Set Rentals
Back To Past Seasons Page



Journal; Springtime for Adolf and Tony

Published: May 12, 2001

The Jews are so greedy that they'll merchandise Hitler to turn a buck. The gays are not only limp-wristed but extend any word ending in the letter ''s'' into a hissy symphony of sibilance. The elderly women are so depraved that they'll drag themselves by their walkers to a sexual fling.

And that's just the first act.

''The backlash should be starting any time now,'' said Nathan Lane on Monday as we discussed this strange phenomenon known as ''The Producers.'' It was the day that the Broadway musical in which he stars earned a record number of Tony nominations. ''I've never seen anything like this in my life,'' he said. ''It's taken on something I can't even explain, like some new religion. I don't know quite what to make of it.''

He's not alone. As measured by wildfire audience acclaim, reviews and ticket sales, ''The Producers'' is the biggest hit New York has seen in more than 25 years -- specifically since ''A Chorus Line'' in 1975. And a highly unlikely one. Its creator, Mel Brooks, hasn't had a film smash in more than a decade; his last Broadway musical, almost 40 years ago, was a flop. Neither Mr. Lane nor his co-star, Matthew Broderick, drew anything like packed houses in their most recent stage ventures. What's more, ''The Producers'' arrived on Broadway with no TV commercials, no London pedigree and no media-conglomerate muscle. Yes, it's based on a movie, but a cult film released more than 30 years ago -- hardly a recent blockbuster like ''The Lion King.'' Nor is the show, for all its laughs, exactly perfect. Its 15 Tony nominations do not mean that it's, say, twice as good as ''West Side Story,'' which got seven. As Thomas Meehan, Mr. Brooks's co-author, also said this week: ''I can still see the flaws. I know it's too long in the second half of Act II.''

So what's going on here? Why did theatergoers start storming the box office -- first during a tryout in Chicago, then on West 44th Street -- well before the critics weighed in? Why are New Yorkers talking more about a play than the warring Giulianis? Mr. Meehan, whose last smash hit, ''Annie,'' was in 1977, recalls how that show ''rode the zeitgeist, that brief resurgence of hope as Carter became president.'' He wonders now if ''after the national farce of the chads in Florida, people are really disappointed in the system'' and want to ''thumb their noses at everything and anything.''

Whatever the explanation, ''The Producers'' is a surprise landslide vote against not just political correctness in mass entertainment but the kind of show-business corporate-think that creates such bland pop culture, which is carefully laundered to offend no potential customer. If this musical had been produced by the committees of executives that usually govern big-budget entertainment, it wouldn't contain the two most R-rated four-letter words in its very first scene. Or feature a blond bombshell heroine whose preferred path for career advancement is, as she sings, to ''show the boys that birthday suit.''

For a show that is attracting family audiences, this one is about as un-Disney as you can get. It's multicultural only in the sense that it makes fun of blacks and the Irish as well as Jews. It hasn't been pre-tested with focus groups but insists on speaking only in the singular voice of Mel Brooks.

So far no one has complained about anything except the sudden raising of the ticket price to a Broadway high of $100 the morning the reviews came out. (The chief culprit is the lead producer, Rocco Landesman, a friend of mine who will have to marshal his own defense.) The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which three years ago decried the ''blatant stereotypes of gay men'' in the farcical movie ''There's Something About Mary,'' isn't protesting a show in which every gay character tends to wear lavender, Hitler is portrayed (as the script has it) by ''a silly, hysterical, screaming queen'' and the sole lesbian on stage sounds more butch than James Earl Jones.

On the conservative side, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which protested ''vulgar nun jokes'' in the silly teen gross-out movie ''Saving Silverman,'' has yet to alight on the delighted nuns flanking Mr. Lane as he hurls a sexual expletive. Culture cops of the left and right alike may sense that their day is finally waning.

One hit doesn't constitute a trend, but the audience enthusiasm for ''The Producers'' is so over-the-top -- and so lucrative -- that you can bet it is rapidly becoming a show-business case study that could yet play at least some role in liberating other mainstream pop culture, not just the rarefied world of Broadway, from the p.c. sanitization that has become such a bore over the past two decades. While Mel Brooks is far more sweet-spirited than Eminem -- to put it mildly -- the hunger for his unreconstructed assault on the jugular is a similarly spontaneous expression of widespread discontent with the pasteurized fare that is our dull daily entertainment bread.

So is the country's ever more ravenous appetite for ''The Sopranos,'' which, in its third season, has finally spawned the backlash that Mr. Lane still awaits at ''The Producers'' -- including, this week, the promise of a condemnatory Congressional resolution from Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican who is incensed at how the HBO series portrays the Italian-Americans of her district. Can Joe Lieberman be far behind? ''The Sopranos'' has had something to offend almost anyone who wants to be offended, from a Hasidic criminal to a priest hitting on a married woman to a (lovable) protagonist who not only kills people but derides his daughter's racially mixed boyfriend as ''an Oreo cookie.''

The loudest alarm about ''The Sopranos,'' however, has been sounded not in Washington but in the entertainment industry itself. Last month the chairman of NBC, Robert Wright, circulated a letter to dozens of colleagues in which he piously described the series as ''a show which we could not and would not air on NBC because of the violence, language and nudity.'' Along with his missive he included a tape of a recent episode in which a stripper is beaten to death.

Mr. Wright, it should be said, runs the network that gave us XFL football (R.I.P.). It should also be said, as HBO has, that HBO is a pay cable network -- which means that, unlike NBC, it can be seen only by those who choose to shell out for the privilege of watching as much ''violence, language and nudity'' as they want. Nonetheless, Mr. Wright's letter called for a debate over how HBO's hit ''impacts mainstream entertainment'' like NBC's. On the phone yesterday, he elaborated that he wanted to learn ''whether or not mores have changed'' in terms of what's acceptable on broadcast TV.

But the point about ''The Sopranos'' is its quality, not its mores. NBC, like the other networks, rejected the show when it was first shopped around by its author, David Chase. Why? Mr. Chase is on record as believing that the network rejections were not, as Mr. Wright might suggest, because of the vulgarity and violence -- neither of which is exactly verboten on network television -- but because of the authenticity of the characters. One broadcast executive told Mr. Chase that he didn't object to Tony being a cold-blooded killer but did want to ditch the notion that the Mafia boss was seeing a therapist and taking Prozac. As Mr. Chase told Bill Carter of The Times, if ''The Sopranos'' had been picked up by a network, it's the characters, not the bloodshed, that would have to be compromised the most: ''They would have tried to make it that, on the side, [Tony is] helping the F.B.I. find the guys who blew up the World Trade Center.''

No wonder NBC is threatened by ''The Sopranos.'' Like Mel Brooks, working in the relatively small show business venue of Broadway, the equally idiosyncratic David Chase, working in the relatively small venue of cable TV, has reawakened an excited, paying public to entertainment that isn't afraid to offend in pursuit of artistic and human bite. Given a chance, Americans can tell the difference between a show created by real writers and one assembled by a Hollywood committee pandering to every constituency of the lowest common denominator.

In the scheme of our vast entertainment industry, the audiences for ''The Producers'' and ''The Sopranos'' are not enormous, yet both are growing as rapidly as word of mouth can spread. It's not only springtime for Hitler and Tony Soprano, but possibly for a torpid show-business culture that may be inspired by these unexpected hits, or at least by their dazzling profits, to let in some fresh air.