[6 November 2007]
NEW YORK—“What am I, a robber baron?” Mel Brooks barks into the phone from his Upper East Side apartment. “I’m giving you a performance to enjoy. I deserve whatever the hell I can get out of it.”
The 81-year-old comic has come unleashed at the rumor (confirmed, it seems) that his deal for “Young Frankenstein” entitles him to something like a quarter of the profits after the musical pays back investors.
His tirade has not been softened by a question about that $450 price for “premier” tickets, and whether it doesn’t constitute just a little bit of ... chutzpah.
“For writing half the book, all the score, being around to assist the actors, do I not deserve it?” Brooks continues. He rips into a list of earlier Rialto flops. “After `Shinbone Alley’—stay with me—after `All American’ starring Ray Bolger, after four or five Broadway shows where I worked for two or three years and didn’t get a paycheck, am I not entitled to 24 percent of the show, if it is a big hit?”
He’s winding down now. “My argument is: I supply. If the stuff is really memorable, then I deserve a fair share of the profits ... if indeed there are any.”
If? After the success of “The Producers,” asking if lightning will strike twice for Mel Brooks on Broadway is akin to asking if lightning will animate a lifeless corpse. Of course it will. The only variable is how high-voltage the beast will be. The advance for (to be formal) “The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein” has topped $30 million, production sources say—ahead of where “The Producers” was at the same juncture.
The new musical opens Thursday at the Hilton Theatre, with “Producers” vet Roger Bart as the New York neurosurgeon who returns to Transylvania Heights to grapple with his grandfather’s legacy. Like “The Producers,” which won a record 12 Tonys, “Young Frankenstein” features music and lyrics by Brooks, a book co-written by Brooks and Thomas Meehan (“Annie,” “Hairspray”), and direction and choreography by Susan Stroman (“Contact”).
Both Brooks’ 1974 film comedy and its $16-million Broadway reincarnation were conceived as a satire of (and homage to) the 1931 “Frankenstein” film directed by James Whale. Brooks was unsure how he would follow the Broadway success of “The Producers,” but says a line from his “Young Frankenstein” movie had always struck him as song fodder: “He vas my boyfriend,” Frau Blucher’s confession that she was in love with the elder Dr. Frankenstein.
“I figured, I’ll just write that one song and do parties,” he says.
In 2005, Brooks was coping with the death of his wife, actress Anne Bancroft. Though he does not discuss the impact of that event on his life, his colleagues note that one method of assuaging grief is tapping into your art. “I think that after Anne’s death, Mel was feeling lost and the writing actually saved him,” Stroman says on a Saturday afternoon at the Hilton Theatre.
Stroman encouraged Brooks to reunite with Meehan and see where a “Frankenstein” score might go. What began as a way to help the comedian mourn became a full-blown score. “Musicals are life affirming, but especially this particular musical,” Stroman says. The theme, she notes, “is about keeping something alive.”
The result was part “Gothic monster romance,” part tribute to Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Brooks says audiences shouldn’t expect a line-by-line interpretation of the movie. As with “The Producers,” he posits that the Broadway take is faithful to the film’s iconic moments “maybe 50, 60 percent of the time.”
Unlike “The Producers,” which was a buddy story, “Young Frankenstein” is three separate “love” stories: one about a “40-year-old virgin” (Stroman’s take) who falls in love with his sexy lab assistant; the father-son story about the doctor and his creation; and the tale of a cold socialite who finds a special kind of gratification with the monster.
Favorite lines from the film turn up in Brooks’ 17 songs, among them “Roll in the Hay,” which makes judicious use of background video (and the Hilton’s expanse) to depict the Transylvania woods. The second act centerpiece is “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” an elegant production piece enhanced with strobe effects by Tony-winning lighting director Peter Kaczorowski. There is also “Deep Love,” in which co-star Megan Mullally, as the chilly socialite, gets lascivious with Shuler Hensley’s monster.
The new cast of “Young Frankenstein” stands on the shoulders of an eccentric array of performers first associated with the roles: Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman and Peter Boyle.
Says Brooks, “I have to tell the cast not to worry about the world perceiving their interpretations as being either slavishly faithful to the people in the movie, or abandoning them altogether. I said, `Just play it as you feel it,’ and sometimes there are readings of lines you just can’t help. With Frau Blucher, it’s hard not to do a little of the Cloris Leachman reading.” (An entertaining if awkward dust-up last year had Leachman, who created the role of Frau Blucher on film, enlisting the help of Variety columnist Army Archerd in attempting to land the role again on Broadway.)
If New York City’s frightened villagers have had it in for Dr. Frankenstein, it’s not out of jealousy for Brooks’ past success. Rather, it was the news that seats to select performances would retail for $450. “That was Mr. Sillerman’s idea,” Brooks says, invoking Robert F.X. Sillerman, the entertainment mogul (“American Idol”) who is his co-producer. A similar pricing structure had also been employed by “The Producers,” to take advantage of demand.
Brooks defends the move, arguing that people who will buy those tickets “are the same people who pay $2,500 for a ticket to the Knicks game.”
“A lot of people have the money, and want special seats, and they’re rich ... so why give it to the scalpers?”
The Hilton has more than 1,800 seats, and fewer than 6 percent of the house is sold at the top price. Healthy profits, as well, are likely to come from the merchandise store—no mere cart-on-wheels—carved inside the Hilton lobby and selling “Abby Normal” T-shirts and the like.
Hidden in the lyrics of the cast’s curtain-call song is the suggestion (or threat) of a “Blazing Saddles” musical, next. Brooks aficionados know the comic often teases this way, but never delivers. Still waiting on “History of the World: Part II”?
Brooks says “Life Stinks”—“My favorite Mel Brooks movie”—likely would be next on the list of his films for the musical treatment, but that’s not where he’s headed. Instead, taking shape in his mind is “a great pastiche of a comedy about mistaken identity,” something with its inspiration in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films of the 1930s such as “Top Hat” or “The Gay Divorcee.”
“I can’t even think of a next show,” Brooks says, rearing back into Borscht Belt mode. “I’d just like to get through the next year without a walker.”