Before the Nazis made the Admiralspalast one of their favorite theaters, it was, as Britain’s Daily Mail pointed out, “a 1920s 'pleasure palace', complete with a variety theatre, spa, casino and brothel. Its basement bar was said to be the inspiration for the Kit Kat Club in the musical Cabaret. Goebbels kept a close eye on the repertoire. The management still has his signed edict banning the works of singer Richard Tauber because of his Jewish ancestry.”
The Führer Returns to Berlin
It’s against this background of a unique, history-heavy location that the very first performance of The Producers in Germany brought in critics from around the world to witness not only the production itself but to observe audience responses and to interview people in Berlin. Many of the critics, German and non-German alike, reflected on any possible connection between a Jewish-American playwright—who makes fun of Jewish business people, Hitler, gays, blond bombshells, even old ladies—and the German psyche today.
Not so in the United States. Reviewing The Producers at the famous Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, which was playing at the same time as the one in Berlin, most American critics might as well have written about a production of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City or Madame Butterfly in Nagasaki. With a few exceptions, I did not find many reviewers who probed nooks and crannies of the American psyche—“Can we really laugh at Jews and all the other groups?” the way critics and audience members in Germany asked. Rather, it seemed self-understood that, yes, in America one can make fun of almost anyone. What’s the fuss?
Historical Countdown: Berlin and Philadelphia
Ultimately, critics on both sides of the Atlantic constructed their own versions of The Producers, with some critics happily deconstructing the musical. Clearly, writers are schlepping around as many histories and ideologies as anyone else, as witnessed by the many reviews that were written about productions at the Walnut Street Theatre, the oldest, continually operating theater in the English-speaking world, now 200 years old. Today, with over 56,000 subscribers annually, the Walnut is the most subscribed theater company in the world. It has seen on its stage some of the greatest entertainers and actors since 1809.
For example, when Hitler arrived on the world stage in 1933, the Walnut produced The Curtain Rises, a play which takes place in Vienna, a city which, five years later, raised the Hitler salute in such a way that it extended the hunt for Jewish and gay people all over Austria. The Walnut, by contrast, presented Yiddish theatre in the mid 1930’s under the guidance of Maurice Schwartz who was often called the “Yiddish Barrymore.” “When we finally stamp out the plague,” Hitler confided in Martin Borman via a memorandum in 1941, “we shall have accomplished for mankind a deed whose significance our men out there on the battlefield cannot even imagine yet." In December of 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States.
Unperturbed, the Walnut Street Theatre produced Native Son by Orson Wells in 1942. The same year, the Walnut cast famous stars like Katherine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and Gloria Swanson. And in 1944, at the height of the extermination of Jews, gays, gypsies, Communists, and countless other groups, the Walnut Street Theatre produced the stage adaptation of Embezzled Heaven by Franz Werfel, the internationally acclaimed Jewish expressionist writer and contemporary of Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Martin Buber, and other Jewish intellectuals. Werfel who had married Gustav Mahler’s widow, managed to escape first Anschluss-Austria and then occupied France to settle in the United States.
No Poetry, No Humor after Auschwitz
In 1945, Hitler committed suicide; his Reich of a thousand years collapsed after only twelve years, leaving millions of people dead. The name Hitler and anything to do with the Nazi regime became a subject so horrendous that hardly anyone in Germany dared to talk about it. This sense of guilt may have been what led Theodor Adorno, four years after the end of World War II, to quit composing and declare: “Nach Auschwitz noch ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch” (“Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”).
And yet, only a few weeks ago, the Berliner Zeitung asked, “Can there still be humor after Hitler?” The answer may have shocked Adorno: Yes, “Comedians like Mel Brooks have proved it.”
Alices in Wonderland & The Wizard of Oz: East Coast Critics
Most of the critics who reviewed the Walnut Street Theatre production of The Producers shared that perspective and took the readers on an enjoyable, if at times bumpy journey. Joel Markowitz, of the DC Theatre Scene, wrote that the director and choreographer of the Philadelphia production, Mark Robin, had helped the actors “find the heart of the musical in, of all places, The Wizard of Oz.”
Dan Rottenberg, editor of the Broad Street Review, compared the Philadelphia production with a classical Victorian fantasy world inhabited by larger-than-life creatures: “In the Walnut’s production the roles of Max and Leo are capably handled by Ben Lipitz and Ben Dibble, but they come across less as zany characters in their own right than as Alices in Wonderland confronting a succession of far more memorable goofballs: Jeffrey Coon as the crazy Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, Amy Bodnar as the Swedish bombshell Ulla, Jeremy Webb as the prancing director, Roger DeBris, and above all Robert McClure, who as Roger’s assistant/lover Carmen Ghia steals every scene with his over-the-top mincing theatrics.”
Similarly, Toby Zinman of the Philadelphia Inquirer presents “a jolly revival at the Walnut Street Theatre” where “The minor characters steal the show, especially the sublimely funny Robert McClure as Carmen Ghia, the moue-making, fluttery assistant to gay director Roger DeBris (Jeremy Webb). Jeffrey Coon as the Nazi playwright, keeper of the Nazi pigeons, with his mighty voice and huge stage presence, is a treat.”
Enthusiasm for The Walnut Street Theatre Production
Patti Buehler of the Broadway World saw the Walnut Street Theatre production as “definitely one of their best recent stage offerings as the opening night roars attested to . . . Colleen Grady's costume designs and Robert Andrew Kovach's sets are impressive and well suit this madcap musical. The cast, a mix of New York and Philly regulars is wonderful overall.”
Not surprisingly, Lewis Whittington, reviewing the Philadelphia production of The Producers for the Edge, a Boston-based hip and gay-friendly publication, observed how “Brooks dishes out the burlesque and schmaltz, plus a high degree of glittering camp, making the show a bubbling over gay soufflé.” Dibble, who played one of the producers, laughed when he shared that Marc Robin, the director-choreographer, “wanted to make this a pretty bawdy production. We were shocked some of what we were rehearsing stayed in.” Critic Rottenberg wryly added: “While recalling the good old days when his chorus girls had ‘the biggest tits,’ Leo’s gesticulating hands inadvertently administer a feel to a passing nun.”
Claudia Perry of Aisle Say joined the chorus of those reviewers who gave a standing ovation to the Walnut Street production. She described Jeremy Webb as “simply super as Roger de Bris, the very fey director. Standing with impunity in a dress that makes him look like the Chrysler Building.” Lesley Valdes, of Public Broadcasting, summarized the show: “The old gags still work and there are fresh ones in a new production that makes the downright bawdy look smart. So many showpieces are show stoppers.”
Not every writer, however, was pleased with the Walnut Street production. For example, a number of critics like Patty Buehler of Broadway World objected to the “lack of chemistry between the two ‘Bens’ who play the key roles.” She describes “Ben Lipitz, who does an admirable job, [but who] seems to labor a bit getting into this tough role, while Ben Dibble simply soars as the innocent, slightly neurotic partner. Vocally, Dibble nails his songs while Lipitz seems to struggle with some of his scenes and runs out of steam on the difficult song ‘Betrayed’. The role of Ulla played by Amy Bodnar, a lovely vocal angel, leaves you wanting more over the top comedy and naughtiness. Jeremy Webb's Roger DeBris is eccentrically wonderful, while his Hitler is not all that funny and lacks direction.”
Standard theatre reviews
A widely read theatre critic of the Philadelphia Weekly glosses over the deeper issues which The Producers raises. Like a number of other reviewers in Philadelphia, he has little to say that goes beyond general observations: “Along the way Brooks manages to insult everyone: gays, Jews, blacks, women—no group is spared. Because he offends all groups equally, the humor never seems mean-spirited.”
Overall, it appears that many Philadelphia critics limited themselves to a description of the action, direction, dancing, acting, singing, stage design, etc., and spent precious little time discussing deeper issues that the critics in Tel Aviv, Moscow, and Berlin raised when The Producers came to town. These erasures in many reviews of the Walnut Street Theatre production, seen from a German perspective, may at first glance appear puzzling, until one realizes that Americans are carrying around their necks different millstones of history than Germans. To be fair, many critics have only a few hours to write their review for publication the next day, a process that doesn’t always allow for an in-depth analysis.
“Today’s Germans Are Actually More Pacifist and Rational than We Americans Are”
Mercifully, some writers like Dan Rottenberg of the Broad Street Review presented critiques that probed and sparkled as much as The Producers: “In effect, what the Marx brothers did to Il Trovatore in A Night at the Opera, Mel Brooks in The Producers does to an even more deserving target: Nazi Germany. The difference is that the Marx brothers’ primary schtick involved popping the pretensions of the rich and powerful. Hitler and the Nazis, by contrast, were dead and gone when Brooks made his hilariously audacious 1968 film (also called The Producers)— and by now they’ve been gone so long that today’s Germans are actually more pacifist and rational than we Americans are.”
Wow, that’s a rare and very special tribute, especially coming from the author of Finding Our Fathers: A Guidebook to Jewish Genealogy.
Cool Reception for The Producers in Vienna
German producers were reluctant to take the risk of staging this much-talked-about musical in Germany, a country where to this day it’s forbidden to display swastikas or to import Hitler’s Mein Kampf from eBay or Amazon. However, Vienna went ahead with a production that, after the initial enthusiasm, didn’t do too well. According to Cornelia Rudat of The Economist, Cornelius Obonya, co-starring as Max Bialystock in both the Vienna and the Berlin production, made a devastating comment about Austrian audiences when he “explained the absence of enthusiasm in Vienna as a result of the country's many ‘honest and serious admirers’ of Adolf Hitler, who may have been offended by the way he is mocked on stage.”
Writing for Der Spiegel, Germany’s most influential magazine, David Crossland presents a more realistic view: paraphrasing Falk Walter, the driving force behind the Berlin production, who believed that “the Austrian production had been marketed too narrowly, focusing only on traditional musical aficionados, and that he was targeting a broader range of people who wouldn't usually go to see a stage musical.” In short, the cool reception in Vienna could perhaps be explained by a combination of deeply seated ideologies and ineffective marketing.
Non-German critics at the Admiralspalast
Walter, the man behind the German production, gets quoted by Crossland about the role of Berlin which to Walter was “the root of all the evil,” even though today the town “also happens to be the most tolerant and exciting city in Germany.” The Berlin impresario then gets quoted as saying, "This isn't about laughing at Hitler but basically about conveying in a humorous way what he was. It addresses the darkest chapter of German history. How could it happen that the country threw morals and ethics overboard and followed this megalomaniac charlatan? The Producers fits wonderfully into the city because at the moment musical theater is categorized as being either opera for culture vultures or mainstream musicals for morons," according to Walter. "This show proves musical theater can be more than that."
But despite Walter’s optimism, before The Producers came to Berlin, many people were concerned about how the audiences would react, as witnessed by David Crossland‘s article in Der Spiegel,written a few weeks before opening night: “Some say Germany isn't ready for tap-dancing stormtroopers and a camp Hitler singing ‘Heil Myself.’”
“Audiences in London, Tokyo, Athens and even Tel Aviv have all fallen for the crazy comedy. But a German-language version was lacking,” until Titus Hoffmann, highly innovative resident director at the Admiralspalast, brought the play to Germany, according to Susan Stone of Deutsche Welle, the international public radio program. Nigel West, the production’s director in Berlin, explained the different perceptions of German and American audiences: “When you see the show in America, you don't think twice about it. [However,] Because of where we are, you do think twice about it’.”
To gauge the mood in the German capital, Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times quoted the Berlin press: “’Should one be allowed to laugh about Hitler?’ The Berliner Morgenpost worried needlessly a few days earlier. ‘People in Tel Aviv laughed,’ answered the Berliner Zeitung, as if the spectacle of knee-slapping Israelis might give Germans a little comedic wiggle room. German intellectuals naturally weighed in, too, about the healing effects of laughter.“
However, as witnessed by a number of writers, some audience members felt uneasy–and even pained—during certain moments of the musical. For example, the NY Times correspondent noted that “when SS guards, arms raised in the Hitler salute, shouting Nazi slogans, marched onstage during the second act’s big Busby Berkeley-like ‘Springtime for Hitler’ number, it seemed to me that the temperature in the theater did drop ever so slightly.”
Of all the critics from around the world who came to Berlin, Robert Hardman of Britain’s Mail wrote one of the most perceptive and entertaining reviews, ranging from his mock-German heading (“Ve have vays of making you laugh!”)—a regular staple among many British writers—to his verdict that The Producers in Berlin represents “a cultural milestone for modern Germany. The Nazis are now, officially, joke material.”
Given that Anglo-German relationships have been strained for a long time, it does not come as a surprise to have this British critic probe the German soul: “This has been a risky business, [. . .] a bold move to bring it to Germany—and an even bolder one to wrap the entire theatre in red Nazi-style drapes and banners just like a Nuremberg rally. The whole exercise has been a test of the German psyche.” Hardman concludes that after the opening night there was “a palpable sense of relief.”
The Producers vs. Hollywood Productions of One-Dimensional Resistance Heroes
Writing for one of Germany’s prestigious weekly magazines, Der Spiegel, Christine Wahl observed that “At the public preview on Friday evening, the audience put the pretzel flags, which were distributed at the entrance as a risqué prop, to good use, as if they were at a child's birthday party. There was hardly a song that didn't receive—somewhat excessive—applause accompanied by plenty of flag waving.” Not quite sure about what she has just witnessed, she asks, “It remains to be seen what kind of reaction the show will get here.”
The Spiegel critic concludes: “This version of The Producers, staged by Nigel West, clearly fits perfectly into the current wave of mainstream Third Reich-themed entertainment as the light-hearted counterpart to Hollywood productions such as Valkyrie or Defiance, with their one-dimensional resistance heroes and tired clichés.”
“Enthusiastic Leni Riefenstahl”
The growing, often brutal awareness that played an important part in the development of Germany since 1945 is now surfacing in many a review of The Producers and its first stage production in Berlin. Presenting old German sensitivities, former East German journalist, Cornelia Rudat, now writing for the Economist in London, admits: “There was one scene I had trouble with. It was when storm troopers in Nazi uniforms with swastika armbands goose-step on stage singing ‘Springtime for Hitler and winter for France and Poland!’ I just could not bring myself to clap. Reassuringly, I was not the only one. To me this scene was no longer making fun of Hitler but fun of the war (this music number features paper-mâché tanks and some noisy bullet shots). I worried about how Polish or French guests in the audience might feel.”
Rudat then second-guesses some of the production’s political choices: “It was a clever move on the part of the show's producers to replace the swastika on the red banners outside the theatre with images of pretzels and sausages. Why not for the armbands on stage?” Not surprisingly, Rudat, reporting about “the opening night’s standing ovation” then wonders: “It remains to be seen whether Berlin's audience will continue to be so liberal.”
Perhaps one of the most vivid reviews comes from Frederik Hanssen of Berlin’s liberal Tagesspiegel: “For one moment the audience stopped breathing when the swastika flags were unveiled; when the chorus paraded in, goose-stepping, and when Adolf Hitler arrives at the top of the stairs . . . a fantastic spectacle took place then, just as in those days in Nuremberg. One could almost hear Leni Riefenstahl whose bony fingers, full of enthusiasm, are knocking against the lid of her coffin.”
Standing Ovation for the Berlin Cast of The Producers
Giving credit to “Phillip Bloom [who] managed to salvage a maximum of wit in his German translation,” Hanssen considers the cast “the greatest triumph of the German version: Cornelius Obonya lends his Max Bialystock the precarious height of a Mack the Knife. The entrancingly awkward Andreas Bieber as Leo Bloom, a milquetoast who hangs on for dear life to his sniffle-cloth, who would love to be an asshole like the producer, but cannot shed his honest skin. Bettina Mönch as the Swedish sex-bomb Ulla is the perfectly played blonde joke. Herbert Steinböck’s Bavarian blubbering as the old Nazi Franz Liebkind contrasts in a heart-warming way with the quintet of queens around Martin Sommerlatte’s Roger Debris. The ensemble sings and dances with grandiosity, the musicians have the right swing for Mel Brooks’ wonderful, old-fashioned, infectious melodies, which Doug Besterman and Larry Blank arranged congenially in the style of the 40’s.”
Vox Britanniae and The Producers
The anonymous, unedited responses to the review in Britain’s Mail seem to suggest that even in the UK views of Germany seems to improve:
“well Done Mel Brookes - he can't have imagined, when he wrote this, that it would ever appear in Berlin!”
“If the Germans can laugh at Hitler & making the Swaztika a Symbol of fun instead of something to fear then maybe those who still use it as a Nazi symbol will be laughed at too.”
“Now the Third Reich and Hitler can be considered as 'funny' enough to mock and parody, the Germans and Austrians can finally start to move on from the crushing guilt most of them feel. And we should, too. This shows that the healing is complete.”
Vox Germaniae and The Producers
Going by most of the articles that appeared in print and on the Internet, it seems the vast majority of theatre-goers in Berlin thoroughly enjoyed themselves as Judith Bonesky and Michael Schacht of Bild, Germany’s largest daily newspaper, documented: “Can One, Should One, May One Laugh About Hitler?” the paper asked and reported: “1400 Guests were united in their response: YES!” A cross-section of the theatre-goers was then interviewed. Their responses seemed truly supportive of a musical that touched many a nerve.
Actress Judy Winter, 65: “Of course, what else, in the name of God?! I am more afraid of the new Nazis who are running around and taking all of that seriously.”
Fashion designer Wolfgang Joop, 64: “The best way of coming to terms with the past is through humor. Hitler was a little nobody. To make fun of him is easy, because—seen from our perspective today—he comes over as a comic figure.”
Best-selling author Eckhart von Hirschhausen, 41: “I believe that humor plays an important role in strengthening a democracy. A totalitarian state is always devoid of humor.”
Similarly, anonymous readers of Berlin’s Tagespiegel wrote the following:
“Even though Hitler is not the main figure of the film and the musical (2001), he is, however, perceived as the ‘star’ that he is, especially in Germany, and everyone is talking about the black pretzels and the red flags and the ‘gay Hitler’.”
“Altogether there seems to be a new Hitler wave . . . it hitlers everywhere. Even in the late-night programs on T.V. I have never before seen so much Hitler as during the last two years. Is that a sign of the new ease in handling history?”
And Deutsche Welle, Germany’s equivalent to the BBC, cites several people whose views seem representative of the zeitgeist, including 34-year-old Sven Schmidt: “It's another generation. We don't have that much to do with it anymore . . . it's OK to laugh. It's not OK to make fun of the Holocaust. But Hitler as a person is OK to ridicule.”
Location, Location, Location and Its Impact on Theatre-goers and Critics
Comparing the reviews of The Producers in Philadelphia and Berlin it becomes apparent that the physical and mental location of a play can lead to dramatically different perceptions and interpretations. The emotional impact of The Producers, a parody, on some members of a German audience could not be guaranteed beforehand just as it’s difficult to gauge the impact of a performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play based on diaries and email, on Jewish audiences. For either audience-member, Jew or non-Jew, the presentation of such controversial material may give some people fits—as in the following example of a letter to the editor at the Mail, complaining about the Berlin production of The Producers: “This is just about the crassest and dumbest attempt at humour I have ever heard of [. . .] This ridiculous vomit-inducing production has just no place at all in modern German society.”
While the American responses to The Producers in Philadelphia were very positive, the same could not be said for all reviews of films like Fahrenheit 911 or Sick by Michael Moore as they seemed to hit close to home, unlike overseas responses to Fahrenheit 911 which led to waves of uncharacteristic applause by European audiences at the end of many showings of the film. Similarly, the reviews in the 1960’s of some of the plays by Leroi Jones (who changed his name to Amiri Baraka), confronting white Americans, such as The Toilet or The Dutchman, showed a searching of the American psyche and led to extraordinary discussions by critics and audience members alike: responses ran the gamut from an earnest mea culpa to total rejection and ridicule.
Jewish Wit Returns to Germany
Time can impact the perception of earlier, painful periods in one’s own history. For example, while no one laughed at the Baraka plays in the 60’s, today’s black stand-up comedians on US basic cable programs attack certain racial and sexual relations—often taking the audience along on a rollercoaster of laughter and disgust.
Something similar has happened in Germany: time and its distancing effect have ameliorated the fear of a recurrence of a Nazi regime and its brutalities. As a result, modern plays and musicals which deal with the past also are perceived differently than they might have been decades ago. For example, actor Andreas Bieber, who played Bloom in both the Vienna and Berlin productions, concluded: "It's really not about denying history and what happened, but we have to move on, and we have to look at things from a different angle, and it's great to do that in the city where it all happened" –indeed, in the Berlin of the 1920’s, notes Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, “a slew of Jewish performers, Mr. Brooks’s comedic relatives and inspiration, did their shtick onstage,” before the brownshirts took over.
No wonder that the Berlin production of The Producers made the New York Times conclude: “amid the laughter of the German crowd, you can almost hear a page of history turn.” Similarly, Frederik Hanssen of Berlin’s Tagesspiegel, looking back at history, concludes with a realistic, sad, and yet hopeful view:
“When did Berlin see such witty, such brilliantly naughty comedy? Before 1933 there were these elegant, cynical script authors, composers, and gag-writers à la Mel Brooks who were in love with life, even here in the capital of the German Reich. The Nazis with their racial stupidity have persecuted, ostracized, and destroyed them-–or expelled them into exile to America. From there, we Germans, 64 years after the end of the Nazi period, can now, at best, re-import Jewish wit. With The Producers the feisty, free spirit of the often cited Golden Twenties has arrived in Berlin again.”
Admiralspalast Theater in Berlin web: http://www.admiralspalast.de/
Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia web: http://www.walnutstreettheatre.org/
Mel Brooks web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mel_Brooks
The Producers (musical) web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Producers_(musical)
The Producers (2005 film) web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Producers_(2005_film)
Springtime for Hitler - The Producers(1968) on YouTube : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K08akOt2kuo
The Producers (2005) on You Tube : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNXj-SCx5dY&NR=1
The Audition - The Producers (1968) on You Tube : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ni_RtKMpak&feature=related