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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 November, 2004, 11:01 GMT
Getting The Producers to the West End
By Keily Oakes
BBC News entertainment reporter

Nathan Lane and Lee Evans
Nathan Lane stepped in to join Lee Evans in London

The Producers has been credited with reviving the fortunes of Broadway and tempting jaded audiences back to the theatre. Now it has hot footed it to the West End for an eagerly-anticipated run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

The concept of The Producers has a rich history and one that could so easily have faded away completely. Instead it has achieved a cult status which has lasted three decades.

It began life as a film written and directed in 1968 by Mel Brooks, himself a cult figure with a mixed film track record.

The Producers was one of his first forays into motion pictures and cemented his position as a risk-taker who defied the rules of Hollywood.

The film tells the story of Max Bialystock, a theatre producer who needs to make a quick buck.

Sure-fire flop

Roping in mousy accountant Leo Bloom they hatch a plan to stage a disastrous musical which will close early, robbing the backers of their investment.

Mel Brooks
It's been one of my life-long jobs - to make the world laugh at Adolph Hitler
Mel Brooks
And what could be a better way to a sure-fire flop than a musical called Springtime for Hitler, complete with dancing Nazi stormtroopers?

But it backfires when everyone loves the show, seeing it as a ironic classic, and threatening Bialystock's ruthless plan.

The film earned Brooks an Academy Award for best screenplay, his one and only recognition from the industry during his movie career.

Gene Wilder was nominated for best supporting actor for his role as Leo Bloom. Bialystock was played by Zero Mostell who died of a heart attack in 1977.

Despite Oscar success it was not particularly well received critically or commercially in the US, but it continued to win over fans as a cult classic despite the somewhat controversial nature of the plot.

There was some ill feeling from some quarters towards the show because some saw it as trivialising the Holocaust and Hitler.

Brooks, who is Jewish, responded by saying that such were the atrocities carried out by Hitler the only way to get even with him was to hold him up to ridicule.

"It's been one of my life-long jobs - to make the world laugh at Adolph Hitler," Brooks once said.

More than 35 years later Brooks turned it into a musical bound for Broadway.

It was actually the idea of media mogul David Geffen to put the production on stage, approaching Brooks but thinking someone else would compose new music for it.

But the backers turned to Brooks to create new tunes for the stage production.

Automatic hit

There were of course reservations about whether a musical film about a musical would work as a real stage musical.

The Producers
Musical star Leigh Zimmerman is part of the West End cast
But when the production first opened on Broadway, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the lead roles, it was instantly declared a hit by reviewers and quickly began to sell out.

Although keeping the essence of the film, and the centre piece song Springtime for Hitler, Brooks updated it with new songs and gave some characters more prominent roles, including that of secretary Ulla.

Its overwhelming success was compounded by winning the most Tony Awards in history, picking up a total of 12 in 2001, including best musical and director.

But the production hit problems when Lane and Broderick bowed out.

British actor Henry Goodman was fired from his role as Max Bialystock after just 30 performances, with no notice.

The producers of the show said Goodman was right to feel angry at this treatment and that he was a fine actor but just not right for the part.

Eventually Broderick and Lane returned to their roles for a 14-week run in 2003, much to the delight of fans.

It success on Broadway meant there were calls for it to transfer to London as soon as possible.

The lead actors for the West End were announced as Lee Evans and Richard Dreyfuss.

It was considered something of a coup to secure Oscar winner Dreyfuss despite the fact his musical credentials were largely unknown.

Stepping into the breach

And the demands of musical theatre took its toll on the 56-year-old who parted company with the show just days before the curtain was supposed to rise in the West End for preview performances.

Luckily for the real producers, and the those who had already booked tickets, Nathan Lane was available to step back in the role.

Matthew Broderick
Matthew Broderick went down a storm on Broadway

It gave him the chance to team up once again with Lee Evans, with whom he had appeared in film The Mousehunt, and secure a bumper pay packet.

If he had not stepped into the breach, there was a real risk the show would not go on.

But the knock-on effect of Lane heading to London is the delay to filming a remake of The Producers - in which he will star with Broderick.

The film will be directed by Susan Stroman, who has made such a success of it on Broadway.

Nicole Kidman is slated to appear in the film as Ulla.

The remake continues the Hollywood revival for musical films such as Chicago and Moulin Rouge.

And it could bring The Producers to a new generation who perhaps will not pay the high West End or Broadway prices to see the musical.

Review: The Producers
10 Nov 04 |  Entertainment
West End goes wild for Producers
10 Nov 04 |  Entertainment
Tony Awards 2001: The winners
07 May 01 |  Entertainment
Musical makes Broadway history
04 Jun 01 |  Entertainment
Broadway smash heads for London
17 Dec 03 |  Entertainment
Actor's surprise at Broadway sacking
16 Apr 02 |  Entertainment

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