Springtime for Hitler: Irony Lost-and-Found
by Ralph Dumain
If there is one art form I cannot stand, it is musical theater. I can’t say which of its subdivisions I loathe more, opera or the American musical. Perhaps the latter, because it is less avoidable, and because it is linked to another obnoxious institution, the Broadway show.
Decades have passed since I saw Mel Brooks’ film The Producers (1968), and I remember little, but I am impressed with how prophetic Brooks was in predicting the entertainment value of fascism. Springtime for Hitler predicted the advent of Evita.
The format of the original The Producers was a story-within-a-story, or more precisely, a musical within a story. Sleazy producer Max Bialystock, whose latest loser of a play has closed on opening night, discovers, in consulting with his accountant Leo Bloom, that he can make much more money by cooking the books and deliberately producing flops. Max then concocts a scheme to pick the worst play ever written and adapt it for the Broadway stage, certain that it will fold immediately. Finally, he stumbles onto his dream play, Springtime for Hitler, written by nostalgic Nazi Franz Liebkind, which Max produces as the tackiest musical of all time. To his misfortune, Max has grossly overestimated the taste of the American public, and his tasteless Broadway show becomes a smash hit.
So when I heard that The Producers was being produced as a musical for the stage, I had to wonder what Mel Brooks was up to. In the interval since the film, American culture has dived head first into the toilet bowl of civilization. I was stymied at the prospect of a musical. Would the satirical edge of the film be lost in the conversion into the very form which it mocked? Would the irony of the original be lost on the retards who patronize Broadway musicals?
I wasn’t about to spend big money to satisfy my curiosity, but I could not turn down a free ticket to see this show at the Kennedy Center.
I am usually indifferent to spectacles, and what other people call “entertainment” is unendurable to me, but I have to give due credit to this marvelous production. The set and the performers were stupendous. The music did nothing for me, but when the lyrics were funny, I responded suitably.
At first I was annoyed and irritable, given how much I hate the musical form, even though the songs were humorous. There were some funny self-referential moments as Brooks recycled lines from his other movies. At first my fear that the uncritical response reinforced by the form would trump the satirical content was confirmed. I felt that even the mockery of the sleaziness of show biz and the low standard of public taste (the content) was neutralized by the form.
Yet this modus operandi is consistent with Mel Brooks’ overall style: shameless vaudeville exhibitionism (exhibited at its worst in the terrible 1983 movie To Be or Not To Be) at times fused with hilarious low humor (History of the World: Part I, 1981). These two tendencies sometimes work at cross-purposes. Hopefully, the darker aspect of Jewish humor is not lost on the audience. Brooks has a habit of making jokes about Nazis, and brutality against Jews is a staple (such as the hilarious Inquisition scene of nuns drowning rabbis in History of the World: Part I). Brooks also mocks rednecks in Blazing Saddles (1974). Brooks may not be deep, but his comedy betrays a characteristic Jewish contempt for white Christian civilization. Brooks is at his best when the Jewish cynic upstages the show-off entertainer.
Humor notwithstanding, I was put off at first. But half-way through Act One, Scene 2, I began to be amused, when Max Bialystock, role-playing with the rich widow he has been sexually accommodating to raise funds, acts out the well-hung stable boy.
Leo Bloom in his dreary accounting office, being terrorized along with his fellow employees by his boss (scene 3), had its funny moments, but after the surprise of the female dancers in his producer-fantasy popping out from between the cubicles wore off and they settled into their song-and-dance routine, I began to be bored.
The next moment of hilarity came for me in scene 6, when the Nazi-in-hiding and author of Springtime for Hitler, Franz Liebkind, acts out his love for Hitler and the producers convince him to allow them to produce his play.
But the absolutely funniest scene (7) occurred in the living room of theatrical director Roger DeBris. This was homosexual shtik at its finest. Roger’s assistant was so flaming he burned the house down. The production number “Keep It Gay” was the biggest scream in the musical. This scene also reminded me of the triviality of a social type I had my fill of back in Buffalo: dizzy queens whose political consciousness never rose above a concern whether the Nazi armbands looked good with the jackboots.
The final moment of interest was in the last scene of Act One, “Little Old Lady Land,” in which the horny old ladies that Max services swing on swings and sing.
To sum up, the funniest moments are those capitalizing on tastelessness and low humor. The musical bored and irritated me at those moments when it reverted to standard musical format.
I found the first scene of Act Two tedious, basically filling time, in spite of the somewhat funny love scene between Leo and the sexy Swedish actress/ receptionist/ housemaid Ulla. But the following scenethe auditions for Springtime for Hitlergot me laughing.
Opening Night (scene 3) had its moments, but the performance of Springtime for Hitler (scene 4) itself was the climax of the production—a tawdry, tasteless, brilliantly staged spectacle, without peer.
There are numerous humorous moments in the subsequent scenes: the enraged Liebkind’s assault on Max, the police rescue and arrest of Max, the escape of Leo and Ulla, the solo from Max’s jail cell (“Betrayed”), the courtroom scene. The tradition of tastelessness is maintained in both the Sing Sing and Broadway productions of Max’s latest creation, Prisoners of Love. Leo the accountant is a real producer at last, and once he and Max are out of jail, they project a series of tawdry Broadway hits up in lights as the musical ends on a note or should I say chord which is simultaneously parodic and conventional.
This was indeed a highly entertaining production. It is apparently going to be made into a film once again. I wish Brooks had mocked his audience more viciously. Did the audience realize the joke was on them—or am I overly optimistic in postulating that Brooks is even sophisticated enough to care? My guess is that people will continue shelling out a couple hundred bucks a pop for the likes of Cats, enjoying every cretinous minute, and gushing to the folks back home about their big fun on Broadway. Is there any hope? I think not. American culture, three and a half decades after the original film, has become Springtime for Hitler. It is impossible for satire to compete with a self-parodying society that has no shame. And I still can’t stand musicals.
©2004 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.
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