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Hitler? Funny? Just ask Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks loves to talk about show business. On a Monday afternoon in January, he takes my phone call, set up by a publicist to promote Young Frankenstein, the musical comedy Brooks made from his classic movie. These sorts of interviews — "phoners,'' they're called — usually last 10 or 20 minutes, and can sometimes be painfully contrived, but Brooks, 84, seems to have plenty of time to chew the fat from his office in Los Angeles.

After a few introductory remarks about the show, now on tour — the reviews in Dallas the previous week were great, he says — he launches into a conversation/monologue that goes on more than an hour, ranging from the movie musicals he watched growing up to his early comedic success as the 2,000 Year Old Man to why he includes German characters in almost everything he writes.

In some ways, Young Frankenstein, which plays Ruth Eckerd Hall this week, was doomed by great expectations, coming in the wake of The Producers, which Brooks adapted from another of his movies and which became one of the biggest hit musicals of all time. "In New York we were so aware of The Producers that we were trying to outdo ourselves,'' says Brooks, who still smarts from the tepid reviews for the 2007 Broadway production of Young Frankenstein. "We intended no harm to the public when we made the show.''

I tell Brooks that I have a pet theory about musicals that it's easier to adapt flawed material — such as the movie version of The Producers, which can drag — than a movie such as Young Frankenstein, which may be the perfect comedy on screen. Could that be a reason why one works better than the other when the characters break into song and dance?

Brooks, first of all, is not willing to concede Young Frankenstein is necessarily a lesser show, but he does say, "There was a lot of it (in the movie). You had to push a lot of it aside to make room for the songs. We picked a dozen big things that had to be in the musical and fit the songs in between.''

For Brooks, Guys and Dolls is the perfect musical, and he points out that it was adapted from rather flimsy material, a handful of short stories by Damon Runyon. "My favorite musicals are musicals like Guys and Dolls, Pal Joey and Bells Are Ringing, where every song moves the piece forward, and is not just there to be a hit song,'' he says. "In a musical comedy, you don't have time to indulge in emotion as much. Every moment counts. You've got to be funny.''

One of Brooks' trademarks is his use of comic Teutonic characters. In Young Frankenstein, they include Inga, the buxom blond assistant to Dr. Frankenstein, housekeeper Frau Blucher and Inspector Kemp. Probably his most famous song is Springtime for Hitler from The Producers.

I venture that you could call Brooks' ridicule of Germans the Jewish comedian's revenge for the Holocaust, and he more or less agrees.

"I was lucky to find them pretty funny,'' says Brooks, who saw firsthand the consequences of Nazi Germany when he served with the U.S. Army in Europe at the end of World War II. "The accent, the goose step. They were very good comic figures for me, from Hitler on down."

Incidentally, Brooks says Springtime for Hitler proved to be something of a tough sell in the beginning when he was shopping around his script for the 1967 movie. "We took it to many studios, and there was a guy at Universal who said I think I can get this sold if you change it from Hitler to Mussolini because he was so much more liked. Springtime for Mussolini. True story.''

Brooks' satirical Germanic obsession first got widespread circulation in his sketches in the 1950s and '60s as the 2,000 Year Old Man ("Adolph Hartler,'' a German film director with more than a passing resemblance to Hitler, was a character), who was interrogated by Carl Reiner in a series of comedy LPs when both were writers with Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. "The 2,000 Year Old Man carried on into many aspects of my life,'' Brooks says. "He's always telling the truth, even though it's bizarre and crazy.''

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s, Brooks fell in love with the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, such as Roberta, Top Hat and Swing Time.

"I would leave the garbage-strewn streets of Williamsburg and step into a movie house and I would be in heaven,'' he says. "Black and white shiny floors. Rich people stepping out of Rolls-Royces. Beautiful nightclubs. Fred Astaire lost his wallet and had to dance for his dinner. And the plots are all based on mistaken identity. 'Oh, you mean you're not married to Marge?' Such great, great movies.''

Today, Brooks has a vast collection of old movie musicals. "I go back and watch them all the time,'' he says. "There was one musical after another in those days. Some of them were cheap and stupid and wonderful. Do you know the 20th Century Fox musicals? Tin Pan Alley with John Payne and Alice Faye. Or any of the Betty Grable movies. Or Sonja Henie and Borrah Minnevitch and the Harmonica Rascals in One in a Million.''

I ask why Brooks made stage musicals from The Producers and Young Frankenstein, rather than simply turning them into movie musicals. He was, after all, a power in Hollywood when The Producers premiered on Broadway in 2001 and won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards.

"I don't think it was a matter of money,'' he says. "For me, writing music and lyrics for Broadway is a gift from God. Here I am, a kid watching Fred and Ginger in Swing Time, and, my God, look, they're letting me do it on Broadway.''

Brooks obviously takes a lot of pride in being in the same league as the heroes of his youth, Broadway composers George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, as well as living legends like Stephen Sondheim. He sometimes runs into Sondheim.

"If he sees me on the street, he'll stop and say something,'' Brooks says of his encounters with the great composer-lyricist. "Usually it's one of my lyrics that he's tipping his hat to, which is very sweet. The last time I saw him in New York, he said, 'What did Washington say to his troops as they crossed the Delaware? I'm sure you're well aware.' '' (It's a lyric from We Can Do It in The Producers.)

Like Sondheim, Brooks keeps a rhyming dictionary on hand when writing lyrics. "I get them out of my head a lot, but when I'm stuck I will go to a rhyming dictionary. But you'll never get 'well aware' and 'Delaware' in a dictionary.''

For Brooks, musical comedy is king, and he doesn't sound optimistic about the latest spectacle on Broadway, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, though he considers director Julie Taymor "a magician.'' He is not convinced of the value of having a score by U2's Bono and the Edge.

"I don't think it's going to be a great event, except for the staging and design,'' he says of the musical, whose much-delayed opening is now March 15. "If I'm going to hear a U2 score by Bono and the Edge, I want to see them do it. You don't want to see anybody else do it. I don't get them writing a Broadway score.''

Brooks also thinks Broadway musicals need recognizable stars. He questions having a relatively unknown actor, Reeve Carney, playing Spider-Man. "Where are Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (stars of The Producers)?'' he asks. "I think you need some actor who you can focus on. You always want a crowd at the stage door. If there's a crowd at the Spider-Man stage door, who are they waiting for?''

Clearly, Brooks prefers old-fashioned razzmatazz in a musical. He goes into a funny riff about the leggy chorus line assembled by director-choreographer Susan Stroman for Young Frankenstein.

"Stroman has a fetish,'' he says. "All of her chorus girls have to be close to or over 6 feet. They're all beautiful, gorgeously limbed giants. Every single one of them. You know, these guys who blow themselves up, and think they're going to get 30, 40 virgins? Well, they'd be better off with any Stroman chorus line instead of their 40 virgins.''

Brooks says he gets a call "every Wednesday'' from Stroman and other colleagues about doing another musical. "I'm thinking of doing Blazing Saddles because there is a lot of music in it already.'' The movie has several songs, such as Frankie Laine's whip-cracking rendition of the theme, Madeline Kahn's performance of I'm Tired and the Count Basie Orchestra set up in the desert to play April in Paris.

Still, Brooks worries about the critical reception to Blazing Saddles as a musical comedy. "If I took it to Broadway, I guarantee you that the New York Times would be saying, 'Are we going to be seeing every g-- d--- Mel Brooks movie made into a musical?' ''

Brooks winds up our conversation with a lyrical memory from Florida. His mother retired to Miami Beach, and Brooks and his late wife, Anne Bancroft, had a place on nearby Fisher Island. When in Florida, he enjoyed going to the Gulfstream and Hialeah horse racetracks.

Hialeah, especially, was amazing when the pink flamingos that roosted in the infield would fly around the track. "Ah, the flamingos at Hialeah,'' Brooks says. "It would make your heart stop it was so beautiful.''

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

Young Frankenstein

The Mel Brooks musical opens Tuesday and runs through Feb. 13 at Ruth Eckerd Hall. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and
2 and 7 p.m. Feb. 13. $42-$72. (727) 791-7400;

Photo on the cover: Actor-director Mel Brooks is shown at a stage production of Golda in New York. (Associated Press, 1977)

Hitler? Funny? Just ask Mel Brooks 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 1:05pm]
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