Mel Brooks' latest project has big shoes to fill
“Young Frankenstein” has quite a monster to master.
It’s not the mad doctor’s reanimated creation that’s so daunting. It’s the enormous expectations placed on Mel Brooks’ follow-up to his last legit property, “The Producers.”
Currently performing a tryout run in Seattle that opens Aug. 23, the Broadway-bound “Frankenstein” is for many Rialto watchers the high-stakes main event of the fall season: a pricey production from the creative team whose one previous outing proved explosively successful — before tapering off, as even those involved acknowledge, sooner than anticipated.
With an unorthodox ticket distribution strategy that pushes premium-ticket price-tags up to a walloping $450 a seat, producers of “Frankenstein” are banking on a monster hit when it opens at New York’s Hilton Theater Nov. 8.
But while the creatives are working to overcome some of the hurdles believed to have limited the longevity of “The Producers,” the “Frankenstein” producers’ tiered-price tactics, cribbed from sports and concert presenters, have stirred resentment among some in the Gotham legit community — so that not everyone in town is necessarily cheering them on.
“Young Frankenstein” reunites Brooks, once again credited as composer, lyricist and co-book writer, with helmer-choreographer Susan Stroman and co-book writer Thomas Meehan, both fellow “Producers” alums. The design team is almost entirely the same, and thesp Roger Bart, who originated a role in “The Producers,” stars in the title role of “Frankenstein.”
Whereas Brooks’ last show was backed by a phalanx of producers, the $16 million “Frankenstein” has just two, both of whom were on the “Producers” team: Brooks and entertainment mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman, the former concert and sports promoter whose current content empire includes “American Idol” and the Elvis Presley estate.
Everyone involved in “Frank-enstein” has big shoes to fill.
“The Producers” turned the rapport between original stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick into the stuff of Broadway lore, and the 2001 production went on to win 12 Tonys, the most ever for a single production.
But as the show’s boffo sales inevitably declined over the next few years, the tuner proved a tough sell without its original stars. A U.S. tour started out strong, but a Toronto production never caught on. After a couple of years of box office ups and downs, the Broadway show shuttered April 22.
While a profitable six-year run is nothing to sneeze at, it was disappointing for a show that generated the excitement of “Producers,” and compares unfavorably with the 10-years-and-counting runs of Broadway bedfellows like “The Lion King,” “Rent,” “Chicago” or the seemingly inextinguishable “Phantom of the Opera.”
Perceived wisdom holds that “Producers” got pegged as a star vehicle, which hampered sales when Lane and Broderick left.
“I think the material was better than that. It should have continued to run,” says Sillerman. “But the performances that Nathan and Matthew gave were legendary, and comparisons were inevitable.”
In contrast, “Frankenstein” has a large ensemble of major characters, played by thesps such as Megan Mullally (as Frankenstein’s fiancee Elizabeth), Sutton Foster (as Transylvanian tart Inga), Andrea Martin (as a stern frau with a secret), Christopher Fitzgerald (as hunchback henchman Igor) and Shuler Hensley (as the monster).
“This is a show that is not dominated by one or two characters, so it can’t be branded as a star vehicle,” Sillerman says.
At six years, “Producers” was the longest-running musical comedy in history. Romances (like the 19-year-old “Phantom”) tend to last longer.
“Producers” has a love story, but it’s secondary to the inside-legit tale of two men trying to bilk investors by mounting an intentional flop. In “Frankenstein,” the romance is more central.
“‘Producers’ is a buddy story,” says Stroman. “This is a love story. Dr. Frankenstein is really the 40-year-old virgin.”
Those involved in the show also note that audiences have a different relationship to “Young Frankenstein.” The 1968 pic “The Producers” sank at the box office, whereas “Young Frankenstein” was a hit, and now regularly appears on cinephile lists of top film comedies.
“The movie is universally loved,” Stroman says. “It’s more accessible than ‘The Producers,’ because of the monster.”
“It’s a very subtle thing, when you’re translating something that people have such affection for,” Sillerman adds. “You’re making sure that you’re true to that, but on the other hand, you don’t want recognition. You want humor.”
Familiarity with the movie as well as anticipation of the next tuner from Brooks (who also has stated his intention to give “Blazing Saddles” musical-makeover treatment) helps explain the initial strong demand for the show and the controversial pricing plan.
Like “Frankenstein,” “The Producers” also took ticketing risks, making a small group of premium-priced, $480 ducats available to take advantage of the post-opening fervor of ticket demand.
Since 2001, similar plans have become common on Broadway. But top pricetags for megahits such as “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Jersey Boys” have leveled out to a range of $250-$350. When “Young Frankenstein” announced it would be asking $100 above that, even before the verdict was in on the show, fellow producers were rankled, seeing the move as a mark of arrogance. That bias may also have been fueled by the decision to shift “Frankenstein” from its originally intended home at the St. James (former digs of “The Producers”) to the significantly larger Hilton.
“We designed something that matched what we thought the market will bear,” Sillerman says of the pricing policy.
The impetus for the premium tickets, implemented to help steer money away from scalpers and into the hands of the show’s creatives and producers, came from Sillerman’s experience with concert and sports promoter SFX Entertainment, which Sillerman sold to Clear Channel in 2000.
“If I bring anything to this, it’s that we were the organization credited with changing ticket pricing in the concert business,” Sillerman says. “We instituted tiered pricing, which at the time was considered revolutionary. I thought we were just following what sports was doing all along.”
The producers also strictly limited ticket sales to groups.
Sillerman attributes the policy to Brooks’ bad experiences with “Producers,” in which some audiences were filled with groups who didn’t necessarily choose to see that particular show.
But the policy can leave a sour taste for group buyers, who help keep a long-running show in business.
“Our customers are not happy about it,” says Scott Mallalieu, prexy of Group Sales Box Office. ” ‘Frankenstein’ is missing out on major charities and corporations who want hundreds of seats at a time. When you limit the number of tickets you offer groups, it turns the group buyer off to that show.”
Nonetheless, Mallalieu says he’s selling everything he has available, and Gotham advance sales are reportedly hefty.
“Frankenstein” will get its first taste of press response after its Aug. 23 opening at Seattle’s Paramount Theater, and creatives will continue to cut and refine as they head toward Gotham, where the production begins previews Oct. 11.
While Sillerman may be hoping for the next “Producers,” he says he knows he can’t count on it. “One thing you can’t do is predict consumer acceptance,” he says.