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Master Class at Stroman U.

At first glance, it looks like any other rehearsal room: upright piano, plywood mock-ups of stage furniture, taped markings on the floor, dance bags piled in the corners. But then you spy a dozen aluminum walkers lined up along a wall, with a dozen white petticoats and a dozen old-fashioned black purses draped over them, and that's when it hits you: This is a Susan Stroman rehearsal room. She's putting walkers in a numbah!

If it sounds as if it could be just a tad outre--perhaps even as bizarre-o as the famous "Springtime for Hitler" number in the Mel Brooks movie The Producers--well, it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Because that's what's going on here. Stroman (a 2001 Dance Magazine Award winner; see page 48) has teamed up with Brooks to create a stage musical from his wildly comic tale of a pair of show-biz schemers who plot to produce the world's worst musical so they can pocket all the extra money provided by the show's unsuspecting "angels."

That's where the walkers come in. Everyone who saw the movie remembers Zero Mostel's Max Bialystock sweet-talking one rich widow after another into writing him a check; in the show, it will be Nathan Lane's Max conning a chorus line of little old ladies with walkers--and purses. And a month before starting a tryout run in Chicago on February 1 and then moving on to Broadway in March prior to an April 19 opening, Stroman, Brooks and the cast are presenting a sneak peek at their handiwork.

There's an air of controlled madness in the room: Stroman, her trademark blonde ponytail bobbing from inside her trademark baseball cap, has her hands full as Brooks, who greets the visitors in French for no reason whatsoever, and Lane, whose innately flamboyant personality is abetted this morning by Bialystock's black cape, trade barbs. And they're not the only comic agitators around: Max's partner in crime, the erstwhile accountant Leo Bloom, is played by Matthew Broderick, who cut his teeth on Neil Simon and Ferris Bueller; their fatuous director, Roger De Bris, is played by Gary Beach, who was such a hit as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast; and the director's ever-present assistant, Carmen Ghia, will be Snoopy himself, Roger Bart. So you have no doubt it's true when Stroman says of their rehearsals, "We have laughed."

You also have no doubt they have worked. It's not just that the three numbers put on view are in pretty fair shape, with Stroman's brilliant sense of theater amplifying the comedy in Brooks's songs ("I've written seventeen new ones and some of them are good!" he announces), filling the rehearsal room with an unfurling tapestry of richly detailed stage pictures. And it's not just that the cast gets quite a workout pushing and pulling on those walkers, a rolling trash can (with Nathan Lane in it--don't ask!), desks with adding machines, file cabinets with champagne glasses (again, best not to ask).

They're working hard because they have to: Everyone involved knows this production will be compared to a beloved film that has attained iconic status since its manic energy first burst on the screen in 1968. Mostel was, quite simply, Appetite personified; as Bloom, Gene Wilder compiled a dictionary of comic tics and takes. And the movie's two production numbers were both impossibly bad and all too familiar. "The Producers," wrote Roger Ebert of the film, "is cheerfully willing to go anywhere for a laugh." But can it go to Broadway?

"There is a big difference between a movie and a musical comedy," acknowledges Brooks. He's heard many admirers of the film urging him not to change a word, and he's prepared for some who see the show to grumble that it's not The Producers. "Well," he says, "it's not. It's a whole new thing." And that whole new thing in many ways reflects the Stroman touch. "Stroman University," he calls it.

"She taught me how to read and write musical comedy," he says, noting all the times she got him to abandon some laughter-inducing digression with the words, "You're not telling your story!"

"I needed to help him leave the movie behind," Stroman says. Her main task in steering the work of Brooks and his co-writer, Thomas Meehan, on the book, she says, was imposing a structure. And despite his reputation for anarchy, Brooks has deferred to her theatrical vision: "He's the writer and I'm the director," she says.

For all their combined wisdom--and Brooks is not the neophyte he may appear, having written many of the songs in his movies and having worked in the '50s and early '60s on several stage musicals--Brooks and Stroman are taking a chance with The Producers. Although the enduring appeal of the material, the talents they bring to the enterprise and the sheer comic firepower of their cast would seem to predict a terrific show, musicals based on hit movies can fail as well as succeed. Brooks, who is one of the, er, producers, as well as the writer, lyricist and composer of the show, has covered his bets. "We've raised way more money than we need," he deadpans.

Sylviane Gold is the former arts editor of The Boston Phoenix and Newsday/New York Newsday.
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Title Annotation:Susan Stroman
Author:Gold, Sylviane
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Words:877
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