'Producers' causes big laughs, pride in Chi

CHICAGO — The 1968 movie “The Producers” is about a stage musical that’s absolutely the worst possible — but, against all odds, it becomes a gargantuan hit.

In 2001, “The Producers” is a stage musical and the producers feared the worst possible — but, against all odds, it’s become a gargantuan hit.

At least that’s the case in Chicago. And there are omens that audiences will be singing “Springtime for Hitler” for a long time on Broadway (where it has an $8 million advance), on the road and on the West End.

When Mel Brooks is around, it seems that life imitates farce.

Nervous producers of the new $10.5 million stage version tried for a low profile during the pre-Broadway tryout in Chi. Local critics were kept away for three weeks; little money was expended on marketing and stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick did very limited media appearances.

But word of mouth has turned the tuner, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, into the biggest theatrical attraction Chicago has seen in more than a decade.

By the time it closes on Feb. 25 after a 3-1/2-week run, “Producers” will have grossed almost $4 million at the 2,300-seat Cadillac Palace Theatre.

Ticket agency Gold Coast Tickets last week was seeking $1,000 for a pair of orchestra seats on a weekend night — “And that’s if we can get ‘em,” cautioned the scalper.

Margie Korshak, the show’s local press rep, last week said no show has spawned this level of local interest since “The Phantom of the Opera,” which opened its first national tour in Chi. (And that show came with the benefit of West End and Broadway exposure.)

After 2-1/2 weeks of previews, the show officially opens in Chi Feb. 18, running for a week.

The first Broadway preview is set for March 21 at the St. James Theater. Opening night is April 19. Without even a single review being published, theater pundits are already talking about boffo box office and Tony Awards.

Brooks, who wrote and directed the original film, has penned 15 new songs for the stage version; the score includes such titles as “Der Gutten Tag Hop Clop,” “Keep It Gay” and “Ven You Got It, You Flaunt It.”

According to those who’ve seen the musical, its book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan (“Annie”) and the score make for one of the funniest tuners within memory.

The plot is the same as the pic: A whacked-out producer and his mousy accountant (played on film by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) hawk 25,000% of a Nazi-themed Broadway musical called “Springtime for Hitler.” They think the show is sure to flop and they can run off with the backers’ cash. But their plans are foiled when the show turns out to be a smash.

And in Chi, the musical itself is a smash. The Feb. 18 opening was oversold, with publicists kvetching over how to accommodate some powerful local people who expect to be accommodated in grand style.

“We have nothing, nothing,” said a stressed-out Korshak last week.

“I can’t get any work done for people calling for tickets,” said another local flack.

And all that buzz is strictly grass-roots: The critics were kept away until this last weekend.

“We wanted three weeks to work on the show,” explains one of the show’s producers, Richard Frankel. “That seemed reasonable.” Aside from a radio host’s decision to buy a ticket so he could service his rabid listeners, Frankel largely got his wish.

According to Frankel, though, reports of the show leaving town with a “profit” are inaccurate.

It was Brooks, Frankel says, who insisted that the show start out of town and that funds be built into the budget for a traditional soft opening. (It ended up costing an extra $1.5 million.)

But he’s glad he came to town. “We thought that people in Chicago would laugh at pretty much the same things as New Yorkers,” Frankel says. “So it’s all been very useful.”

At a Chi press conference prior to the first performance, a wisecracking Brooks credited David Geffen with “nipping at his trouser leg” with sufficient frequency for the show to finally get done.

Producers of “The Producers” are already talking about mounting a tour in fall 2002, meaning the impact of this piece may well ripple happily all the way down the road for several seasons to come.

And then, of course, there’s the West End; Brits have long loved Brooks.

The list of folks set to benefit here include Rocco Landesman; the SFX Theatrical Group; the Frankel, Baruch, Viertel, Routh Group; Bob and Harvey Weinstein; Rick Steiner; Robert F.X. Silverman; and, of course, Brooks.

For SFX Theatrical Group, the benefits of the engagement have been two-fold.

As one of the producers, the org has benefited from a successful tryout. And as the owner of most of Chi’s theater district, it has assuaged persistent criticism that it was not delivering enough top-drawer product to the Windy City.

Once people look at these box office returns, the Chicago theater district may find itself seeing more and more pre-Broadway attractions. There is certainly no shortage of suitable venues in the Loop’s newly restored theater district.

So why has this show clicked so strongly with Chi audiences?

It’s partly due to the popularity of the pic, which landed Brooks an Academy Award for original screenplay.

It’s partly due to the blue-chip presence of stars Lane and Broderick, and director Stroman.

And legit-goers in this sophisticated theater town feel that “The Producers” is a major international event. (Local audiences have long turned up their noses at road shows that play a week in Chi, then move on the following week to Grand Rapids.)

And as a bonus, they enjoy beating New York to the punch.

Not all Chi tryouts run this smoothly. Last season, “Aida” met with mixed reviews, scenery malfunctions and cast injuries. Even that pales compared to the carnage and chaos that met “Seussical, the Musical” in Boston last year.

The out-of-town buzz on “Producers” is the most positive since “The Lion King” in Minneapolis. Insiders report a lively and creative atmosphere, with Lane’s improvisations and contributions revving up the manic comedy.

It hasn’t been a perfect tryout, of course. Some viewers gripe that the show’s too long, but that’s a frequent complaint for shows in preview.

And a parody number based on “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy” was removed after the final dress rehearsal. “Gypsy” scripter Arthur Laurents refused permission, reportedly because he felt the seg would damage “Gypsy” and because he felt this was not a fitting memorial to the composer, the late Jule Styne.

Actor Ron Orbach (who appeared in Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” playing a character based on Brooks) was injured in rehearsal and missed much of the Chi run; however, he is expected to reappear in the cast on Feb. 20 and be back in for the first New York preview.

And, in the long term, there’s the question of the show’s ongoing viability without its big names. Much of the Chi interest, and the boffo B.O., can be attributed to Lane and Broderick.

The star wattage certainly went a long way toward assuaging initial audience worries over whether the piece would be funny without Wilder and Mostel.

Producer Frankel said last week that no decision had been made as to whether one or both of the thesps would eventually tour, though it seems unlikely in the near term.

And the show’s potential bookers for the road were already muttering off the record that the piece might not deliver in the hinterlands with nobodies in the leads.

So there are bumps in the road ahead, but they may be minor. And in the meantime, the fictional Bialystock & Bloom and the real Brooks & Co. are the toast of State Street.

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