Writer and comedian Mel Brooks was politically incorrect before the term existed. With films such as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein -- cutting-edge when first released -- Brooks paved the way for a more informal, hiply ironic style of comedy that is commonplace today.
Well, almost commonplace. His single most successful work -- The Producers, winner of more Tony Awards than any show in Broadway history -- deals with one of comedy’s last taboos and the person generally considered the least funny human being of all time: Adolf Hitler.
The Producers achieved its success backwards from the usual route: It began not as a stage show, but as a movie, which Mel Brooks wrote and which premiered in 1968. Starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, the film was initially not successful, with critics or with the audience at large.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Brooks penned a stage version of the film, starring Nathan Lane in the old Mostel role as Max Bialystock and Matthew Broderick in Wilder’s portrayal of Leo Bloom.
This time, The Producers was a huge critical and box office success, inspiring a second film version -- with Lane and Broderick reprising their stage roles -- in 2005. A special touring show of The Producers is set for a pair of performances at the Civic Center next week.
The plot centers on the nefarious efforts of the hucksters Bialystock and Bloom to profit personally by deliberating staging a disastrous flop. What could have less chance of success than a musical about Nazis, the two reason. Hence their show’s name: Springtime for Hitler.
The humor of The Producers centers not only on the purposely over-the-top spectacle of that show itself, but on the fact that Springtime becomes a raging success for Bloom and Bialystock -- thus negating their get-rich-quick scheme.
Portraying Leo Bloom’s not-so-dumb-blonde love interest Ulla -- who was played by Uma Thurman in the film version -- is Elizabeth Pawlowski, who spoke to Connect Savannah about the show and her experiences in it.
Connect Savannah: Tell us about Ulla.
Elizabeth Pawlowski: She’s the Swedish secretary -- a very fun character. Obviously she has a Swedish accent, and she loves to dance. She has a big part in the show. She’s basically the love interest for Leo Bloom.
Connect Savannah: She’s beautiful, but far from a bimbo.
Elizabeth Pawlowski: Oh, yeah, she knows exactly what she’s doing, like when she gets Leo to eventually take her to Rio while Max is in jail. In my opinion she’s a character with a big heart. But she also can be very innocent really, there’s no raunchiness there.
Connect Savannah: How did you get the part?
Elizabeth Pawlowski: I was actually at one of the very last auditions around the end of May. I went in for a call and got called back the next day, then the day after that I found out I had the part. That almost never happens. It’s usually a couple of weeks before you find out anything.
Connect Savannah: How much longer will you be on the tour?
Elizabeth Pawlowski: Obviously everything can change. Right now we’re cheduled to run through the middle of July, and there’s a possibility of a second year for the tour. Anything can happen, really.
Connect Savannah: Let’s face it, a lot of books, movies and plays written in the ‘60s really haven’t aged well. How do you explain the continuing success of The Producers?
Elizabeth Pawlowski: Well, it’s a classic -- there’s a reason why it won 12 Tony Awards. It’s just all spectacle and comedy. This cast is really phenomenal. We’ve all got great chemistry onstage.
Connect Savannah: It retrospect it seems like Mel Brooks may have been so far ahead of his time we’re only just now catching up.
Elizabeth Pawlowski: Mel Brooks is a genius. In writing this script, he delivers so much comedy, so many jokes, you almost have to see it a couple of times to get it. There are so many things that are so quick.
Connect Savannah: What’s your best guess as to the percentage of people who come see your show who are newbies as opposed to being already familiar with The Producers?
Elizabeth Pawlowski: A large percentage, I believe, doesn’t really know about the show. Of course, they get there and laugh that much more. I love getting reactions from fresh audiences who’ve never seen it before.
There are those who grew up knowing about Mel Brooks, and now there’s a new generation that wants to go see his work as well.
Connect Savannah: For those who have only seen the movie, is there a significant difference between the film and the stage show?
Elizabeth Pawlowski: There isn’t much difference – our director has kept it pretty true to the actual show. Obviously some parts were cut out, but that’s the same kind of thing that always happens, for example, when you transform a book to a movie. You can’t have everything. Of course, personally I think that while the movie is great there’s nothing like a live experience onstage.
Connect Savannah: This show must be especially difficult, since it’s really two shows: The Producers and Springtime for Hitler, much of which is also performed.
Elizabeth Pawlowski: It’s been very challenging. Luckily with our director and choreographer we’ve had the time we needed. During rehearsal we built up our stamina. And during the tour we have dance captains to keep us fresh and in shape. ç
The Producers makes its Savannah premiere at the Johnny Mercer Theatre for a limited engagement on Saturday, Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. & Sunday, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. Tickets, priced from $39 to $59 can be purchased at the Johnny Mercer Theatre box office, all Civic Center outlets, online at www.savannahcivic.com, or by calling 651-6556.