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“That’s our Hitler!”: Hilarity and Heil-ing in Mel Brooks’ The Producers

This May, JYM theatre co. are set to perform Mel Brooks’ musical theatre extravaganza, The Producers the 2001 musical theatre production adapted from Brooks’ 1968 film of the same name. The Premise: Max Bialystock, a washed-up old Broadway producer and Leo Bloom, an accountant with big dreams, figure out they can make more money with a flop than a hit. The vehicle: ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ a gay romp through Nazi Germany written by Franz Liebkind. I spoke to the tremendously talented Joel Lazar, set to don a swastika and a WWII helmet as Franz.

Franz is, according to Joel, “your classic angry Nazi… nostalgic, romantic, maniacal, possibly a schizophrenic, possibly also bipolar… possibly on all those spectrums – simultaneously. He’s the man with the enormous foam hand with the pointing finger at the footy… but for Hitler. Basically, he thinks he’s the last man standing to let the world know who the true Adolf Hitler was.”

Now, imagine if this man wrote a play, which was turned into a musical by a flamboyantly gay Broadway director and then staged by two Producers who want it to fail. Essentially, the Producers want it to be so offensive that the play closes after the first act. It can’t be done without at least a few swastikas and a bit of heil-ing.

Whilst the offensiveness of the scene is all part of the joke, it’s not beyond the imagination that it might offend certain audience members, particularly given that JYM theatre co. is Australia’s only Jewish Musical Theatre company. Established by Shlom Eshel in 2002, the company aims to provide a creative outlet for the Jewish community and beyond. Some might view The Producers as a somewhat unexpected choice for JYM.

“Anyone who knows the company shouldn’t be surprised. They’re fearless and put on productions that people will love. I suppose some people might come to the performance thinking ‘oh, a nice little Jewish company, they’ll do something like Fiddler on the Roof.’ And people keep asking Shlom, ‘Why don’t you do Fiddler? You should do Fiddler’. She responds, ‘Why the hell would anyone want to see that again!’”

When looking at the list of past JYM co. productions, it becomes pretty obvious they don’t shy away from a challenge, or a bit of controversy. The more risqué shows in the list include: Avenue Q, featuring the song ‘Everyone’s a little bit racist’ and a bit of puppet sex on stage; Hair, with its infamous nude scene and depiction of illegal drugs; Sweet Charity, concerning the romantic ups-and-downs of an ever-hopeful prostitute; and Cabaret, set in a seedy underground club during the rise of the Nazi party, with just a smattering of swastikas.

But should crossing the Hitler-line be any different? Is portraying Hitler on stage, surrounded by tap-dancing storm troopers, going too far? It was for the audience of the 1968 film. The first time the public met Brooks’ creation it came under fierce criticism from the press and was a significant box office flop, called “amateurishly crude” (Pauline Kael, New York Times). Whilst it did win an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay and also garnered some glowing reviews, negative reviewers noted the bad taste of devising a comedy about two Jews who stage a Broadway show about Hitler, 23 years after the end of WWII. An appreciative cult audience kept the film in the popular consciousness until it was revived as a Tony award winning musical in 2001, culminating in the release of a slick, big-budget film version in 2005.

In 33 years our response to pirouetting Nazis has changed dramatically, probably due in part to our proximity to the events themselves. From a distance, Nazism is easily ridiculed- because it was intrinsically ridiculous. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine how an audience member who experienced persecution, or had close family members who did, would see crossing the Hitler-humour-line as out of the question.

Joel’s grandmothers illustrate the point. His Sydney born grandmother will probably see the show, but his Romanian born grandmother absolutely will not. Her husband and father both spent time in labour camps during WWII. Joel’s Dad originally told him not to tell her he was in the play. Joel’s response: “Bullshit. I’ll tell my grandmother because she should know what I’m up to. I’ll explain the plot to her, but I know she won’t understand the theory, and she won’t come.”

Joel acknowledges the humour might turn away a few audience members. “I think we might lose 5% of the old people and another 5% of conservatives who will say ‘no’ to any humour of this nature… but you can’t sacrifice what you’re really out to do because of those people. If you’re pushing the edge of something, you can’t play to those audiences.”

And if you don’t understand the theory, you don’t get the joke. Joel notes that no jokes in The Producers are actually made about the Holocaust- it’s all about the glitzy, extreme pomp of the Nazi party. Nazism is presented as plainly ridiculous, and those clinging to Nazism (Franz) are dangerously unstable. As Joel says, there’s nothing observational about the humour- it’s all about the ridiculous. “Addressing Nazism through regular avenues like dialogue or would be to give it too much credit; it would put it on equal footing with other reasonable, acceptable views: which it is not.

Humour, on the other hand, transcends regular communication and is perfect at pointing out the absurd.” Essentially, even wry, Seinfeld-esk humour would be giving it too much credit.

Despite his belief in the power of humour, Joel acknowledges that even when you’re putting on an offensive play, you have to keep asking yourselves “are there certain offences we shouldn’t make?” For instance, during the ‘Springtime for Hitler’ number, three cast members originally stood facing the audience, downstage centre and in turn said ‘Heil Hitler’ while they raised heiled out to the audience. After seeing the scene run a couple of times, the production team decided that whilst tap-dancing storm troopers saluting away from the audience was one thing, directing it so confrontationally at the audience was unnecessary. Joel describes seeing this part of the number rehearsed and having a “visceral reaction to it,” knowing that this was crossing the line.

Of course, everyone’s ‘line’ is in a slightly different place. Whilst it’s unlikely to find someone who doesn’t know what’s coming in the second act, I’m going to throw in a Harry-Potter inspired metaphor to convince you that all this Hitler humour has a point: if you laugh at the Boggart when it takes the shape you most fear, it’ll disappear. No one wants to be a neo-Nazi when Nazism’s a standing joke.

So come along this May and see what you think of a singing, dancing, Hitler. Not that the entire show is one long Hitler Joke. There are other scenes, too (I should know. I’m in the show…Yes! You’ve caught me, blatant self-promotion right here. But doesn’t that just put me in the best position to know how good it’s going to be?). And they’re damn funny!! Heil-arious!! Nazi-shabby!! Swas-ticklingly good!! Have I crossed your line?

The Producers will be playing at Phoenix Theatre, 101 Glenhuntly Rd, Elwood from the 11th to the 25th of May. Tickets can be purchased online from JYM’s website, www.jymtheatre.com.

Julia Walker

The author Julia Walker

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