Everywhere I go, people keep asking me two things: 1) “Have you seen it?” and 2) “Is it as good as they say?” “It;” of course, is The Producers, the musical that devoured Broadway. The answers are 1) Yes and 2) Of course not. That's not to say I didn't laugh for nearly three hours straight at Mel Brook's rudely funny book. That's certainly not to say that Nathan Lane isn't giving one of the great star performances. And that's absolutely not to say that he isn't given stellar support by Matthew Broderick and the rest of the cast. It would be impossible to see The Producers and not have a riotous time.
However, the hype machine, led by The New York Times, has turned The Producers into the biggest thing since the opening night of Medea in 431 BC. Therefore, in the spirit of friendly dissent, I would like to suggest that The Producers is a just a tad deficient in certain departments. First, there's the score: no hit musical has ever had a weaker collection of songs. They all sound like leftovers from some forgotten flop 60s musical. Still, the numbers usually work because Susan Stroman has gagged them up, frequently to hilarious effect, and because Lane, Broderick, and company knock themselves out delivering them. Second, The Producers is, in essence, a three — hour sketch, and its relentless, one — note, out-for-blood sense of humor can wear you out.
It must be said, however, that it's pretty delightful in the design department, with Robin Wagner's scenery (check out the posters in Max Bialystock's office), William Ivey Long's costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting all adding to the fun (kudos, too, to Steve Kennedy's crisp, clear sound design — look for full coverage in the September 2001 issue of ED).
But personally, I prefer a show like The Full Monty. It's also very funny, but it's touching, too, and you really care what happens to the people in it. Furthermore, the show has a very exciting score, written in a modern pop idiom by David Yazbek, that suggests new directions for contemporary musicals. I wouldn't ever want to have to choose between The Full Monty and The Producers. I just hope people remember there are other shows in town. End of lecture. You may all return to your places in the box-office line.
Of course, by the time you read this, you will know the winners of the Tony Awards, something I won't know for a couple of weeks yet. I do know the Tony nominations, however, and I would like to point out a thing or two:
First of all, it's time for the Tony nominating committee to recognize that non-musicals are worthy of design awards. Every year, one straight play gets one or two design nominations, with the rest going to musicals. The lucky nominee this year is The Invention of Love, nominated for scenery and costumes (both by Bob Crowley). This is plainly ridiculous: Are only musicals worthy of awards? Were the designs of such productions as The Man Who Came to Dinner, The Dinner Party, Design for Living, Proof, Judgment at Nuremberg, and King Hedley II really inferior to the nominated musicals? Each of these productions featured first-rate design in one or more categories. Truth is, most of these shows were closed by the time nominations were announced, and the Tonys (even nominations) rarely go to closed shows, which cannot benefit from the goose at the box office that an award provides. Also, the nominators tend to think that the word “design” is Latin for “lots of sets and costumes,” so they nominate all the big musicals in sight.
On the other hand, I cannot believe that a scenery nomination could not be spared for David Rockwell, whose work on The Rocky Horror Show was among the year's best. Rockwell turned the downstairs Circle in the Square Theatre into a hilarious dungeon of doom for that show's particular brand of bisexual rock-and-roll science-fiction excess. I have two theories about this: 1) The members of the Tony nominating committee, average age 115, were appalled by the show's lineup of all-singing, all-dancing drag queens. But since costume designer David C. Woolard got a nomination, this probably isn't true. More alarming is theory 2) Rockwell, a famous designer of restaurants making his Broadway debut, was simply unknown to the Tony committee, most of whom need to get out more. At any rate it is, as Julie Andrews once said, an egregious omission.
As for the most egregious omission of all — their resolute refusal to nominate sound designers — there's very little left to say. Good sound design is crucial to the success of the Broadway theatre, and it's about time that the Tony people understood that. But, since their understanding of the role of design is, at best, limited (see above), there's little chance of this changing in the near future. Let them attend a performance of The Producers without Steve Kennedy's design, and see how much they like it.
There was, much sadder news of the month, with the passing of costume designer Jonathan Bixby at the far-too-early age of 41. I only knew him a little bit — we had done a couple of interviews on the phone — but found him to be enormously amusing and knowledgeable, with a tremendous love for the theatre. It was always a treat to talk with him, because he knew so much about the history of Broadway. He was one of the founders of the Off Broadway company The Drama Dept., and he did some of his best work there, most notably with a pair of comedies from Broadway's golden age: June Moon and The Torch Bearers. Ironically, a few days after he died came the opening of the new musical Urinetown! featuring (excellent) costumes by him and his longtime colleague Gregory Gale; the show was an immediate hit and transfers to Broadway this month. With that title, Urinetown! seems like a rather strange final credit, but because it is a spoof of all kinds of Broadway musicals, executed with satiric virtuosity it is, to my mind, the perfect Jonathan Bixby show.