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THEATER

The plan was faultless...

Then a 'Producers' producer starts to fret about the L.A. show. Like Bialystock, is he in too deep?

May 25, 2003|Mel Brooks | Special to The Times

Morning, eight weeks ago. I was sitting alone in my office, worried sick and feeling lower than a mastodon's clavicle at the bottom of the La Brea Tar Pits. San Francisco. The first national company of "The Producers" had just opened at the Orpheum for a six-week run, and before you could say "Springtime for Hitler," it would be opening at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. A heavy fog was rolling in over the Golden Gate Bridge while a chill rain pelted down on Nob Hill for the fifth day in a row. But I didn't care because I was in my office in Culver City where it was warm and sunny.

No, it wasn't the weather that had me down in the dumps and climbing the walls; it was something far more serious. As a creator and a producer of "The Producers," the Broadway musical based on my 1968 movie of the same name, I'd been largely responsible for casting the pair of leading performers who will be starring in the show when it opens here on Thursday.

As some of you may have heard, the two performers are Jason Alexander and Martin Short, both sensationally funny guys. But I'd begun to wonder: Could they sing and dance well enough to carry a musical as big, brassy and song-filled as "The Producers"?

So there I was, sitting in my office suffering all kinds of nagging doubts. Why? Because in less than an hour, I was due at a rehearsal studio on Highland Avenue to watch, for the first time, Jason and Martin performing the roles of Bialystock and Bloom in a top-to-bottom run-through of the show. Under the smilingly cheerful but nonetheless cool-handed guidance of Susan Stroman -- who choreographed and directed the original production, which opened in New York on April 19, 2001 -- Jason and Martin had been rehearsing their roles for some time in New York. But now they were back in L.A. and ready to have me take a look at them portraying Bialystock and Bloom, albeit in an empty rehearsal studio without makeup, lights, sets or costumes, and to the music of a single tinny upright piano.

I've known both Jason and Martin for 15 or so years and had spent a good deal of time with each of them in the spring of 2002, when I was twisting their arms and otherwise trying to induce them to do "The Producers" here. But the plain fact is that on that morning eight weeks ago, I hadn't set eyes on either one for nearly a year. Now, I was supposed to see their run-through.

But I was afraid, as I sat glumly there at my desk, that even before the run-through began, I might have to bite the bullet and replace both of them.

Glick, by George!

Let me explain. The night before, knowing that I'd be seeing Martin the next day, I tuned in for the first time to his Comedy Central series, "Primetime Glick." And I couldn't believe my eyes! "Oh, my God!" I cried, "what's happened to Marty?" Believe it or not, since I'd last seen him he must have gained more than 200 pounds! He'd turned himself from a slim and sparklingly charming matinee idol into an obnoxious 350-pound fat tub of lard!

Leopold Bloom may be a nebbishy accountant, but he also has to be appealing to the women in the audience, as Matthew Broderick was when he originated the role on Broadway. So I'd made up my mind as soon as I'd seen Jiminy Glick -- Martin either had to stop looking like a sumo wrestler in a cheap suit, lose 200 pounds by the first of May, or he was out of the show!

Unhappily, later the same evening on which I'd watched Jiminy Glick, I checked out a couple of reruns of "Seinfeld" and also began to have some very serious doubts about Jason. He'd played the role of George Costanza for no fewer than nine years. What if, I nervously wondered, he'd become so immersed in the character that he was no longer capable of playing any other role?

George Costanza, as we all know, is a something-less-than-lovable Larry David-Jerry Seinfeld creation, a lame-brained, self-deluding, pompous, mealy-mouthed, hypocritical lying wimp. Plenty OK for "Seinfeld," but it would be a catastrophe for "The Producers" if Jason played Bialystock as though he were some earlier version of Costanza.

Moreover, in one of the "Seinfeld" episodes I watched, a half-hour that truly chilled my blood, George actually killed the girl he was about to marry. I put this down as a black mark on his already shady record even if, as George himself explained, he'd done it inadvertently. But knowing his rotten character, I had grave doubts. And I began to wonder: Could any of George Costanza have seeped "inadvertently" into Jason's soul and turned him into the kind of monster who'd demand a stretch limo to take him to the theater and an air-conditioned dressing room filled with orchids and champagne?

I said to myself -- as Bialystock says to Bloom -- "Have I gotten in too deep?" I may have to get rid of both of them. Leaving the L.A. production of "The Producers" with no stars and only weeks away from opening. Oh pauvre moi (whatever that means).

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