If Mel Brooks ever tires of the bright lights of Broadway, he could have a bright future hanging out in Seattle coffee houses. The other day, the...
If Mel Brooks ever tires of the bright lights of Broadway, he could have a bright future hanging out in Seattle coffee houses.
The other day, the revered comic maestro, in Seattle for the world premiere of his new musical “Young Frankenstein,” dropped by Victrola Coffee and Art on Capitol Hill. During a 45-minute chat, he downed three cappuccinos — and a cup of high-octane Ethiopian java.
Not bad for a comedy icon who turned 81 in June and washed down all that caffeine with chocolate croissants and a tofu salad. (“I love tofu!”)
Spry as a pixie and as ebullient in person as he is on-screen, Brooks is not about to switch vocations soon. He’s here prepping the Broadway musical based on his 1974 film “Young Frankenstein” — a follow-up of sorts to his blockbuster 2001 tuner “The Producers” (another stage remake of a Brooks flick).
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Brooks is also here to get a decent cup of coffee — not, as the gag in “Young Frankenstein” goes, Ovaltine.
Natty in khaki slacks, a white shirt and a dark blazer accessorized with a scarlet handkerchief, Brooks has plenty of spring in his step. But he’s very old-school about musical comedy.
“Irving Berlin, Cole Porter — those are the people who wrote the great Broadway shows I love,” he says in that familiar, scratchy, Brooklyn-bred voice.
Thanks to his hugely popular film howlers of the 1970s and ’80s, Brooks has many fans his kids’ and grandkids’ age.
At the Victrola, he charmed the owners’ baby (“Addison! Isn’t somebody in ‘All About Eve’ named that?”), and he had the star-struck baristas spouting favorite lines from his films.
That’s the ticket
Discussing the theater biz, Brooks can be serious, shrewd, impassioned — and a little anxious.
“Young Frankenstein” starts previews at the Paramount Theatre Tuesday (though we critics aren’t invited until Aug. 23). And Brooks is urging, and not entirely in jest, that local theatergoers buy their ducats pronto.
“Don’t be nonchalant!” he advises. “Push an old lady out of the way, and grab a ticket right now! Once word gets out in Seattle about the great things happening on that stage, you may miss out.”
Also to consider: Wait until the show hits Broadway’s Hilton Theatre in November, and the top weekend ticket price will soar to $450 for VIP seats, compared to $100 in Seattle.
Brooks justifies that record-breaking New York tab because it’s “only for a couple hundred seats,” and students can get $25 rush seats to “Young Frankenstein” on Broadway.
But first comes the Paramount run. Brooks says Thomas Meehan, who co-wrote the “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein” musicals with him, had “such a great experience here working on ‘Hairspray,’ he urged us to try out here. And I love Seattle.” (Does he love it enough to debut “Blazing Saddles” here, another of his films that Brooks hopes to turn into a musical? Stay tuned.)
Whatever its merits or flaws here, when “Young Frankenstein” opens in New York in November, it will stay awhile. The Broadway tickets are on sale through March 2008, on the strength of Brooks, the choice cast, the movie and, of course, “The Producers.”
That romp about a duo of crooked Broadway impresarios had a six-year run of 2,502 performances. It won a record 12 Tony Awards, toured extensively and grossed roughly $1 billion in global ticket sales.
Brooks knows he’s now competing with himself — as a showman and a filmmaker.
” ‘Young Frankenstein,’ ” he confirms, “was my biggest movie. So many people know it so well, every line, every joke.
“It can work against me, y’know. The night before critics see the show, they’ll watch the movie. And I have to explain to them, the theater is a big master shot — we can’t cut, we can’t do close-ups, there are fewer scenes. It’s just different.”
So why musicalize it?
“The material. Basically the story is a huge Gothic opera.”
Birth of “Frankenstein”
“Young Frankenstein” was first conceived, though, as a satire and homage to the classic 1931 “Frankenstein” film, directed by James Whale. “I was about 9 years old when I first saw it, and it still scares me,” Brooks recalls. “When I saw Boris Karloff as the monster, I knew this is a guy you can’t negotiate with.”
Whale’s movie drew from Mary Shelley’s more elaborate 19th-century horror novel, “Frankenstein,” which Brooks also knows well.
“She was really writing about our secret fear of death, our inability to control our destiny. The monster is a giant symbol of those unconscious fears.”
A sterling TV comedy writer (“Your Show of Shows”) and sometime-comic (the “2000 Year Old Man” records with Carl Reiner), Brooks had just helmed the spoofy Western “Blazing Saddles” when his pal Gene Wilder proposed a Frankenstein flick.
“Gene and I watched 20 Frankenstein movies, we got ideas, we laughed, we got scared. Then we wrote together,” says Brooks.
Their witty/silly screenplay garnered them an Oscar nomination. And Wilder played to wacky perfection the title role of Frederick, an obsessed, virginal scientist, and the grandson of Shelley’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein.
Wilder’s co-stars — Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, etc. — were also a hoot. And Brooks’ direction expertly evoked the classic black-and-white films of the 1930s.
The musical will often quote the film. Example: the hilariously bizarre scene in which Frankenstein (played by acclaimed “Producers” alum Roger Bart) and his monster (Tony-winner Shuler Hensley) don white tie and tails to sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
Other favorite lines and shtick turn up in Brooks’ 17 songs, such as “He Vas My Boyfriend” (sung by Andrea Martin’s Frau Blücher); “The Transylvania Mania”; and “Deep Love,” sung by Megan Mullally, as a gal romanced by a grunting golem.
The director’s cut
Calling the Tony-honored director and choreographer Susan Stroman “a genius,” Brooks swears he isn’t a backseat director. But he does caution actors not to over-mug.
“Roman Numeral One in comedy: Be earnest. Don’t consciously know you’re funny, because you’re robbing the audience of their own discoveries.”
“Young Frankenstein” faces other potential pitfalls. The actors could be dwarfed by Robin Wagner’s huge Transylvania castle set, which took weeks to assemble. And if slavishly imitative, the show could be seen as a warmed-over rehash of the movie.
As for his score, Brooks frets, “I’m not going to win a Tony for it, like I did for the ‘Producers,’ though it’s better. They’ll hear ‘Puttin’ On the Ritz,’ and all my songs will be compared to Irving Berlin’s.”
During the Seattle tryout, Brooks expects to “tweak the lyrics. Add a number or take one out. Find a joke that was a titter and turn it into a belly laugh. And just polish and sharpen, polish and sharpen.”
Before Brooks takes his last sip of coffee and heads to a rehearsal, just one more query: How long is the show?
With a twinkle in his eye, Brooks answers, “I can’t say yet. But it’s like a good kiss. It’s over before ya know it.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com