Lane, Broderick to give 1 last push to `The Producers'

Broadway: Hit musical will lose its lead actors in filled finale March 17, but Henry Goodman and Steven Weber are set to take their place.


NEW YORK - In a decision that may set off yet another scramble for Producers tickets, the matinee on Sunday, March 17, will be the last performance for the two above-the-title stars of the blockbuster musical.

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick have been with the show since last February, when it began a tryout in Chicago. When the show moved to New York the following month, it quickly became the must-get ticket on Broadway.

The surprising choice to fill Lane's role is Henry Goodman, a British actor who is little known in the United States but who won an Olivier, British theater's highest award, last year for a riveting portrayal of Shylock in a Royal National Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice. His first performance as Max Bialystock, one of a pair of scam-artist producers, will be March 19.

Steven Weber has been chosen to replace Broderick as the hapless Leo Bloom. Weber, 40, is best known for his television work, including the 1990s comedy Wings and a current role on Once and Again, the divorce drama on ABC.

The producers have been searching for replacements for several months. Hailed as one of Broadway's most charismatic comedy teams, Lane and Broderick have been a large part of the show's runaway success, spurring a ticket frenzy at the St. James Theater, where premium seats go for $480 and where scalpers outside charge even more.

Lane and Broderick were offered lucrative deals - including salary increases pegged to the show's torrid sales - to extend their runs, said a person involved in the negotiations, but both men declined. Lane cited poor health, while Broderick has prior commitments to appear in films.

And while it initially was feared that the show's fortune was tied to its stars, it has continued to be successful, even as understudies began appearing more frequently.

In choosing Goodman, the producers seem to be signaling their confidence that the show, not an individual, is the star.

Speculation had been rampant for months that Lane would be replaced by another name star, with rumors about Jason Alexander, John Goodman and others.

Henry Goodman, 51, is a legitimate musical theater star in London, having played Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls; Billy Flynn in Chicago ; and Charles Guiteau in a revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins, for which he also won an Olivier.

He is versatile enough to carry straight plays as well, as he performed as Roy Cohn in the London production of Angels in America and most recently as the male lead in Feelgood, in London's West End. He has appeared on Broadway once before, in the comedy Art in 1998, and has had small roles in such films as Notting Hill.

"Henry blew everybody away when we saw him," said Tom Viertel, one of the show's producers. "He represents the type of distinguished actor that we badly wanted to follow Nathan Lane."

As far as replacing Broderick, many thought that an actor from the cast would be promoted. Instead, the producers are bringing in Weber, who has limited stage experience but considerable name-recognition value as a result of his television career. Not that Weber is a total theater naif; a Queens native, he was a New York stage actor before his film and television career began to percolate in the late 1980s.

Based on the 1968 movie by Mel Brooks, The Producers tells the story of two Broadway impresarios who plan to bilk their investors by mounting a "sure-fire flop." The musical opened on Broadway in March to raves, and subsequently won 12 Tony Awards, including best musical and best score.

Despite the show's runaway success, the run has taken a toll on its two stars. In November, a polyp was found on Lane's vocal cords, a result of the consistent strain of playing Max, who is onstage for most of the nearly three-hour show. To combat the vocal problem, a month later Lane reduced his schedule of eight performances a week to six.

Broderick, meanwhile, missed several performances last month because of the flu.

For all that, the show has been a boon for both actors. Lane and Broderick both were nominated for the Tony Award for best actor, and Lane won. And while both men will leave the show next month, their contracts include clauses that assure them a small portion of gross sales from future productions of The Producers.

Bialystock and Bloom would be proud.

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