The thing all prophets have in common is that, generally, they don't want the job. But because true prophets often come disguised as something else, we hardly ever see them coming and are never sure whether to take them seriously.
Sometimes they're found howling at the moon, at other moments mumbling to themselves. On much rarer occasions, they make a feature film that only years later is understood for its prophetic insights about popular culture and cultural memory.
With the recent announcement of the Tony Award nominations, there is reason to take a critical look at Mel Brooks and perhaps his most provocative artistic creation, "The Producers"--both the musical, which received a record-breaking 15 Tony nominations, including best musical, and the 1968 feature film of the same name, which earned him an Academy Award for best original screenplay.
From the perspective of late-1960s audiences, surely no other subject matter could have been less suitable for farce and satire than the Holocaust--a term rarely in use at the time. (Indeed, much of the scholarship, literature and art about the Holocaust was only then being written and created.)
"The Producers" revolves around a plot by a has-been Broadway producer, Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane in the musical), who bilks wealthy old widows out of their retirement money to finance his flops. When accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) visits Bialystock to go over his books, Max gets a brilliant idea: If he could raise as much money as possible and produce a sure-fire flop, then he could pocket the unused money and flee to Rio. They opt for a show that is certain to offend people of all races, creeds and religions. But the production they choose, "Springtime for Hitler," instead becomes an instant success.
At the time of the film, the world was still very much in shock over the genocide of European Jews. Twenty years after the end of World War II, Hitler was a man whose name still evoked disgust and revulsion. The presumption that Brooks' two fictional producers made about the taste and moral sensibilities of modern audiences seemed on target: a campy Broadway musical titled "Springtime for Hitler" would no doubt be considered vulgar, crude and objectionable as entertainment. Surely no one would pay to see it.
But in both the film and now the musical, "Springtime for Hitler" turns out to be a smash hit, shocking not the audiences but its producers. How could these shrewd producers have miscalculated so badly?
Bialystock and Bloom never counted on how the entertainment establishment, a feckless public and the presumed autonomy of the artistic license sometimes all operate without human conscience or moral boundaries. The producers discover that in the modern world, even atrocity is fair game for farce.
Brooks, meanwhile, was ultimately more right than even he imagined. We live in a time when audiences have increasingly become desensitized to shock. When "The Producers" arrived in movie theaters in 1968, it was neither a commercial nor a critical success. Audiences reacted in very much the way that Bialystock and Bloom would have predicted--with a measure of disbelief and revulsion. Indeed, Brooks anticipated what eventually came to pass: a shockless society in which audiences have seen it all, are bored by what they've already seen, and what they haven't seen registers little, if any, surprise, or shame, at all.
For contemporary audiences, who are spoon-fed up-to-the-second visual images of atrocity, inundated with feature films that realistically depict all the unfiltered horrors of humanity, tantalized by Jerry Springer and his transformation of the once private into the shamelessly public, there is nothing either off-limits or too vulgar. The parameters of artistic liberties have changed, as well. There is more tolerance of, and greater appreciation for, sacrilege in art. And there is also the complete absence of humility and too much runaway hubris.
Moral conscience is not much of a safeguard anymore, either.
Brooks recognized that contemporary culture would eventually grow weary of the pieties surrounding the Holocaust. When the film first premiered, there was still profound sensitivities about Jewish genocide and the man responsible for its commission. But today, with the new musical, the moral climate has changed dramatically. Advance ticket sales are now running into April 2002, already generating $25 million in box-office receipts.
"The Producers" is not alone in putting the spotlight on Nazis. In recent years, Nazis have been all over Broadway--and not all of them can sing and dance. There were revivals of "The Diary of Anne Frank," "The Sound of Music" and "Cabaret" (still playing). Each was updated in ways that magnified the horror of the Nazis, a vast improvement over the original productions in which such details were treated more elliptically or trivialized altogether.