NEW YORK — It's exhausting to be the king.
Minutes after the curtain falls on "The Producers," with cheers still ringing in his ears, Brad Oscar hustles up the stairs to his second-floor dressing room in the St. James Theatre and tries to catch his breath.
He's drenched in sweat. He's yawning every two minutes. As the clock inches past 11:30 on a steamy night, his friendly blue eyes have the slightly dazed look of a man who has won the war but taken a beating.
"This was a good crowd," says the 37-year-old actor playing Max Bialystock, the so-called King of Broadway, in Mel Brooks' hit show. "Not raucous but noisy. On a night like this, I don't have to work so hard."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 148 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Producers" clarification--Because of production deadlines, today's Calendar cover story about the musical "The Producers" has outdated information about the Los Angeles engagement. It has been confirmed that Martin Short will play Leo Bloom.
Please. In one of the most taxing roles ever written for a Broadway musical, Oscar is on stage for nearly all of the three-hour show. He sings and dances, struts, bellows, shouts and booms his way through a part that physically drains him each time he takes the stage. Eight times a week.
Working at a manic pace has become the defining reality of Oscar's life since he was handed the plum role of Bialystock in April. And it remains a hallmark of the show that still hums with relentless energy and comedic flair 15 months after opening night. As "The Producers" cruises into a second boffo year, the show is preparing to launch the first of two national tours, including a special Los Angeles engagement with two marquee names set to begin in April 2003.
Oscar's meteoric rise in the New York company, from an obscure understudy to the juiciest role on Broadway, has become the stuff of legend and a key ingredient of the show's success. But his unexpected celebrity has also had a downside. He had to live up to extraordinary expectations in taking over a high-profile part made famous by Nathan Lane, his Tony Award-winning predecessor, and earlier by Zero Mostel in a beloved 1968 movie. More important, he inherited the role at a moment when "The Producers" was hit by critical and financial turbulence, and its future as a musical that might run for years was in doubt. Initially passed over when it came time to replace Lane, Oscar vaulted back into the spotlight when the first replacement, British stage star Henry Goodman, was fired after only four weeks.
The story of how Oscar's performance stabilized the show and helped put it back on course offers a fascinating glimpse of the creative and financial forces driving one of Broadway's most successful productions. It also shows how a modest, even-tempered actor like Oscar--something of a rarity on the Great White Way--managed to survive a backstage pressure cooker and thrive in a world where watching your back is no less important than watching your cues.
Indeed, some were openly skeptical when he took over as Bialystock, seeing dark clouds over the St. James Theatre: Could the show overcome the much-ballyhooed departures of Lane and Matthew Broderick, a duo that was the top box office draw for Broadway's biggest hit? Could the musical keep making buckets of money? And could Oscar, who looked and sounded like Lane, ever make the part his own?
As new cast members settle into the show--including TV star Steven Weber, who has replaced Broderick as nerdy accountant Leo Bloom--the audiences who rise to cheer each night have answered all of these questions. Oscar has blossomed in the part, and tickets remain scarce for the tale of Max Bialystock, a schlockmeister producer who bilks millions from little old lady investors by staging "Springtime for Hitler," a show intended to be a Broadway flop.
"It's great to see an actor like Brad grab a role and put his own stamp on a character," said Susan Stroman, who won Tony awards for the show's direction and choreography. "You don't always see this kind of evolution on Broadway. Brad's really cruising now. He's got it down."
But it wasn't always so easy.
On the night of April 16, Oscar stood on stage for the first time as Max Bialystock, instead of as Lane's understudy. Although he had played the role 72 times before, filling in after the star developed nodules on his vocal cords, the producers of a Broadway show that had been raking in millions--and won a record 12 Tony awards--were as nervous as their new leading man.
Less than 48 hours earlier, they had fired Goodman, an almost unheard-of move that sparked an overnight media furor. The actor simply didn't click in the role, insiders said, and audiences weren't laughing. The show paid off the $480,000 remaining on Goodman's contract through the end of the year and sent him packing.
"Oy," says Oscar, recalling the tumult.
In two weeks, critics would come to review the new cast, and if they were savage, "The Producers" might have gone from being untouchable to just another run-of-the-mill phenomenon, New York Post drama columnist Michael Riedel said. "They could have taken a major financial hit--at least in the long term."