Creating a flop of a musical should be easy. Crafting an absolute disaster would seem like a piece of cake, and that scheme helped Mel Brooks win a screenwriting Oscar for his 1968 film The Producers. After repeated failures, a shady Broadway producer and an accountant who wants to become a producer decide it would be easier to get rich absconding with investors' money than it would be to launch a successful show.
The movie starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as the scheming duo who decide a musical about Nazis is a surefire way to bomb on Broadway. The musical number "Springtime for Hitler" is a classic bit of cinema.
"When the 'Springtime for Hitler' number was finished, it got a standing ovation in the movie theater," says Ricky Graham, who had snuck into the Gentilly Art Theater with teenaged friends to see the R-rated film.
Though it was a successful movie about a musical, it wasn't adapted for the Broadway stage until 2001 — by Brooks himself with help from Thomas Meehan (Annie, Hairspray). It starred Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and collected 12 Tony Awards, including best musical, book and score. Graham is now directing it as the season-opening show at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts.
Sean Patterson stars as Max Bialystock, and Rivertown co-director Gary Rucker plays the musical's more earnest version of accountant Leo Bloom. Rucker notes that it's the second Wilder character from a Mel Brooks movie/musical that he's played. Last season, Graham directed Young Frankenstein at Rivertown, and Rucker played young Dr. Frankenstein.
Rivertown has stretched the Catskills Borscht Belt to Kenner, and it fits into an approach Rucker and Kelly Fouchi have taken in attracting audiences with musicals based on popular culture, including Monty Python's Spamalot, Shrek: The Musical and Legally Blonde in recent years. They also present Broadway classics and popular new shows, and 2015-2016 is their first Rivertown season comprised entirely of musicals. The lineup features The Addams Family (Nov. 6-22), Sweet Charity (Jan. 15-31, 2016), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (March 4-20, 2016), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (May 6-22, 2016) and The Wizard of Oz (July 14-24, 2016).
Directing The Producers is a plum gig, Graham says.
"(The Producers) works on every level," he says. "It's entertaining. It's titillating, because it's kind of shocking. It's one of the most brilliant pieces of social satire ever. Voltaire would have been thrilled. ... All I have to do is referee. Sean and Gary know what they're doing."
The absurd premise is amplified by everything Max and Leo can think of to sabotage their show, from making horrible casting choices to flaunting theater conventions and superstitions. The humor gets bawdy as Max courts rich older women as investors and Leo falls for one of the auditioning models. There's physical humor and the would-be Fuhrer is over the top. Add a big, entire-cast dance number with showgirls, multiple costume changes and a goose-stepping chorus line and what could possibly go wrong? Not much at all, even if that's what you wanted.