Matthew Broderick doesn’t love looking in his career rearview mirror. “Reminiscing makes me feel old and strange and queasy,” he says. But he’ll make an exception for The Producers. Talking about it, he says, “fills me with pleasure.” That’s not just because the Broadway musical catapulted him to the top of the cultural stratosphere, earning him a Tony nomination and dressing-room introductions to Carl Reiner and Gene Wilder. He’s a born-and-bred New Yorker, so he considers starring in a show and a subsequent movie about New Yorkers to be a personal triumph. “I feel about The Producers the way people from Chicago feel about Ferris Bueller,” he says.
The Broadway show opened on April 19, 2001, rooted in the 1967 big-screen comedy of the same name. Written and directed by Mel Brooks, the satire focused on a pair of desperate theater impresarios who inadvertently create a Broadway hit out of a musical about Adolf Hitler. Broderick says, “I remember reading that Mel was developing The Producers and thinking, He’ll never cast me in that.” He was wrong. Broderick stepped into the role of neurotic accountant Leo Bloom, belting out gut-busting tunes such as “I Wanna Be a Producer” and “Where Did We Go Right?” alongside his friend (and Lion King co-star) Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock. The show opened to record-breaking ticket sales.
Bialystock and Bloom would appreciate what happened next: In 2005, three years after Lane and Broderick finished their initial run, Brooks and director Susan Stroman turned their phenomenon of a show into a(nother) movie. The Broadway stars reprised their parts, as did supporting scene-stealers Gary Beach and Roger Bart. For Hollywood oomph, Uma Thurman subbed in as the Swedish secretary, and Will Ferrell played a daffy ex-Nazi. Venturing beyond the St. James Theatre, they sang, danced, and did their patented shtick in iconic NYC locations from Central Park to Fifth Avenue. Come February, the actor will hit the stage in the Neil Simon play Plaza Suite — this time with his wife of 24 years, Sarah Jessica Parker. But first: He shares his memories about being the toast of his favorite town.
Let’s take it from the top: When and how were you approached for the Broadway role?
I had a meeting with Mel Brooks about a whole other movie that ended up not happening. We were both going to act in it. So we had this fairly lengthy meeting, and at the end of it, he said, “Can you stick around?” We sat down at one of those little tables near the elevator in a hotel, and he told me about The Producers. He wanted me to do it. The next day, I went to the arranger’s apartment to hear the score. Mel was there, and director Susan Stroman was there, and they followed me out of the elevator and asked me what I thought. I was happy. Very happy. Mel was a real childhood hero of mine. I slept with The 2000 Year Old Man playing on my record player between the ages of 11 and 14.
After hearing the score, were you apprehensive at all that a stage adaptation of the 1967 movie might not work?
Absolutely. It was never because I thought, Oh, this isn’t good. But it’s such a perfect movie, and none of us knew that it was a good idea to take this classic and, you know, pull it apart. How could you possibly live up to what it had been? So much so that I remember friends telling me, “I don’t know if you should do that. Leave it alone.”
How do you portray Leo Bloom without copying Gene Wilder?
Susan Stroman told me that once I’d done the part 100 times in rehearsal that it would naturally turn into mine, which may be true. But I knew the original so well that I didn’t know I could make it my own. I can watch the movie just by closing my eyes, so there’s no avoiding it. I think in some ways, I did imitate what I thought of Gene Wilder, then added as much of myself as possible. There was no way to ignore the original Leo Bloom. I was a replacement, in a way.
After rehearsals in Chicago, how did you feel ahead of opening night?
When you get to New York and then you have the critics there, it is terrifying and could have easily gone the wrong way. Nobody knew what was going to happen. We also changed the play a little bit from Chicago and had an actor replaced. It wasn’t all smooth sailing.
But the show was an instant hit. Did you hear from every person you ever went to high school with because of the ticket demand?
It was exactly like that. I had an assistant, and basically his job was to deal with people who I barely remembered asking for five tickets three months from Thursday. There was this huge line of people at the theater to buy tickets, and the New York Post put a photo of it on the front page. That was a nice feeling because it felt like something you’d see in a 1950s movie. I’d never been in a show that people went crazy for like that.
Did you like being part of the Zeitgeist, or did you keep your head down because you were performing eight times a week?
No, no, I enjoyed it! I mean, yeah, I was tired because it was a hard show to do physically, but we’d go to the bar next door, and after the show we’d just sit by a window and see the marquee lit up. It was very exciting and rosy in memory.
Did Gene Wilder enjoy the show when he saw it?
I think so. He spoke very quietly, but he was very complimentary and loving toward me. It was a little bit emotionally difficult for him to see, I would think.
What was it like reopening after 9/11? Could you sense a difference in the audience?
The first audience was maybe 400 people. I remember the producer gathered us around and said that Mayor Giuliani wants us all back and every show is happening on Thursday, September 13. Even getting to the theater, we had to go through security checkpoints, and I could still smell the smoke from where we lived in the Village. My memory is that maybe the first ten minutes felt weird, but then the audience and us collectively let ourselves breathe. It was a great relief.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that The Producers was also a punch line in a 2001 Sex and the City episode during the height of both shows’ popularity.
Uh, I don’t remember that.
Kristin Davis’s character is having trouble conceiving, and her husband tries to cheer her up by telling her he has a friend who can get them tickets to The Producers. Do you remember this at all?
I do now, yeah. I think that’s a joke that Michael Patrick King wrote into the show. It was very nice to be the joke that it’s hard to get seats to your show. I’m sure everybody in Hamilton knows the feeling.
And then a few years later, you and Nathan did the film. How did Mel sell you on the idea of a movie based on a musical based on a movie?
In my memory, his reasoning was that we’d been asked to do one of those events where they basically film a live performance and air them on PBS.
Like what Hamilton did last year?
Yeah, but that was more of a hybrid. That was very well done. We were going to do a more old-fashioned version of that, where they just put the cameras in the audience. Mel said, “Those things kind of stink. They’re not as good as the show.” It sounds negative, but I think he wanted it to be more like a movie. So rather than that version, he wanted to make a real movie musical.
Were you onboard right away?
Certainly, I was onboard. You know, I didn’t know if the play was a good idea and I was wrong, so I didn’t see why this wouldn’t be a good idea. Everything else was good and had worked out so well. And Stro and Mel, I love those people. And Nathan, too. The fact that they were using most of the original cast was just thrilling for us.
And you got to be out and about in the city.
I remember when we were filming in Central Park, and I got to run through the water at the Bethesda Fountain. I wonder how I’m still alive after doing that. But we mostly filmed at the Brooklyn Naval Yards, which was exciting because they built a 1958 version of Broadway and 44th Street with Sardi’s and Shubert Alley. In that sense, it was a dream come true to have this movie be tacked onto this play.
Would you describe it as an easy shoot?
You know, I hate talking for others. But the one difficult part was that Anne Bancroft was very sick. That colored everything, and certainly for me, it was very, very sad to see Mel like that. I can’t remember the movie without honestly thinking about it. So it wasn’t a total joyride.
Why do you think it didn’t do well at the box office? Was it too New York to play well in the heartland?
That could be, though out-of-towners seemed very happy to come to the play, so that’s a little confusing to me. I remember a bunch of movie musicals came out around that time, like Rent and Phantom of the Opera, and they did poorly too. I know Chicago justified people breaking into song. I don’t know.
You and your family are so well associated with the city. What goes through your mind when you watch a New York–set film?
I mean, anytime a movie is shot in New York, particularly if it’s older, I love to see it. New York adds a huge energy to movies. I was lucky to work with Sidney Lumet in 1989’s Family Business; he is this quintessential New York location guy. He knew every inch of the city. And there was something about the whole New York–ness of the crew. I’ve done movies where you’re in Toronto pretending to be New York, and it’s not the same. New York is this horrible place in a way, but once you like it, you can’t quit it. My father was in Dog Day Afternoon and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and I remember him going to shoot those movies, too. That’s another layer.
What’s it like for you to film a movie in your own backyard?
Oh, I love it. Nothing makes me happier to be shooting a block from where I grew up. For The Freshman in 1990, we shot in Washington Square Park. To be in this big movie with Marlon Brando by the arch that I played handball against was absolutely thrilling! I did Torch Song Trilogy in 1988 in New York City, too, and we shot all night just a few blocks from Soho, where I lived. It was fun to watch the deli that I knew open and see the deliveries come and just see how the city wakes up.
When New Yorkers talk to you, which role do they bring up?
Usually, it’s Ferris Bueller but a little bit The Producers. Every now and then, I get “Do you still act?” and that’s not so nice. One of the good things about New York is the vibe here. People tend to not speak to others. They look at their feet.
How often do you talk to Nathan Lane these days? You two were such a signature pairing.
I see him all the time. And Mel and Stro. We just had a 20-year reunion at 54 Below with people who were in the show from all over the country. I think the fact that he and I created these roles together and made it from the very first reading in New York to Chicago to Broadway is special. It’s a cliché, but we were all a family. We’re very close.
Could The Producers work in 2021?
We were wondering that at the reunion too. You’d have to adjust some things, but I think you could because it was always a joke about political correctness. It’s just making fun of people in it. It’s aware and not accidentally shocking, and unless I’m forgetting something, it’s very good-hearted. I hope somebody will revive it. I keep telling Nathan he can still do it.
What about you?
I’m 900 years old. I’d have to wear a lot of knee braces.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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