Mel Brooks Back on Broadway with 'Frankenstein'

Mel Brooks has adapted his 1974 movie Young Frankenstein for the stage. It opens on Broadway on Thursday night. After the huge success of his musical The Producers, Brooks hopes to score big again.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

This evening's opening of a new Mel Brooks musical is the most highly anticipated opening of the Broadway theater season. His last show, "The Producers," was a big hit, winning 12 Tony Awards and running for six years. Now, it's "Young Frankenstein." And all of Broadway is asking, can lightning strike twice?

Jeff Lunden says not only can, not only can it, it does.

(Soundbite of musical "Young Frankestein")

JEFF LUNDEN: Lighting strikes again and again and then some in Mel Brook's new musical version of his classic horror film parody, "Young Frankenstein." TV star Megan Mullaly plays Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein - Frankenstein's fiancee.

Ms. MEGAN MULLALLY (Actress): There is so much heat on the show and everybody is, like, you know, can they do it again kind of thing. And it's a giant show. It's a gigantic show with pyrotechnics and, I mean, it's huge.

LUNDEN: According to some published reports, $20 million huge. So huge, it's been something of a lightning rod for criticism in the Broadway community even for its opening. The ticket prices assume "Young Frankenstein" will be a monster hit. The official top price is $120,000, but some of the very best seats in the house are being offered at a premium rate of between 275 and $450 a pop.

(Soundbite of "I Wanna Be a Producer")

Mr. HUNTER FOSTER (Actor): (As Leo Bloom) (Singing) I wanna be a producer with a hit show on Broadway.

LUNDEN: Of course, the reason for the producer's breezy confidence is the irrepressible comic spirit of Mel Brooks, who created a string of popular movie parodies, including "Blazing Saddles" and "High Anxiety." At an age when most people retire, Brooks lived his dream of writing a hit Broadway musical in 2001 with "The Producers." Susan Stroman directed and choreographed that show as well as "Young Frankenstein." She says the 82-year-old author is a Broadway baby.

Ms. SUSAN STROMAN (Broadway Director): He loves it so much. He loves the Broadway community. He loves the actors. He loves the live audience, which he never got in the film world. And every movie there is a musical moment. I think it was real foreshadowing that Mel Brooks was meant to writing musical.

(Soundbite of song "Springtime for Hitler")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) And now it's springtime for Hitler and Germany…

LUNDEN: A couple of years after "The Producers" opened to unanimous raves, Mel Brooks began to think about adapting "Young Frankenstein" for the stage. And a musical idea got stuck in his brain.

Mr. MEL BROOKS (Writer, "Young Frankenstein"): It came about because I kept hearing somebody singing…

(Singing) …he vas my boyfriend…

…and that person was me. I'd sing it in the shower. I'd sing it in the toilet. I just keep singing it all the time. He was crazy as a coot, didn't give a hoot. He vas my boyfriend. And I kept hearing, he was my boyfriend.

(Soundbite of song "He Vas My Boyfriend)

Ms. ANDREA MARTIN (Actress): (As Frau Blucher) (Singing) There's every woman he vas flirt. He always treated like dirt. But I was happy to be hurt. He vas my boyfriend.

LUNDEN: Comedian Andrea Martin plays Frau Blucher, the role Cloris Leachman made famous in the movie. She says that working with Mel Brooks to put her own stamp on the role of the mysterious housekeeper was fun.

Ms. MARTIN: You would think that you would be intimidated, you know? But because he's kind of a Minch and has so much energy and loves what he does so much, there's nothing standoffish about him. So it's like he'll get in the sandbox and play with you. So it makes for a lot of laughter.

(Soundbite of song "He Vas My Boyfriend)

Ms. MARTIN: (As Frau Blucher) (Singing) Then he turned to me that charmer, whispered, let's play farmer. And plowed me till the cows came home.

LUNDEN: Mel Brooks has loved musicals since 1934.

Mr. BROOKS: I saw anything goes. I was about 9 or 10 years old, and that's when "Merry Men" was on the stage. I was sitting on the last seat in the second balcony and I thought she was too loud.

LUNDEN: "Young Frankenstein" is set in 1934. And many of the songs are affectionate nods to the great songwriters of that era. Like the hummable first act finale, the "Transylvania mania."

(Soundbite of song "Transylvania Mania")

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) (Singing) Have you heard about the mania. If not, then let me explain to you. Yes, sir. It's the Transylvania mania.

Mr. BROOKS: Mr. Erving Berlin, I mean, was my muse vis-a-vis "Transylvania Mania." Erving Berlin was the great dance songwriter. It's always doing something, doing to this, doing to that, you know, "Putting on the Ritz," which is a great dance, you know? And so when I thought of ending the first act, I said, we got to end with an Erving Berlin type classic.

(Soundbite of song "Transylvania Mania")

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) (Singing) Blues the blues and don't complain to you. Hit the dance floor, feel no pain to you. Love it. Do the Transylvania mania.

LUNDEN: And yes. For the fans of the film, the show also includes "Putting on the Ritz," an actual Erving Berlin classic, sung by Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster.

(Soundbite of song "Putting on the Ritz")

Mr. GENE WILDER (Actor): (Dr. Frankenstein) (Singing) If you're blue and you don't know where to go to why don't you go where fashion sits…

Mr. PETER BOYLE (Actor): (The Monster) (Singing) Putting on the Ritz.

LUNDEN: That's Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle from the film's soundtrack. In the musical, choreographer Susan Stroman has turned it into a zany production number.

Ms. STROMAN: There's a twist on the phrase, being afraid of your own shadow. Well, in "Putting on the Ritz," the monster's shadow actually is afraid of the monster.

LUNDEN: All the other songs in the show are by Mel Brooks, like the big second act ballad Megan Mullaly sings after her character, Elizabeth, finds deep love with the Monster.

(Soundbite of song "Deep Love")

Ms. MULLALLY: (As Elizabeth) (Singing) Deep love, at last I found deep love. I've been searching for deep love for all of my life.

Well, the character that I play has a little bit of awakening, shall we say. And she realizes that the Monster actually has certain attributes that her fiance, Dr. Frankenstein, is lacking. And she sings this song, sort of, an ode to that, called "Deep Love." And it's a love song, why are you laughing? It's very touching. It's a touching love song. Bring your kids.

LUNDEN: The last lyric in "Young Frankenstein" during the curtain call promises maybe next year "Blazing Saddles." So is that what Mel Brooks is working on now?

Mr. BROOKS: No. Actually, you know, I was thinking about Marco Polo, you know? He's an interesting guy, wore, kind of, nice, kind of, Chinese dresses and stuff and, you know, the combination of spaghetti and gun powder. How could you - you can't - it's hard to beat that. I think that would probably make a great musical. Maybe I'd call it "Spaghetti and Gunpowder: The Story of Marco Polo," you know? So I may work on that.

LUNDEN: "Young Frankenstein" opens on Broadway tonight. Keep your eyes peeled for spaghetti and gunpowder.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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