Fort Worth — For modern audiences, the biting, politically incorrect comedy of Mel Brooks can be classified as refreshingly irreverent or cringe-worthy. His well-known, equal-opporunity-offender movies include Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and the 1967 film The Producers, in which two fraudsters attempt to make major money by producing a major Broadway flop. And their “flop” is about one of the world’s most notorious dictators, with the famously over-the-top production number “Springtime for Hitler.”
The film was later adapted to the stage in 2001, with a musical that set Broadway pricing and Tony Award records. Now director and choreographer Courtney Young and producer Wally Jones are bringing The Producers to Casa Mañana, June 1-9, to close the 2018-2019 season.
Before shifting her focus to directing and choreographing full-time, Young performed in New York City for 20 years, appearing in regional and international productions. She eventually served as a dance captain, swing, and resident choreographer for The Producers on Broadway for five years until its close in 2007. Young has since directed and choreographed productions of Ragtime, Wonderful Town, The Addams Family, and All Shook Up. This is her first time directing The Producers.
Young is excited to work for Casa Mañana, saying she “jumped at the chance” when she was offered the job.
“It’s one of those wonderful theaters that I always wanted to work at as a performer and never had the opportunity,” she says.
Most of the work comes from restaging the show from its original proscenium to fit Casa’s thrust stage, Young said. When it comes to the content of the show, however, she said the humor has gone untouched.
TheaterJones talked with Young over the phone about the show’s legacy and what theatergoers can expect from this edgy comedy.
TheaterJones: How would you describe your approach to bringing The Producers back to the stage?
Courtney Young: When I talked to Wally about directing this, I said “Wally, if you want the Broadway production, I can give you that. I cannot reimagine The Producers — I know that production too well and because I know it so well it doesn’t really allow me to think of the show in a different way.”
This is the only show for which that is true. I think I could reimagine any other musical theater piece that you wanted me to, but this one I just — the production I know is the one I love and that is the one I know how to put on the stage.
Wally’s reply was “Well, it worked really well, I don’t see any reason to reinvent it.” I said “Great, then I’m your girl.”
My approach is that hopefully I will breathe life into what was created by [original director] Susan Stroman. When you get the rights to these shows you get not only the rights to the libretto and the score, but you can purchase the rights to the original [staging] and the original choreography. That’s what Casa Mañana has done.
My hope is that I can infuse that production with life and energy and tell this great story to the audiences in the Fort Worth-area. And there will of course be me in it, because you can’t spend time on a show without infusing some of who you are into it.
And there will be some adjustments made for the thrust stage, but really what Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman did work, and I hope to not mess it up. I just want to stay out of the way and let what worked work.
You mentioned that when you’re directing a show you always put a bit of yourself into it—would you mind explaining that little bit further?
I guess I never realized it until I trained as a director that different directors’ sensibilities just seep into musicals, or any play or musical they’re directing.
I’ve been told that the shows I direct and choreograph have a lot of warmth or really great storytelling, great production numbers, and I think I as a human I exude quite a bit of warmth. So, it’s interesting because I’m never focused on a production and thinking ‘I want this to be a very warm production.’ But because of who I am it seeps into the work.
We’ll see if that translates to The Producers. Like I said, I’m not going for warmth, but who knows, maybe there will be warmth in this crazy, kooky comedy. And like I said, I’m doing my best to give the audience of Casa Mañana the Broadway production.
It’s that old-school comedy style of Mel Brooks. How do you keep a show like that fresh for new audiences?
I have that same question, because Mel Brooks’ style of humor is a style in which nobody is safe. Everybody is available to be mocked and you have to go full-force into that. You can’t back off of it because then it becomes uncomfortable. Whereas if you really just go with it it’s hysterically funny.
What [Brooks does best] — Spamalot is a similar type of humor, and certainly The Book of Mormon — [is when] the irreverence of it is what makes people laugh.
We’re at a time where the world is changing, and I’m interested to see how the audiences react to this. Mel Brooks wrote this because he is a Jew, and he fought in World War II. So, this was his way of responding to the atrocities that he saw. He handled it with humor.
He also has said you can’t always bring your dictators down by force of by anger, but you can bring them down with humor. I think that even though our world is changing and we’re much more PC than we were when Mel Brooks was writing this in the ’60s (and for sure in the early 2000s). But we still have these leaders who could stand to be brought down with humor, for sure.
I revisited the original film and there are quite a few jokes that today would not be OK. To bring it to the stage today, did any adjusting have to go into it, or are you keeping it as is?
I think that’s what I mean by you have to go full-force into it. If we try to change Mel Brooks’ humor, we’re going to water it down so much that it’s not going to be humorous. And I’m not a skilled comedy writer, nor do I have the rights to change Mel Brooks’ work.
This is the show that Wally [producer] and Casa Mañana chose in 2019 and this is the show that Casa Mañana feels their audience wants. We’re going to do the show and we’re going to do it full-force.
And there were quite a few jokes about things like rape and sexuality in the film version, and I thought “I don’t know if that’s going to fly.”
Well, yeah, Ulla walks into the picture and it’s immediately the casting couch. I’m hopeful that the way we play this Ulla is a strong, independent woman who has come to New York City on her own to perform and her view of the human body is very different from the American Protestant view of the human body. Her whole song is ‘When you’ve got it, flaunt it.’ So, she is in charge of her sexuality and she uses it the way that she wants to use it.
And then the other sexual stuff that could get a little uncomfortable is that Max is sleeping with little old ladies so that he can raise money for the show. But the little old ladies are desperate for him. They want him and they are going after him as much as he is going after them. So, I’m hopeful that we can play the strength of woman and women’s sexuality and it won’t get icky and into the #MeToo Movement.
For those who might not be familiar with the stage version of the show — maybe they only saw the 1967 film — how do the two differ?
I think that when the form changes the expression of the piece has to change as well. So, there are differences, but the story and the intent are the same. And the production number “Springtime for Hitler” is different choreography, but it’s essentially the same production number.
What do you think makes The Producers an iconic musical?
I think at all times people want to laugh. And this kind of irreverent humor, particularly today in our PC world, we don’t get the opportunity to laugh like this in this way very often. It’s on one hand pure entertainment and on the other hand reflects society back onto ourselves and makes us laugh at ourselves. I think that has staying power.
Is there anything that audiences should know before coming to the show?
Come prepared to laugh. We’ve got an amazing cast, some local talent and some out of New York. Max Bialystock is a man named John Treacy Egan and he played Bialystock, Roger De Bris, and Franz Liebkind on Broadway at various times. He knows the show almost as well as I do and is just all-around a terrific and funny man.
It’s an incredible cast. Come laugh, have a great time, and enjoy the show.