I went to The Producers last Friday to see the new leads, Lewis J. Stadlen and Don Stephenson. I’ll leave their performances for my drama column in this Friday’s Wall Street Journal, but what struck me most forcibly about the show is how old-fashioned, even quaint it seemed, from the slam-bam-zowie overture to the billion-decibel acting to–above all–the corny rim-shot jokes.
It stands to reason that The Producers should be old-fashioned, Mel Brooks having been born in 1926, but it occurred to me that what I was seeing on stage at the St. James Theatre was not so much a hit musical as the last gasp of a dying comic language. Strip away the four-letter words and self-consciously outrageous production numbers and The Producers is nothing more (or less) than a virtuoso homage to the lapel-grabbing, absolutely-anything-for-a-laugh schtickery on which so much of the stand-up comedy of my childhood was based. That kind of comedy was for the most part explicitly Jewish, as is The Producers itself, in which Yiddish slang is forever popping up, even in Brooks’ lyrics (which, if I heard right, go so far as to rhyme “caressing you” with “fressing you,” a couplet that would have made Lenny Bruce giggle).
It is this aspect of The Producers that I found…well, poignant. Back when I was a small-town Missouri boy, Jewish humor still had the crisp tang of the unfamiliar, which was part of why it was so funny. But Jewish comics assimilated a long time ago, as was proved beyond doubt by the colossal success of Seinfeld, that least overtly Jewish of Jewish sitcoms. Jerry and his friends shed their parents’ accents and became cool and ironic and put the past behind them–and now it’s gone, never to return.
To see The Producers is to be immersed one final time in that older style of pressure-cooker comedy, and for those of us who were born before 1960 or so, the experience is as sweetly nostalgic as a trip to the state fair, which I rather doubt is what Mel Brooks had in mind. My guess is that he still thinks it’s titillating, even shocking, to put swishy Nazis on stage. It’s no accident that he hasn’t made a movie for years and years: Broadway is the last place in America where he could possibly draw a crowd with that kind of humor, and it’s not an especially young crowd, either.
“It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes,” says a character in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. It can also be sad–and even touching.