Mel To The Max

Producer Mel Brooks revels in hard-earned success, even if he finds the whole show business thing a bit funny.

February 04, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Theater-goers got a surprise at the New Year's Eve performance of The Producers on Broadway. So did the cast.

During the second act, Mel Brooks - the show's songwriter, co-librettist and creator of the movie on which the show is based - slipped backstage, grabbed the robe worn by the actor who usually plays the judge and went on in his place.

"It was good to be the judge," Brooks recalls with glee. "When Nathan [Lane, the show's Broadway star] would ad-lib, I'd take my gavel and say, `No ad-libbing in this courtroom.' And the audience went wild, and I said, `If this demonstration continues, I'll clear the audience.' "

You never know where Mel Brooks will show up. Young TV viewers can hear him as the voice of Wiley, the sheep, on the PBS series Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks. ("He's a tough sheep. He's a Brooklyn sheep," says Brooklyn-bred Brooks.)

Older TV viewers can catch him portraying himself on Larry David's HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.

And, if he finishes his work casting the London production of The Producers in time, Brooks just may drop in on the road show's five-week run inaugurating Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre.

It may seem ironic that the show opening the renovated Hippodrome on Tuesday is about a pair of crooked Broadway producers (played by Bob Amaral and Andy Taylor) who concoct a money-making scam dependent on producing a flop.

"It's weird," Brooks acknowledges. "But it's really the reopening of the Hippodrome, isn't it? If the ghosts of great comedy and vaudeville are there, they'll be applauding from the rafters and the wings. They'll be loving what they see. ... It's a great big, successful, gorgeous musical comedy, and it's the kind of show that should open the Hippodrome."

Mel Brooks has had a love affair with musical comedies ever since he was a child. Granted, The Producers is a parody of musicals, but then, most of his movies are parodies. Young Frankenstein spoofs horror movies; Blazing Saddles spoofs westerns; High Anxiety spoofs Hitchcock thrillers. Brooks firmly believes that you've got to love something to spoof it.

Saluting satire

"You can't satirize anything properly or have fun with anything if there isn't a salute in it, and you've got to know your genre, and you've got to love your genre, and you've got to salute it properly even though you're making fun of it - whether it's a western or whether it's a horror film. You've really got to know that genre and adore that genre," he says from his office at Culver Studios in Los Angeles, where he and Producers co-librettist Thomas Meehan are working on the book of their next Broadway musical, a stage version of Young Frankenstein.

Brooks' love of musicals began in 1935, when his Uncle Joe took him to his first Broadway show. Joe was a cab driver and 9-year-old Mel rode on the floor in the back of the cab - "not the most comfortable ride," he says.

But when they took their seats high in the balcony of the Alvin Theatre, "there was William Gaxton and Ethel Merman in a Cole Porter show - very light book, almost a revue - called Anything Goes, with one incredible song and dance after another. And I said to Joe, I said, `Uncle Joe, if I ever grow up, that's what I want to do. I want to write those shows.' He said, `Well, don't let anything stop you, kid. My dream was always to be a cab driver and I made it.' "

However, Brooks' entry into show business came not on the theatrical stage, but behind a set of drums. Buddy Rich, a Brooklyn neighbor, had given him lessons, and at age 14, Brooks - who was born Melvin Kaminsky - began playing drums at a Catskills resort.

He still plays occasionally. In fact, he sat in with the pit orchestra in Chicago when The Producers was rehearsing for its Broadway tryout. "Nobody held their nose," he says.

But his career in comedy was the real beneficiary of his days as a drummer. "Punch lines always have a rhythm to them," he says. "Drumming gives you a sense of discipline and comedy doesn't work without discipline. Peaks of laughter don't work without valleys of set-up, and this is all true in music, and especially in being the drummer."

He got his first break as a stand-up comic during that initial summer at the Catskills. Together with a female assistant, he performed a sketch he wrote called "S. and M." As he recounted in a 1978 New Yorker profile by the late Kenneth Tynan, "The girl and I walked out from the wings and met in the center of the stage. I said, `I am a masochist.' She said, `I am a sadist.' I said, `Hit me,' and she hit me, very hard, right in the face. And I said, `Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold it. I think I'm a sadist.' "

Humor from war

World War II put his promising comedy career on hold. Brooks served with the 1104th Combat Engineer Group in the European Theater of Operations. "There was very little theater and lots of operations," he once quipped.

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