Prior to watching Footlights’ take on The Producers, my only encounter with the show was pre President Trump, amongst the confines of a downtrodden, beleaguered Guardian article.
“When they come to make Trump: The Movie, what will be the plot?” bemoaned journalist, Jonathan Freedland. “For a long while I’d thought the obvious structure was that of The Producers, the classic Mel Brooks tale of the Broadway duo who realise they can make a fortune by staging a surefire flop… Surely that’s the only plausible explanation for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.”
“The show is an unabashed romp!” enthuses director, Ben Philipp, while publicity officer, Harry Neal reiterates: “It’s bombastic, it’s scandalous, it’s sensational.”
Based on Brooks’ 1968 comedy classic, the show follows the avaricious exploits of Broadway producer, Max Bialystock (played with nefarious relish by Ashley Gilliard), who embarks upon a covetous mission to stage the worst play on Broadway. Accompanied by his semi-neurotic protégé, Leo Bloom (Lucas Bailey), the pair finally settle on a fool-proof disaster: the neo-Nazi, Fascist-fuelled, sequin-ridden ‘Springtime for Hitler’.
Cue a chorus of octogenarian nymphomaniacs, stocking-clad Nazis, and more cheese than a Camembert factory, as the pair tap dance, salute and flirt their way to the very cesspit of Broadway’s Golden Age.
“We tossed around a number of shows and ultimately it’s all about finding a show that’s most appropriate for this creative team this year,” says Ben. “We ultimately arrived at The Producers because it’s an absurd show, but it also caters to Amy [Lotherington, choreographer’s] taste in terms of dance, Tom [Arnold, musical director’s] taste in terms of a Golden Age Broadway sound, and mine in terms of something quite kooky and absurd. Also, I think it represents a good change of pace after two years of quite melancholy musicals, so it’s nice to bring something quite refreshing.”
“It’s bombastic, it’s scandalous, it’s sensational.”
With clear choreographic nods to Bob Fosse (director and choreographer of Cabaret and Chicago), and Busby Berkeley (choreographer of 42nd Street), The Producers remains firmly lodged in the sparkling Broadway tapestry of the 1960s.
For Amy: “being able to pay homage to all the Golden Age musicals was just a godsend because that is my passion. Even if people don’t get little references to Singing in the Rain or An American in Paris, I don’t care, because I see it and it’s just amazing.”
“It’s like that with the score as well,” agrees Tom. “There are all these tiny references to other shows, so there’s a trumpet line from Gypsy in ‘Springtime for Hitler’, and you’ve obviously got the Singing in the Rain influence. So it’s quite fun in that respect.”
Yet, where Singing in the Rain is a rose-spangled ode to show business, The Producers is its rebellious teen sister: a grotesque vilification of Broadway’s festering artifice. From Lillie Bone’s portrayal of the sexy, Swedish secretary, Ulla, to gay director, Roger De Bris (depicted with hysterical flamboyance by David Ballard), The Producers roots its tongue firmly within its cheek, denigrating the stereotypes the entertainment industry so depends upon.
“Even if it’s not to taste, I think people respect the hard work that goes into musical theatre,” explains Amy. “[The cast] have all made such a commitment and dedication to this production – as much as we have.”
For vocal coach, Beth Chalmers, the degree of “trust” required between the creative team and the cast has been among the greatest challenges: “You’re kind of expecting your singers to just allow you to tell them what to sing and how to sing something… Especially, I have to say, with our lead, Ashley, who came into this not really being used to singing. Just watching how much they’ve all improved makes me feel so proud of them… I’m just sitting there being like, ‘you sound so great, it makes me so happy,’ but also knowing where they’ve come from and how drastic and how amazing that change has been.”
Given the recent stratospheric success of La La Land, does it seem likely then that the Golden Age reflected in The Producers is not entirely lost?
“The fact that that [La La Land] is a film that reflects old movies and musicals in a contemporary society proves that we can still look back. Yet, also, there are these moments, especially in The Producers, although it’s an old story set in the ‘60s, it’s a musical written in 1999. So it is coming into this new era of musical theatre, and, well, [The Producers] won 12 Tonys,” assesses Amy.
there lurks a searing, satirical condemnation of show business at its ludicrously glittered roots.
For Ben, the intended aesthetic is “something quite classic, but also refreshing”, informed largely by their designer, Jason Denvir. “He tailor made a set for us that has a very retro feel, and is very abstract and expressionistic… So hopefully audiences who have seen the show already will be able to view it in a new and refreshing light.”
“Although this might be a show that people will think ‘ooo I’ve heard the name, but I don’t really know the show,’ when they come and see it, they will literally fall in love with it,” enthuses Amy. “I think even if you’ve got no background in musical theatre, the comedy of it, the dance… If we can make people laugh, I think that’s fundamental.”
Certainly, if, ordinarily, the very thought of musical theatre is enough to rain on your parade, there is no better preface than The Producers. Behind its kitsch exterior of sequins, sparkle and suspenders, there lurks a searing, satirical condemnation of show business at its ludicrously glittered roots.
“Although the focus is two Jewish schmucks trying to get rich quick, their machinations provide the vehicle for Brooks’ biting social satire,” explains Ben. “In the show’s central satiric sequence, Brooks engineers a posthumous take down of Hitler – the archetypal bigot – producing laughter as a corrective to vice and folly. Today, as we watch bigotry become legitimised on a public platform, laughter remains a powerful means of making sense of our world, just as it was in Brooks’ post-war context. We hope our audience will leave the theatre feeling euphoric, but also activated to consider the importance of Brooks’ brand of satire now.”
Join Exeter University Footlights at the Northcott 25th-28th January for their 2017 production of The Producers. Buy your tickets here: https://exeternorthcott.co.uk/calendar/the-producers/bookmark me