Theater-goers got a surprise at the New Year's Eve performance of The Producers on Broadway. So did the cast.
During the second act, Mel Brooks - the show's songwriter, co-librettist and creator of the movie on which the show is based - slipped backstage, grabbed the robe worn by the actor who usually plays the judge and went on in his place.
"It was good to be the judge," Brooks recalls with glee. "When Nathan [Lane, the show's Broadway star] would ad-lib, I'd take my gavel and say, 'No ad-libbing in this courtroom.' And the audience went wild, and I said, 'If this demonstration continues, I'll clear the audience.' "
You never know where Mel Brooks will show up. Young TV viewers can hear him as the voice of Wiley, the sheep, on the PBS series Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks. ("He's a tough sheep. He's a Brooklyn sheep," says Brooklyn-bred Brooks.)
Older TV viewers can catch him portraying himself on Larry David's HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.
And, if he finishes his work casting the London production of The Producers in time, Brooks just may drop in on the road show's five-week run inaugurating Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre.
It may seem ironic that the show opening the renovated Hippodrome on Tuesday is about a pair of crooked Broadway producers (played by Bob Amaral and Andy Taylor) who concoct a money-making scam dependent on producing a flop.
"It's weird," Brooks acknowledges. "But it's really the reopening of the Hippodrome, isn't it? If the ghosts of great comedy and vaudeville are there, they'll be applauding from the rafters and the wings. They'll be loving what they see. ... It's a great big, successful, gorgeous musical comedy, and it's the kind of show that should open the Hippodrome."
Mel Brooks has had a love affair with musical comedies ever since he was a child. Granted, The Producers is a parody of musicals, but then, most of his movies are parodies. Young Frankenstein spoofs horror movies; Blazing Saddles spoofs westerns; High Anxiety spoofs Hitchcock thrillers. Brooks firmly believes that you've got to love something to spoof it.
"You can't satirize anything properly or have fun with anything if there isn't a salute in it, and you've got to know your genre, and you've got to love your genre, and you've got to salute it properly even though you're making fun of it - whether it's a western or whether it's a horror film. You've really got to know that genre and adore that genre," he says from his office at Culver Studios in Los Angeles, where he and Producers co-librettist Thomas Meehan are working on the book of their next Broadway musical, a stage version of Young Frankenstein.
Brooks' love of musicals began in 1935, when his Uncle Joe took him to his first Broadway show. Joe was a cab driver and 9-year-old Mel rode on the floor in the back of the cab - "not the most comfortable ride," he says.
But when they took their seats high in the balcony of the Alvin Theatre, "there was William Gaxton and Ethel Merman in a Cole Porter show - very light book, almost a revue - called Anything Goes, with one incredible song and dance after another. And I said to Joe, I said, 'Uncle Joe, if I ever grow up, that's what I want to do. I want to write those shows.' He said, 'Well, don't let anything stop you, kid. My dream was always to be a cab driver and I made it.' "
However, Brooks' entry into show business came not on the theatrical stage, but behind a set of drums. Buddy Rich, a Brooklyn neighbor, had given him lessons, and at age 14, Brooks - who was born Melvin Kaminsky - began playing drums at a Catskills resort.
He still plays occasionally. In fact, he sat in with the pit orchestra in Chicago when The Producers was rehearsing for its Broadway tryout. "Nobody held their nose," he says.
But his career in comedy was the real beneficiary of his days as a drummer. "Punch lines always have a rhythm to them," he says. "Drumming gives you a sense of discipline and comedy doesn't work without discipline. Peaks of laughter don't work without valleys of set-up, and this is all true in music, and especially in being the drummer."
He got his first break as a stand-up comic during that initial summer at the Catskills. Together with a female assistant, he performed a sketch he wrote called "S. and M." As he recounted in a 1978 New Yorker profile by the late Kenneth Tynan, "The girl and I walked out from the wings and met in the center of the stage. I said, 'I am a masochist.' She said, 'I am a sadist.' I said, 'Hit me,' and she hit me, very hard, right in the face. And I said, 'Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold it. I think I'm a sadist.' "
Humor from war
World War II put his promising comedy career on hold. Brooks served with the 1104th Combat Engineer Group in the European Theater of Operations. "There was very little theater and lots of operations," he once quipped.
The war, however, turned out to be the source of some of his best material - his imitations of Adolf Hitler. "In my barracks, the first thing I would do is grab my comb and put the end of it under my nose, and I was off as a fruity, crazy Hitler, and they loved it," he says.
"I never stopped playing Hitler and doing Hitler. And I figured, you know, psychologically or philosophically, if you get on a soapbox and try to out-shout these guys, you're going to lose. But if you can pull a rug from beneath them with comedy, you're going to win - if you could make them seem ludicrous. So I knew my job, politically, was to make fun of Hitler."
A trip to Berlin many years later revealed the extent to which Brooks has become known for impersonating Hitler. It's a stunt he pulled in the movie To Be or Not To Be, and, most recently, at the 2001 Tony Awards, when he resurrected the comb trick after The Producers danced off with a record-breaking 12 Tonys.
In Germany, people asked him to autograph photos of him playing Hitler. "They saw me in To Be or Not To Be and they thought I was Hitler," he says. "I would sign them, 'Adolf Hitler, aka Mel Brooks.' They got both [names]."
The Producers, however (which Brooks says may even travel to Germany), is the vehicle in which he launched his most famous comic attack on Hitler. This takes the form of a show-within-a-show, Springtime for Hitler, complete with a goose-stepping chorus that dances, June Taylor-style, in the formation of a swastika. Springtime for Hitler - the original title of Brooks' screenplay - was an idea he came up with in the late 1950s, a decade he spent mostly writing for comedian Sid Caesar.
He modeled the movie's protagonist, Max Bialystock, on two actual theatrical producers. One managed to make a living by producing flops. The other, for whom Brooks had worked, raised money "by making love to little old widows. He had a cracked old leather couch, and he'd plant them there. But they adored him, and they were so happy to get the kind of attention they really wanted," Brooks recalls.
Springtime for Hitler started out as a novel, transmogrified into a play when Brooks realized he was writing primarily dialogue, and, after it began to involve multiple locations, ended up as a film - Brooks' first feature, back in 1968.
The notion of turning that film into a Broadway musical three decades later did not initially appeal to him. In part, he was troubled by memories of his early experiences working on Broadway musicals. Two shows for which he wrote librettos met early demises. Shinbone Alley (co-written with Joe Darion) closed after 49 performances in 1957; All American closed after 80 in 1962. Also troubling was the fact that the movie version of The Producers was far from a hit when it opened.
So, when DreamWorks mogul David Geffen approached Brooks about putting the movie on the musical stage, Brooks told him: "David, it's just reached cult status. Let's leave it alone. It just made it. People like it. It's good. You know, it took 25 years. I don't want to besmirch it with a bad musical. ... Broadway, you know, you could spend five years and close in one night. At least a movie gets to play on television. We get to see it again."
But Geffen eventually changed Brooks' mind, and to borrow the title of one of the songs from the show, Brooks wound up "The King of Broadway." Now he's hoping to take his good fortune one step further, by making a movie of the musical version of The Producers, scheduled to begin shooting in 2005.
A bit of Bialystock
With his larger-than-life public persona, Brooks - who has been accused more than once of hogging credit - might be expected to identify with blustering Max Bialystock, whose motto in the movie is, "When you got it, flaunt it."
Meehan, his collaborator on two movies as well as the books of the musicals of The Producers and Young Frankenstein, has described Brooks as a proponent of the philosophy that holds that if you walk up to the bell, you've got to ring it.
In other words, Meehan says, "If you're going to do something, then do it. Do it all the way - make Hitler gay, go all the way, rather than step back and be a little frightened of the idea.
"I've been working out here [in California] with him on the musical of Young Frankenstein and every day we try to ring the bell."
This may sound like pure Bialystock, but Brooks insists he also identifies with Bialystock's partner, a timid accountant named Leo Bloom.
"I'm both. I'm schizophrenic," he says. "One part of me was always audacious, almost braggadocious. The other part was a frightened little Brooklyn kid living on the top floor of a tenement in Williamsburg. So I figured, well, this is my fate."
Needless to say, life in a tenement was not his fate. To date, he has racked up three Tony Awards (for the book and score of The Producers and for producing the show), two Oscars (for the screenplay of The Producers and a 1964 short subject, The Critic), a Grammy (for The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000) and four Emmys (three for his portrayal of Uncle Phil on Mad About You and one for a Sid Caesar special).
At age 77, it's good to be Mel Brooks. After all, he can hardly complain about watching leggy chorines audition for the London production of The Producers (which will star Richard Dreyfuss). Or delighting his granddaughter - and countless other kids - by donning imaginary sheep's clothing in the animated series Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks. Or making repeated appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm in the role of, well, himself, determined to cast Larry David as Bialystock on Broadway.
But it's working on Broadway, especially as a Broadway songwriter, that Brooks savors most. That's why he's at it again with the musical version of Young Frankenstein.
"It's a long journey through television and through movies. It's a long uphill journey, but I'm finally coming home," he says. "I think a live audience is gift from the gods because for an entertainer and for a comedy writer to hear, to see, live people laughing, hear the joke said right there and then, and see them respond to it - there's nothing better. That's what show business is really all about."
Born: Melvin Kaminsky, June 28, 1926, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Family: Married to actress Anne Bancroft since 1964; one son with her, Max (author of The Zombie Survival Guide); three children, Stefanie, Nicky and Edward, from a previous marriage to dancer Florence Baum
Career highlights: TV - Your Show of Shows, Caesar's Hour, Get Smart; film - The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety; recordings - The 2000 Year Old Man series with Carl Reiner; stage - Shinbone Alley, All American, The Producers
What most people don't know about him: He's had a lifelong interest in medicine. "I think I would have been a good doctor. ... With little old ladies, I'd have a great bedside manner."
Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.
When: Feb. 10-March 14; 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $34-$79 (except Tuesday's opening-night gala, which is $250 and $550 and benefits the Hippodrome Foundation's theater-education programs)
Call: 410-481-SEAT (410-243-3400 for the gala)