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'Producers' on the big screen

Released by NBC Universal, “The Producers” stars the incomparable Nathan Lane as the down-on-his-luck theatrical producer, Max Bialystock, and Matthew Broderick as his mousy accountant, Leo Bloom— signature roles that had already come to define their careers after 568 celebrated performances at the St. James Theater in New York.
Uma Thurman, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane star in 'The Producers.'
Uma Thurman, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane star in 'The Producers.'Universal Pictures

Take your 33-year-old dud of a debut film, turn it into the most successful Broadway musical ever, then turn it back into a film— only this time, a movie musical! Only the brilliantly twisted mind of Mel Brooks is capable of something like this. 

Mel Brooks: I think it should go to every possible venue it can. I’m really thinking that the next venue for “The Producers” will probably be claymation! 

Released by NBC Universal, “The Producers” stars the incomparable Nathan Lane as the down-on-his-luck theatrical producer, Max Bialystock, and Matthew Broderick as his mousy accountant, Leo Bloom— signature roles that had already come to define their careers after 568 celebrated performances at the St. James Theater in New York.

I met just a few doors down at the legendary Broadway landmark, Sardi’s.   If Broderick and Lane needed an extra cup-o-Joe the morning of our interview, it might have been because of their current Broadway run of eight shows a week on Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”

Katie Couric, NBC News: So, what is it, next month we’ll get together and discuss your roles in Beauty and the Beast? Matthew Broderick: Possibly.Nathan Lane: That’s right.  We’re going in as the gravy boat—Broderick: And the candelabra.Lane: And—a—and the urinal.  (Laughter.)

Their partnership even precedes “The Producers.”  Who could forget Broderick and Lane’s "problem-free philosophy," supplying the voices of Simba and Timone, for Disney’s 1994 animated blockbuster, “The Lion King”? 

Couric: Are you sick of each other now?  Be honest. (Laughter)Broderick: Well, we kind of were immediately.  (Laughs)Lane:  Are we sick of each other? Broderick: If you’re gonna be chained to someone, I guess I would pick you.  (Laughter) Lane: We never go to bed angry, let’s put it that way. (laughs)

Talk about a happy marriage: In 2001, “The Producers” broke Broadway records, garnering a total of 12 Tony awards, including one for best actor in a musical— Nathan Lane. 

Couric: Were either of you hesitant when Mel said he wanted to make a movie version of this?  Did either of you say, “Maybe that’s not such a great idea, you can’t bottle this kind of magic”?  Lane: I can’t count on one hand how many times I’ve said that.  No, no — it seemed like a great idea. It’s the perfect end to this whole experience, is to put it on film.

But Nathan and Matthew weren’t the only ones with a “Producers” legacy on the line. Back in 1968, the original movie was Mel Brooks’ directorial debut.  The zany screwball comedy starred Zero Mostel as Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Bloom.   Together, they hatch a get-rich-quick scam: raise more money than they need to produce a sure-fire flop!

Though it was a box office bomb, the film won Mel Brooks an Academy Award for best screenplay. So after taking Tinseltown’s highest honor and later being the toast of the Tonys’, why mess with success?

Brooks: Probably for the money.  (Laughing) Probably to make more money.   

But Mel Brooks says the real motivation behind this latest metamorphosis was to immortalize the performances of Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane.

Brooks:  Those are remarkable performances.  And I wanted them to be around, you know in 10, 15, 20 years—that’s why.  We tried to bring exactly what happened at the St. James Theater to the screen.

One way to ensure that was to enlist the woman who won two Tonys' of her own for “The Producers,” for best director and best choreographer.  Susan Stroman makes her motion picture directorial debut on this film.

I visited the set back in may while “The Producers” filmed on location here in New York.   But even Lane and Broderick admit that the transition from  playing to a packed house of 1,500 patrons to only 20 or 30 grips took some getting used to.

Couric: With plays, you do get that immediate feedback.  And here it’s like, “Take 27.” I mean, it must be hard to kind of get the same—get your mojo up for this, right?Lane: Well, Matthew said one day, “This is like doing the show several times a day, very slowly for a quiet Wednesday matinee house.”

Still, comedy veteran Mel Brooks says the best barometer on whether or not something is funny is if the crew cracks up.

Brooks: When I was making “Blazing Saddles,” I went out and bought 100 white handkerchiefs.  And I’d say, “Look, some of this is gonna be very funny.  You feel like laughing, stick that white handkerchief in your mouth.  Don’t ruin the scene with laughter.  So if you feel like laughing and a couple of times on this—Couric: Stuff the handkerchief in your mouth?Brooks: On this movie I went out and gave them some handkerchiefs.  And I would turn around, you know I’d be watching the shot and I’d turn around and I’d see a sea of mouths and white handkerchiefs.  So I said, “We got a hit.  This is gonna be a hit."

There are two newcomers to “The Producers” family: Will Ferrell is being hailed by critics for his portrayal of the demented, Hitler-loving playright, Franz Liepkind.

Will Ferrell:  There’s already a pretty good blueprint with Franz, in the sense that he’s insane. So that’s usually not a hard thing for me to pull off.

And Uma Thurman as Ulla. Thurman adds singing and dancing to her repertoire as Ulla, the Swedish secretary. 

Delighted with the caliber of his A-list cast, Mel Brooks says “When you got it, flaunt it.”

Brooks:  Matthew Broderick will probably win the award for best supporting actor.Couric: Nathan will be nominated but he’ll be up against King Kong and they always vote for the gorilla.

But seeing the 37-year saga of “The Producers” finally come to a close is bittersweet. This past June, his wife of more than 40 years, screen legend Anne Bancroft, succumbed to cancer, a subject still too painful for Brooks to discuss. 

Lane:  He’s still in  great pain.  And she was— they both were— but she was in particular the cheerleader for this show.  I mean, she’s the one who really told him, “Go upstairs and start writing the songs.”  And she was there through the whole process:  for the first reading, for the rehearsals.  My favorite thing she ever said about him was when Charlie Rose was interviewing her.  Everyone would sort of ask that question about “What do you attribute the longevity of this relationship?”  And she said, “Look, we’re like any other couple.  We have our ups and downs.”  But she said, “Every time I hear the key in the door, I know the party’s about to start.” 

At 79 years old, Brooks says at least the party of making musicals lives on. He’s currently in talks to bring his cult-classic “Young Frankenstein” to Broadway. 

As for Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane?  They’re still joined at the hip— at least until their string of sold-out shows of “The Odd Couple” ends in April.

Couric: So when “The Producers” has opened and “The Odd Couple” has closed, what are you guys going to do after that?  Do you have plans, or are you sort of mulling?Broderick: We’re gonna have a trial separation.  We’re going see other people.Lane: Yeah.  We’re gonna see other people.Broderick: But hopefully that’ll just enrich our relationship.Lane: Absolutely.  (Laughter.)