Chicago In the 2008 satirical revue “Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab,” a green-faced monster and a Mel Brooks-like narrator sing a dirty little song to the tune of “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” mocking audiences for, to paraphrase it delicately, puttin’ up with less-than-stellar material for lots of cash.
In fairness, that song was the funniest number in the original Broadway production of “Young Frankenstein.”
Brooks was co-producer, book writer along with Thomas Meehan, and composer and lyricist. The musical was based on the 1974 movie Brooks directed and co-wrote with star Gene Wilder.
“Here’s my dilemma,” Brooks said. “Should a very bright guy like myself — and a very talented guy, I would add — should I write some-thing that the critics would like and the peasants would hate? I could. I could write a musical version of ’She Stoops to Conquer’ with lots of clever internal rhymes. You’d all love that, and I could do it. Or should I write something that is going to please me? Something that the people will like. Something that’s good.”
Looking back on the “Young Frankenstein” Broadway debacle, it’s certainly true that the show had chronic creative issues. But it’s also fair to note that the production was also suffering from what was perceived as outlandish hubris.
The lead Broadway producer, Robert FX Sillerman, priced premium tickets higher than Broadway had ever seen. He refused to participate in such time-honored Broadway rituals as reporting grosses. The show was produced in the Hilton Theatre, a huge, much-maligned venue that seems to be a curse for big musicals (the yet-to-open “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” is stuck in its Bermuda Triangle).
Robin Wagner’s set was a monster in and of itself, threatening to devour every human being placed within an inch of its eye-popping quantity of bells and whistles.
For the first national tour, which is coming to Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, Brooks and his director, Susan Stroman, have been able to stand back from that clearly bruising Broadway experience and see what they can do to improve the show. Two of the original stars, Roger Bart and Shuler Hensley, have come with the tour.
“It’s great to be able to have another stab at it,” Stroman said. “Without all the distractions, I’ve been able to concentrate on the actors and on the choreography.”
Stroman also argues that the show was unfairly attacked on Broadway.
“I felt like we created a wonderful show,” she said, “even better than ’The Producers.’ I love it because it hearkens back to the 1930s. I get to do everything from tap numbers to Transylvanian peasant dancing. I love this material. I couldn’t wait to get back to it.”
In the story, a spoof of Mary Shelley’s, the grandson of the infamous doctor inherits his family’s estate and along with it his grandfather’s laboratory and his monster troubles. Unlike his grandfather, the younger Frankenstein sees potential in teaching his creature to sing and dance to Irving Berlin.
The “Young Frankenstein” tour arriving in Chicago will, of necessity, be a smaller production than the Broadway original. That reduction in scale, Stroman argues, has recalibrated things and made the show a more intimate experience.
“In comedy,” Stroman said, “you can’t beat being close. Finally, the actors get to feel the breath of an audience.”
Outside from a few big cities, of course, the Broadway troubles of “Young Frankenstein” didn’t seep very far into the popular consciousness. Brooks remains a blue-chip name all across America. And for a lot of his fans, his name on a project is more than enough to guarantee a good time. He’s rarely let them down.
Perhaps this show is now free to laugh. Away from the Titans.
And Brooks? “All you can do,” said the funnyman, “is do what you do best and what pleases you. And then throw the dice.”
In Greek mythology, let’s not forget, Prometheus’ liver regenerated itself every day.