Saturday, May 23, 2009

Springtime for Hitler and Berlin

Sam Shirakawa was there for the opening night of The Producers in Berlin. Here's his squib:

Berlin Premiere
17 May 2009
See some video clips

Adolf Hitler returned to conquer Germany this past Sunday... in Mel Brook's The Producers.

It took about eight years to bring the smash Broadway hit musical to Germany, but both critics and glitterati attending the gala premiere at the Admiralspalast -- one of Hitler's favorite theaters -- agreed that it was worth the wait.

Security was extra tight. Any show or film dealing with the Third Reich arouses Angst among Germans. It's unlawful to display the Nazi flag in public, and even pretzels replacing swastikas on banners outside the theater have regularly prompted complaints to the police. But once the crowd filed past the flanks of paparazzi, TV reporters and their crews to settle into their seats, everybody seemed prepared for a Happening.

And a Happening it was. But don't get the wrong impression: at no point did the audience lapse into jaw-gaping, freeze-frame paralysis at what was happening on stage -- possibly the most hilarious moment of the 1968 film. Just uncomfortable silence here and there, when a gag fell short of its mark. But I'll come back to this shortly. First, a little mood-setting.

Mel Brooks had been invited to attend the premiere, but even the lure of receiving the prestigious Ernst Lubitsch Award before the Opening Night crowd failed to draw him away from California. Accepting the award in his place, his long-time collaborator and co-producer Thomas Meehan mumbled perfunctory excuses for Brooks' absence but said in clearly enunciated German, "Sie haben Mel Brooks sehr glücklich gemacht" (You have made Mel Brooks very happy). So the hype, tone and presentation of this event was designed to celebrate Brooks' achievements and revel in his musical. And celebrate and revel they did.

Since many among the glamorous first-nighters appeared to be Broadway-savvy or familiar with Brooks's aforementioned 1968 film classic on which the musical is based, they responded in most of the right places to Philipp Blom's mostly superb German translation of the gags and lyrics -- frequently with that gravelly show-biz-insider guffaw that sounds infectiously the same in any language. What is more important: they got the point of the plot from the very outset. As Frederik Hanssen of Der Tagesspiegel put it, The show is neither about Hitler nor the Nazis, "it's about turning shit into gold."

And truly golden was the cast headed by Cornelius Obonya and Andreas Bieber as Max and Leo. No vestige of Zero Mostel, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick in either of them, thank goodness. They go their own way. But. Both Obonya and Bieber are more accomplished hoofers than Lane and Broderick, and that cuts several ways -- Lane and Broderick had kind of a double left shoe clunkiness that made their terpsichoric efforts all the more endearing, while Obonya and Bieber make their mark by "selling it" all the way. Different folks, different strokes. Terrific all the same.

The posters of the show reveal Bettina Mönch in a semi-reclining position, as the undulating Ulla Inga tor Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson. When she's standing up anywhere on stage, though, her legs are even longer than her character's name. Mönch's voice at full blast also goes right through the roof. She's every bit as impacting in every Fach as the irresistible Cady Huffman was on Broadway, and she is far more alluring than the otherwise wonderful Uma Thurman was in the film of the musical. (Don't get me going on the dreadful 2005 film.)

Now a word about Martin Sommerlatte, as Roger DeBris, the drag queen director of Max and Leo's sure-fire would-be flop. The saga of how the musical took form has it, that Mel Brooks created a whole new section for the original Broadway DeBris, Gary Beach, while he was rehearsing the "Springtime for Hitler" extravaganza. Brooks overheard Beach doing a Judy Garland impression, and Brooks' brain waves went into over-drive. The result was a pastiche/tribute to Judy at the Palace. Sommerlatte as the Teutonic DeBris was hugely effective up to this point in the show on opening night, but it became clear to me that he was not doing Judy Garland. Had it only been Dietrich! If it was Marlene, ya cudda fooled me. Possibly another German-speaking icon -- maybe Claire Waldorf or Zarah Leander or Lilian Harvey? Net-net: Sommerlatte should be imitating somebody in this sequence, and there are plenty of legends -- German and otherwise -- that would work. Nonetheless, the audience scooped him up as though he were freshly churned Schlagsahne.

Herbert Steinböck nearly stole the show as Franz, the alt-Nazi turned author, as he stomped and mummered his way through the hilarious translation of "Haben Sie gehört die deutsche Band?" He would have been even more side-splitting, had he played the Hitler-wannabe with a puerile Austrian accent. A missed opportunity that should be corrected.

Some of the wit, as I said earlier, didn't quite make it around the language barrier. As one reader of the New York Times duly commented, "Be a smarty, come and join the Nazi Party" was translated into something like "Sei kein Barzi/komm zu uns und werde Nazi," or: "Don't be a Bavarian boor, become a Nazi." Huh? "Barzi" is a deprecating slang term for Bavarian and it's neither funny, as the Times reader rightly noted, nor, in my view, appropriate in this context: Weren't the Bavarians Hitler's first and biggest supporters? The line would be both accurate AND acerbic if it went: "sei ein Barzi..." or "Be a (dumb) Barzi, and join the Nazis." But acerbic is also not what the show is about.

What HAS translated well is Nigel West's production -- pretty much the same as Susan Strohman's slick, fast-paced, and often exhilarating original. Leigh Constantine has all but cloned Strohman's choreography, except for an amendment here and there. The bevy of chorus girls in Leo's "I wanna be a producer" number emerge from filing cabinets, but they file off up stage, as the accounting office set splits apart. If I recall the original correctly, they receded back into their filing cabinets, which gave the number one last poignant gesture.

The Producers is set to run through July at the Admiralspalast in Berlin's hotsy-totsy Friedrich Strasse. The theater was often frequented by Hilter. A special box he had installed was only recently removed. The Berlin edition of the show has been dubbed an unqualified critical success, but wags on both sides of the Atlantic are making bets on whether it will be a box office hit. When this production was originally mounted in Vienna, it was hardly a smash. Small wonder. A musical spoofing native Austrian Adolf as a sissy? I don't think so. Certainly not after decades of hard slogging, trying to market Hitler as a German and Beethoven as an Austrian.

But Berlin's public during the Third Reich was never nearly as adoring of the Führer, and theater regulars in the German capital today may well cotton to a show that has its true origins in the wry Jewish humor that flourished in Berlin for decades before the diaspora. Frederik Hanssen of Der Tagespiegel, in fact, all but hailed The Producers as a dazzling precipitate of that bygone age, that Germans today can at best only import.

The Producers in German is by no means going to turn the grimmest page in Germany's history, but it does bring back a cynical, crude, hilarious and curiously humane view of life to the city it once called home.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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