In an average year, the West End is awash with festive theatregoers getting ready to celebrate the holidays with some musical theatre. However, as I’m sure you’re aware, this is not an average year. Since I am not able to go to the physical theatre, I have been re-watching some of my favourite musicals at home. One of my absolute favourites is the Mel Brooks musical The Producers. The Producers tells a story of a ‘washed-up’ Broadway producer and a poorly adjusted accountant and their scheme to put on a Broadway ‘flop’, the story is situated in the 1950s and does not, by any means, go to plan. The Producers was written as a musical adaption of Mel Brooks’ 1967 film and the musical opened on Broadway in 2001 at the St James Theatre.
Since its release, the show has received mixed reviews with much critical and popular acclaim, but also many believing many of the shows ideas and jokes to be in poor taste, with the nature of some of the characters displaying an increasingly uncomfortable stereotype. From the representation of Nazis in Hans Liebkind to Roger Dubris’ embodiment of ‘camp’, The Producers raises many issues with how we represent ‘otherness’ on stage. The following will consider the representation of stereotypes on the Broadway stage and pose the question of whether it is still ‘okay’.
The musical's engagement with Nazism begins with the introduction of the character Hans Liebkind who is a Nazi living in secrecy in New York after the fall of the Third Reich. Liebkind is the creator of the musical Springtime for Hitler which acts as a homage to Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. Springtime deals with the war and its atrocities in a hyperbolic caricature. Furthermore, the character further develops the idea of a caricature in the use of an overly exaggerated German accent. There are two main instances where Liebkind is used as a vehicle for the representation of the Third Reich, the first being early in the musical when Liebkind is approached for the performance rights to the show and stipulates that the rights are only available if the producers take the ‘Sacred Siegfried Oath’. This is an imaginary oath that satires the ideas behind the formation of Nazism and further mocks the conceptions of the authoritarian regime through the threat of death for defying the ‘Sacred Siegfried Oath’.
Gutentag Hop Clop:
The second use of Liebkind is later in the casting scene where the production team are auditioning Hitlers for the production, Liebkind in this scene is used to develop a satirical view of nationalism with his detestation to a poor rendition of ‘Haben Sie Gehort Das Deutsche Band’ and his insistence on accurately demonstrating how the song should be performed, with the express aim of showing how it should be masculine in execution. The ‘masculine’ rendition of the piece that followed was a glitzy and ‘camp' show-tune, which only seeks to subvert the authoritarian reality of the national socialist regime.
Haben Sie Gehort Das Deutsche Band:
The second area where The Producers develop a satirical view of Nazism is through the use of the character Roger DuBris and specifically in the ‘Springtime for Hitler’ scene. DuBris’ portrayal of Hitler in this scene satires many of the beliefs of Nazism. The scene begins with a depiction of the German pastoral, possibly referring to the depictions of the pastoral seen in The Sound of Music, which dissolves into a scene of Nazi imperialism from which Roger DuBris ascends through the crowd in Nazi regalia. The music at this point is march-like and has driving percussion and hailing trumpets that further develop the idea of Nazi imperialism as the character ascends to the stage saluting the audience. As the music reaches its climax there is a sudden break where the march-like percussion ceases and the nature of the scene switches to a ‘camp’ show tune that depicts a Hitler that embodies the stereotypical camp associated with ‘glitzy’ Broadway musicals. This further satirising the ideals of Nazism, as many of the philosophies of Nazism condemned homosexuality and non-Austro-German music, so to depict Hitler in this way shows a clear perversion of the ideals of Nazism.
Springtime for Hitler:
This is not the first representation of Roger Dubris in the musical. Dubris’ character raises many of the uncomfortable stereotypes that were raised in the reviews of the musical after its release. When the audience first meets Dubris it is on his introduction by his ‘personal assistant’ Carmen. Dubris appears on stage, in partial drag as he prepares to leave for a charity ball. As the musical is pitched to Dubris by Bialystok and Bloom - Dubris’ production team and gay commune members descend during a rendition of ‘Keep it Gay’, where they sing about making the musical about the war, ‘more camp and less tragic’. This scene presents a series of stereotyped representations of gay men and one lighting designer/lumberjack/lesbian. Dubris and ‘PA’ Carmen reappear later in the musical during the casting scene, where the hyper camp representation of continues. ‘Jacques Le’petiere’ is called from the card by Carmen and corrected to ‘Jack Lepetus’ by Dubris. The ‘carry-on’ style facial expressions and Kenneth Williams-Esque double entendre, drive home the ‘barely passing for straight’ nature of the characters. The openly closeted nature of the characters is touched upon again throughout the musical at the end of ‘spring-time for Hitler’ and then in the following scene in Bialystok’s apartment. Dubris ends the on-stage musical by passionately kissing the leading lady in front of the audience as his ‘PA’ Carmen throws roses while frenzied. In Bialystok’s apartment, Dubris and Carmen are faced with a crazed Liebkind, who wants to murder the actors for ‘desecrating Hitler’. The fleeting comment as they take refuge when Dubris directs carmen ‘back into the closet’.
Keep it Gay:
These are the two main stereotypes facing the viewers of the musical, but by no means are they the only ones. Need I mention the neurotic Leopold Bloom, the Jewish accountant and Broadway producer. Or the Max Bialystok the overweight and Weinstein-eqsue Broadway producer. In listing the key instances of these stereotypes in the musical, I have been led to wonder - how exactly are these characters functioning in this musical and what is their purpose?
In being a musical about a musical, The Producers lends itself to a caricature of Broadway and become a stereotype of a musical. Although the plot is reasonably original, and the dramatic narrative is fun and engaging, the main draw of The Producers is its conventionality. From big dance numbers with I want to be a producer to the whirling melody of Betrayed, the musical functions as a concentration on Broadway conventions.
I believe the musical and the characters act in contention to craft a bigger narrative about how we view ourselves and others. Musically, the show is highly conventional, and this assures the audience. Big show numbers and stunning playoffs set the audience firmly in a safe Broadway environment. The audience member has transported away from the physical world and moved to an imagined reality. It is through this subdued, the stereotypes can operate. While watching the show, we sit and laugh and engage with the stereotypes on stage. But when we leave, we are left with the thoughts of what we have seen, and this is where the issues of the character portrayal become important in questioning how we perceive ‘otherness’.
This uncomfortable reflection acts as a reminder for what reality was like for many people during this time. However, we believe we are shown a subversive idealism that makes us laugh when in reality the subversive nature of this show is the very force that acts as a key into the issues and struggles of people during the 1950s and earlier. Although the camp and openly closeted nature of Roger Dubris makes us laugh, it acts as a stark reminder facing the reality of gay men. Similarly, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the lovable rogue Max Bialystok seems to relate too closely to a secret reality of the entertainment industry throughout history. Hans Liebkind, on the other hand, is used to systematically ridicule the nature of neo-Nazis in their childlike fanatical ideas like ‘the sacred Siegfried oath’.
So, is this right? Should we still perform this musical and others like it?
Yes. I would argue that there is a strong case for forgetting this musical for many reasons, that this is not representative of our views eighteen years later. However, I believe wholeheartedly that it is vital we keep performing works like this. By expunging ideals like this, it is too easy to forget where people were, and what they have fought for. Roger Dubris, although raises several uncomfortable red flags, reminds us how far we have come and also how far there is left to go. The fact we recognise Dubris as being gay, even though it is never explicitly stated, reflects on our own learned biases and stereotypes.
The Producers and its issues are important in exposing the issues that are within us and how we perceive one another. And if you feel uncomfortable with it, then that is good. As if you are never faced with these sorts of representations you can never begin to consider why they are wrong and why they should make you uncomfortable. I strongly recommend you go and watch the full musical, and experience this for yourself. While you sit there, enjoying the music - I suggest you reflect on your thoughts on the characters and maybe what that says about you.
Jonathan Davies, December 2020
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