NEW YORK -- The "hip hooray and ballyhoo" has returned to Broadway with the stunning opening last week of "The Producers," a musical comedy based on a 33-year-old movie with more shtick and laughs packed into a single show than the old Borscht Belt showcased in a week. Could this mark the beginning of the Broadway musical's long-awaited comeback? The genre's obituary was written some years ago, but if "The Producers" can inspire a new generation of good shows, reports of its death will have been premature.
The day after the show's opening -- New York Times drama critic, Ben Brantley, said of it, "How do you single out highlights in a bonfire?" -- I wander over to the St. James Theatre to check out reports of a long line outside the box office.
The line stretches nearly a full block. All three box office windows are open. A table has been set up in the lobby to serve more customers. Rival theaters are assisting with ticket sales, believing that a hit helps their shows as well.
What's going on? Thomas Meehan, co-author (with Mel Brooks) of the book for "The Producers," is standing outside the theater with some actors from the show, drinking in the scene. Meehan says he thinks people are hungry for real entertainment again.
"For too long," he says, "people have felt obligated to go to the theater, just like they feel obligated to go to church."
"That depends on the quality of the sermon inside," I say.
"Put that in your column," he commands.
Meehan wrote the book for "Annie," a show that helped cure audiences of the "malaise" from which they were told they suffered during the Carter administration. Could "The Produc-ers" serve as a similar elixir?
Members of our little sidewalk group ask each other about the last time a Broadway show had such stupendous ticket sales ($3 million in the first 24 hours and requests coming in so fast they overloaded the Telecharge computers for a while). Guesses include "The Lion King" and "The Phantom of the Opera."
Frank Rich, former chief drama critic for The New York Times, tells me that while "The Producers" did break the one-day sales record set by "The Lion King," what makes this new show a bigger phenomenon is that sales in the first 24 hours did not include group bookings.
Also contributing to the spectacle, Rich says, is the absence of a mammoth advance marketing campaign for the show. Unlike Disney's "Lion King" and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom," "The Producers" opened without any TV commercials or other costly promotional stunts. And, says Rich, unlike "Phantom," "Miss Saigon" and "Cats," "The Producers" was not a hit in London before coming to New York.
This is a show that sold out strictly through word-of-mouth during its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago. It arrived in New York with the rumble of a subway train, "smash hit" written all over it. Rich says one would have to go back to the '70s and "A Chorus Line" or "Annie" to find a show that approached similar sales, along with winning universal acclaim from critics and audiences.
I was a "stage door Johnny" in the early '60s. I saw most of the shows worth seeing in New York and Washington. Once, I waited in the rain after a performance of "Camelot" just to get a glimpse of Julie Andrews walking by. When musicals began to diminish in number and quality, I seldom went to the theater anymore.
With the passing of the greats -- Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe and Irving Berlin (whose "Annie Get Your Gun" revival with Reba McEntire is not to be missed) -- and the retirement of Comden and Green, only Stephen Sondheim remains to remind us of what was and what might yet be again.
For those who love and miss the glory days of the Broadway musical, fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that "The Producers" might begin the ultimate revival for which many have been waiting.
Cal Thomas writes for Tribune Media Services.
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