In Susan Stroman’s film adaptation of the Broadway musical of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” Matthew Broderick splashes through Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain — something unimaginable on the proscenium stage.
“It was very exciting,” he says. “Unhealthy, but very exciting.”
First-time film helmer Stroman, who directed Broderick and co-star Nathan Lane in the play on Broadway, has had an opportunity few directors get — to re-envision their creation in a different medium.
“Making a film of the show has meant an opportunity to revisit it, not re-create it,” she says. “It’s been a chance to expand on it.”
Bringing a successful Broadway musical to the screen is fraught with challenges but also provides a chance to use new tools to tell the story.
“Shooting on film, I was able to actually have four walls and locations in Central Park and have closeups of these comic actors’ faces. Because in the theater, the audiences watches everything in a wide shot. Here, getting the camera in close, it just heightens the comedy even more.”
Lane agrees. “Because it is a film, there are things that you can now just throw away, things you can do in an intimate way.”
In one scene, on the stage, Lane’s Max Bialystock expounds sadly about his partner, Leo Bloom, from a jail cell.
“We started doing it, and I said, ‘That is a stage thing, and this is a film. We don’t need all this. You can just cut to me and see me staring out of a cell.’ Susan thought about it, and said, ‘You’re right, it’s a movie. The picture says everything.’ ”
“You can’t just transfer your stage performance,” adds Broderick. “It’s a different medium. I wouldn’t want to make the film a stale version of the show.”
There was one important element missing, though, for the actors — an audience.
“Aside from the crew occasionally giggling, there was no audience there to feed off of,” says Lane. “You just have to remember certain rhythms which made jokes work and go back to acting basics and play the scene.”
Adds Broderick: “To do these jokes, and then hear a deafening silence on a soundstage in Brooklyn, is quite different. I was so used to laughs and waiting before delivering the next joke. With this, it’s tricky because you don’t want to be too naturalistic and pretend it’s not a joke, but you don’t want to just stand there with silence either. When you don’t have the audience to depend on to tell you you’re timing, you have to do it yourself, which became kind of fun.”
The actors didn’t have a live orchestra to sing to either, having pre-recorded vocals live with a 72-piece orchestra prior to filming. The performers did, however, in many cases, sing live on the soundstage, all of which was recorded, listening to the orchestra — with or without their voices — in an earpiece. In other cases, they lip-synched to the pre-record.
“Matthew wanted to do a lot of live singing,” recalls Lane. “I told him, ‘Don’t. You’re going to have to do it 40 times, and they’ll never use it.'”
“The live singing actually helps their body language,” notes Stroman. “All of my principals are real singers. So they were able to sing live and do their dialogue against it.”
While stage actors are used to performing the entire show in continuity, even those who’ve done film work must get accustomed to the rigors of shooting coverage of scenes taken out of context.
Notes Lane, “Matthew used to say, ‘It’s like doing the show 150 times a day for a very quiet Wednesday matinee.’ But having performed the play for over a year helps.”
“The nice thing about having done the play for so long is I knew the story well enough I could jump into the middle of it anywhere and know what’s just happened,” says Broderick.
Having actors in the cast who were not in the stage version, such as Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell, added something unique, says Broderick. “Having a big movie star like Uma there helped remind us that this was a movie.”
“She was fearless,” notes Stroman. “She and Will have that same fearless quality that the other musical comedy performers have. Some stars have a little trepidation about doing anything that’s not normal for them. Uma had no fear of sliding across a table or flipping off a sofa. She couldn’t wait to be challenged. And I think because she had done the ‘Kill Bill’ films, with her martial-arts training, she has complete control of her body.”
“Producers” creator-executive producer Mel Brooks generally left Stroman to do things her way.
“He pretty much had his producer hat on,” she says. “He told me I could have whatever I wanted, as long as it didn’t cost a penny. After every phone call, he would end with, ‘Stro — save me money!’ ”
But leaving the proscenium stage meant leaving behind its boundaries, too.
“For Leo’s ‘I Wanna Be a Producer’ number, he fantasizes about being surrounded by beautiful girls wearing nothing but pearls. Onstage, we only have six girls, and in the movie, we have 20,” says the director. “We had a vast, big black floor, with an accordion set that opens out into a big series of steps, like the good old Busby Berkeley days. I was able to use the camera almost like a dancer, like a partner to the actor.”
In another scene, featuring elderly ladies dancing with their walkers, Stroman boosted the troupe as well. “We only had 20 onstage, and here we had 120 of them in the middle of Central Park,” she says.
While other successful stage musicals adapted for the screen, such as “Chicago,” changed their approach when coming to the soundstage, Stroman stuck with boss Brooks’ edict: “He said, ‘Just do the musical.’ We are good, old musical comedy. In fact, we’re more comedy musical. ‘Chicago’ is sexy and edgy; we are not sexy and edgy. Here, the comedy dictates how to shoot, because there is only a certain way to cover a comic moment to get full value for the laugh. And that really dictates most of it. Because, in this musical, the comedy reigns supreme.”