedom, with someone wonderful like Susan Stroman holding the reins and keeping it all together, you can be funny.
RB: Mel just lets people play. One day, Mel and I had a debate over lunch about whether the year 1931 sounded funnier than 1934. He said, “Know your funny numbers!”
MM: I think 1931 sounds funnier, but 1934 is probably more evocative of a certain period.
AM: 1931 sounds more tentative, don’t you think? 1934. Now that’s funny.
Every major character has songs, right?
AM: Yes. The first song I sing is named for a famous line from the film about Frau Blucher’s feelings for Frederick’s grandfather Victor Frankenstein. It’s called “He Vas My Boyfriend.”
RB: It’s a treat to sing Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with the monster 1/8played by Shuler Hensley3/8. And when I meet Igor (Christopher Fitzgerald), we do a vaudeville duet: “Together Again for the First Time” - typical Mel Brooks!
MM: I have a lot of songs. ... It’s hard to pick a favorite. The first is “Please Don’t Touch Me!,” because Elizabeth and Frederick are virgins. Then “Alone,” and “Surprise” and “Deep Love”...
RB: The song titles tell the whole story of her character.
You’ve all been successful in movies or TV. But don’t actors in Broadway musicals have it harder doing eight live shows a week? Why do it?
MM: Musical theater is where I started. All through college I did stuff. I did the last Broadway revival of “Grease,” a 34-year-old playing a 17-year-old! Now I’m a 48-year-old playing a virgin. ... I also did “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” with Matthew Broderick.
Nobody knew who I was until “Will & Grace,” but musicals are my favorite thing to do. Especially one with this caliber of talent across the board.
AM: Broadway was always where I wanted to be! And this show ... it’s a no-brainer for all of us.
RB: A musical can be so exhilarating ... like playing very sophisticated, complex jazz. When we had a really good audience for “The Producers,” it was me, Nathan (Lane), Matthew (Broderick) and Gary (Beach) up there like a jazz band. You get into melody, phrasing, beats. ...
Do you think collaboration is a key to being funny?
AM: Look at every one of those people in the movie of “Young Frankenstein”! They were all at the top of their game, and so funny together. They had a common sensibility. That’s a fluke, y’know? Just like with “SCTV.”...
MM: I just spent eight seasons on “Will and Grace” working with very funny people. But we’ve got seven slam-dunk comedy people on this show.
It’s like seven thoroughbreds. And they’re all genuinely nice.
Who along the way did you all think was really funny? Who made you want to make people laugh, too?
RB: Daffy Duck.
MM: Laurel and Hardy. They were always rerunning their films on TV in Oklahoma when I was a kid. Also Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart, TV people. And comedy records, by Flip Wilson, the Smothers Brothers….
AM: (Former SCTV co-stars) Catherine O’Hara and Marty Short. And when I was a kid, I loved Ernie Kovacs.
There are big fans of the film “Young Frankenstein,” who aren’t thrilled about it being turned into a musical. What would you say to them?
MM: This is a chance to tell a great story to people who love it already, but also people who aren’t familiar with it yet. I still think it’s one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and it works so well with music.
RB: There are always those who’ll say, “Don’t touch it!” about those big, iconic films. But I think, what an opportunity to introduce kids like my 6-year-old daughter to this amazing story, in a new way.
Hey, there have been about six “Draculas” on Broadway, at least, and maybe one Frankenstein. It’s something overdue in the horror musical genre!
We’ve sat through a lot of bad “Draculas.” Now it’s time for a good, fun “Frankenstein.”