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(photo credit: Courtesy of Universal Pictures)
When the musical stage version of The Producers played in London in 2004, British reporter Toby Young was assigned by Vanity Fair magazine to interview Nathan Lane, the star of the show.
Young opened the interview by asking Lane whether he was Jewish. After a long pause, Lane snapped, "Yes, yes, what of it?" Encouraged by the answer, the reporter's next question was, "Are you gay?"
Lane responded wordlessly by getting up and walking out.
When Young returned to his office, he was confronted by his irascible editor, Graydon Carter, who had already gotten an earful on the incident.
"What were you thinking?" stormed Carter. "You can't ask celebrities whether they're Jewish or gay. In the future, just assume they're all Jewish and all gay, ok?"
To get to the bottom of this important Jewish story, this reporter flew from Los Angeles to New York last week to see if we could do any better than the hapless British journalist.
The press junket was underwritten by Universal Pictures, which flew in some 35 reporters to meet with the stars and director of the musical movie version of The Producers, a monster hit on Broadway and elsewhere, which will be released Dec. 16.
For those who have been hiding in a cave on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for the past few decades, here's a quick synopsis.
Formerly high-riding New York producer Max Bialystock is on the ropes after a series of flops. When meek accountant Leo Bloom comes into his office to inspect the books, Bloom makes a discovery: If a producer raises a bundle of money to put into a show, but it closes immediately, he can reap a windfall.
So Max, with Leo's help, raises $2 million from a phalanx of little old, but amorous, ladies, finds the world's worst play, worst director and worst actors to guarantee instant disaster.
They hit paydirt with the script "Springtime for Hitler" by a demented Nazi and Wehrmacht veteran. By adding terrible direction and cast, the production is so awful that critics and audiences assume it must be a devishly clever satire, and the play becomes a hit.
The two distraught producers end up in Sing Sing, where they recruit inmates and oversell shares for for their in-house show Prisoners of Love.
Back to the press junket. We had been warned that Mel Brooks, who has guided and created every aspect of The Producers in its various incarnations as non-musical film, musical play and musical movie, wouldn't be on hand.
Not expected was the crushing announcement that Uma Thurman, who plays the blonde Swedish bombshell in the film, wouldn't show up. But in any case, she isn't Jewish.
Right on schedule, though, were Lane, followed by Matthew Broderick, who portrays Leo Bloom. Each was allotted 25 minutes to field questions from a gaggle of three dozen reporters, so there wasn't much time for probing analysis and follow-ups.
Here's how my dialogue with Lane went.
Q: Even though you were born into an Irish Catholic blue collar family, just about everyone assumes that you're Jewish and that you changed your name from Rabinowitz. How did that impression catch hold and how do you feel about it?
A: Well, I did change my name. I was born Joseph Lane, but when I applied to the actors union, they said they already had a Joe Lane on the books and I'd have to change my last or first name.
I had played the character of Nathan Detroit, whom I liked very much, in Guys and Dolls, so I took the name Nathan.
I'm really an honorary Jew, you know, all the best people are. I really do feel Jewish, even though I'm a Catholic. The way the Church has been behaving, I'm happy to be Jewish. You know, I've played so many Jewish characters, it's been a great part of my life.
Next it was Broderick's turn.
Q: In playing Leo Bloom, and other Jewish characters in Neil Simon plays, did you draw on your own background?
A: I suppose so. I mean, yeah. My mom was Jewish, so some would call me Jewish. My background is very much that style of writing, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks, and "Your Show of Shows" guys are what I grew up loving. So I probably drew on my New York background and my Jewish background for that, sure."
So there you have it.
But what about the movie itself? Well, The Producers has become part of our folk culture and watching it is a bit like listening to Beethoven's Fifth or Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." You revel in the familiarity and listen for the nuances and emphasis, rather than the main themes.
Then there is the memory of the very first Producers, the 1967 non-musical film, with the unforgettable Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the title roles. Broderick himself observed that he could unspool the entire movie in his head at any time.
That said, the new Producers is a great piece of showmanship, harking back to the days of Busby Berkeley and the grand old MGM musicals. Hundreds of high-kicking chorus girls (and one klutzy one for comic relief), water fountains galore, Broadway lit up with blinking billboards, the whole works.
Lane and Broderick have practically patented their roles, Uma Thurman, in her first singing and dancing role, is God's gift to mankind, Will Ferrell is a hilarious addition as the Nazi "playwright," and Gary Beach and Roger Bart are over-the-top gays.
Among the 18 musical numbers, one showstopper is "I Wanna Be a Producer," in which director Susan Stroman displays her roots as a choreographer. In a different vein is the plaintive "Betrayed," in which Bialystock behind bars acts out a miniversion of the show.
For the final scene, the film returns to Broadway, lit up with the titles of future Bialystock & Bloom hits, such as "She Shtupps to Conquer," "Katz," "South Passaic," "A Streetcar Named Murray" and "High Button Jews."