Hard to pinpoint the exact moment when decorum departed for good. It could have been the toe-tapping chorus line of Nazi showgirls, or the parade of Adolf Hitler imitators. Then again, it just might have been when an effeminate Fuhrer began singing, "I’m the German Ethel Merman.’’
This is the comedic paradox of watching the American Stage’s performance of The Producers. You laugh before you have a chance to ponder whether you might want to cringe.
Although it helps to know that the crowd seems to be in on this together. There are no groans, and no tsk-tsks. It’s a satire within a satire, and they accept that even the Third Reich is ripe for ridicule.
It’s just that, on this night, there is one other potential consideration:
In the seat next to you is the executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum.
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They are five blocks, and seemingly worlds away from one another. A museum that chronicles one of mankind’s greatest atrocities, and a Tony-winning musical meant to poke fun at the villains of that era.
This is why I asked Elizabeth Gelman to attend Friday night’s performance with me. A day earlier, she had walked me through the halls of the museum she has headed up for more than five years.
We went past photos and documents. A haunting railroad box car and an entire floor devoted to the capture and trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann. She mixed stories of utter heartbreak with awe-inspiring chronicles of perseverance and courage.
You begin to realize the exhibits faithfully document history, but they do much more than that. They explore man’s capacity for both good and evil. That’s why the Holocaust Museum is careful not to overwhelm visitors with too much graphic imagery. The idea is not to make you turn away but to encourage you to understand how it happened once, and could easily happen again.
"The goal is to humanize this experience,’’ Gelman said. "We want people to know that there is hope, and that hope rests with them. They have the power to make their own society better. To (know) that hatred and bigotry has always been a part of society, but that we have the power to make a difference. Because if we don’t, this is where unchecked hatred and bigotry can lead.’’
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The Producers has been around for 50 years, first as a motion picture and much later as the most decorated musical in Broadway history. When American Stage began planning this production more than 18 months ago, it must have felt like the shock value had long since worn off.
Except the world can be a strange place.
The past year has brought us neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., and a white supremacist invited to speak at the University of Florida. Just days ago, a 15-foot burning swastika appeared in rural Georgia.
"It’s a different mood in the country than it was 18 months ago,’’ artistic director Stephanie Gularte said. "I had to wrestle with what this production means in our current climate.’’
When Mel Brooks wrote the screenplay, and won an Oscar for it in 1969, he believed that being able to laugh at Hitler was the best way to demystify and render him impotent.
To pull that off, though, is not for the fainthearted. You’ve got to be all-in so the audience has no doubt that this is satire. Thus, over-the-top musical numbers such as Springtime for Hitler. And giant, sparkly swastikas parading across the stage. And lyrics "so crass and so crude, even Goebbels would have booed’’ as the song goes.
On opening night, Gularte was concerned enough about the reaction that she spent more time watching the crowd than the stage.
"It is so big and so bold that it does give us permission to laugh at Hitler,’’ she said. "It reminds us of who we don’t want to be.’’
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Within days of the show’s opening in Demens Landing Park in downtown St. Petersburg, friends were calling Gelman at the museum.
Should they feel guilty, they asked, about laughing through a night of Nazi jokes?
This is the incongruity of a museum and a satire sharing similar topics in the same downtown. But when you think about it, the message is really the same. It’s just the vehicle that differs.
Both shine a light on a dark chapter of 20th century history. One just uses education, and the other uses humor. Neither is meant to be forgotten.
Gelman, who had seen the original movie but had never seen the musical version, assured her friends that ridiculing Hitler is nothing to be ashamed of.
"The lesson from The Producers is that we have the ability to take power away from these perpetrators through the ridiculous,’’ Gelman said. "Mel Brooks has taken Hitler and made him a figure of ridicule. When you think about it, that’s a pretty good means of gaining revenge.’’
For the record, Gelman laughed heartily and often.
So did the guy next to her.