A Look Back: Young Frankenstein

  • A Look Back: Young Frankenstein

I’m pleased to see that Young Frankenstein has opened triumphantly in London in a significantly revised version from the less celebrated Broadway original. I’ve always loved the movie, which I saw in its original run, and a stage show seemed like a great idea. Unfortunately, the New York version, which I saw in previews almost precisely ten years ago (Oct 15, 2007), opened against impossible expectations in the wake of the same creative team’s phenomenally successful The Producers, and the producers did themselves no favors by announcing outrageous premium prices (then still a budding concept) before the show even opened. The reaction was perhaps inevitably less than hoped. And I have to say that the middling reception was justified. From my observations at the time:

The show was fun without delivering a knockout punch. The inevitable question on everyone’s lips is: Is this another Producers? The answer is: not even close. For one thing, it’s too episodic to match the driving thrust of its predecessor. In the latter, everything was barreling forward towards the “Springtime For Hitler” sequence, and each scene led organically into the next. Even with all the crazy characters and situations appearing throughout, the build-up was logical and easy to follow. Then, after lifting our expectations throughout the show, they fully deliver when the number finally appears, and that sequence itself tops itself brilliantly with bit after bit to the very end. Above that, after that climactic number, they managed to maintain the pace towards an even better ending than the movie. It was a great adaptation from film to stage – jettisoning unnecessary characters, shifting the time period to an earlier era, combining or reworking scenes or simply inventing new ones. The result was a fully formed stage musical, and audiences didn’t have to know the movie to enjoy it. Nothing seemed superfluous.

In contrast, Young Frankenstein seemed to be trying too hard. There were lots of genuinely funny bits, such as the hilarious meeting between the monster and a hermit, and the production values were fine. But Mel Brooks seemed to be stretching at some points, with a number of scenes and especially songs carrying on longer than they should. As much as I hate to compare it with The Producers, it practically asks for it with a number of unflattering similarities: the opening number with the crowd outside a castle/theatre, the sexy blonde with an accent, the “Walk this way” joke (was that deliberate?), the dream number, the big musical-within-a-musical production number and so forth. It was as if Mel Brooks was purposely using the same formula that worked the first time rather than starting anew. The story did not have the same sense of inevitability, and some of the scenes came off more as shtick than story. The popularity of the movie might have worked against the creators. For example, in the introduction of the professor and his fiancée, the shift from Transylvania to the U.S. and then back to Transylvania seemed clumsy. I assume that’s how it was set up in the movie, but it just doesn’t work well on stage. They might have been bolder with the adaptation. As with Spamalot (so I hear), certain moments were apparently too famous to cut, which may have dictated lines or entire scenes that might better have been lost.

A more fundamental trouble is that the lead character is not written or presented in a way that is strong enough to dominate; he’s often overwhelmed by the other quirky characters on display. This has nothing to do with Roger Bart, who was terrific as the lead. It’s just that the doctor role itself seems more reactor than actor, without a defining character trait that moves the action forward. It’s as if Leo Bloom (the Matthew Broderick part) were the lead in The Producers. Without that solid core, the show goes adrift. As it stands now, it’s a collection of funny sequences rather than an integrated show.

I understand that the story has been tightened and rethought for the stage, so some of these issues have hopefully been addressed. The basic material is strong, and a little bit of tinkering would go a long way. I thought the music, though, was another story:

But the show’s biggest problem was the songs. Mel Brooks was definitely on cruise mode here. Musically the songs were very weak. He showed such a good sense of melody in The Producers in numbers like “That Face” and “Till Him”, but that sense was not on evidence here. The melodies were pretty much all generic tunes taken from a tin can (or tin ear). That becomes acutely clear with “Putting On The Ritz”, which unquestionably towers above everything musically. Lyrically there were funny moments rather than funny songs. Two of the early numbers, the doctor’s ode to the brain and the fiancée’s song, made me wonder what Cole Porter would have made of them. They were clever ideas that seemed only half thought out. All in all, there were just too many songs in the show, many (actually most) of which went on too long. Did they really have to musicalize everything?? Some pruning would help immeasurably. I do remember enjoying the wacky “Hay Ride” number, including some great use of video and fun direction. If all the songs and scenes measured to that level, the musical would have been a smash.

The problems were evident even in the “Putting On The Ritz” number. The monster’s opening line was one of the most hilarious moments I’ve ever experienced in a musical – but the joke was essentially over after the first refrain. (And that joke itself depends on a knowledge of the song to some extent, since you have to be expecting the title line to be surprised. I wonder if it would work otherwise.) There was some energetic dancing afterwards, which seemed more like a potpourri than a sustained idea. Basically the point had already been made. Like other numbers, it was great fun at first but went on beyond its sell date.

Some songs have evidently been eliminated and new songs added, so a second hearing may be worthwhile. Susan Stroman’s choreography wasn’t overpowering – “If there is a Stroman compilation musical some day along the lines of Fosse, I doubt anything from this show will be in it” – but it was light-hearted and got the job done.

The show benefited last time from a fantastic cast, which reveled in the outlandish characters and sketches, and that seems to be the case again this time, with the near-perfect Shuler Hensley repeating as the monster. With new material, new songs and a highly regarded cast, the signs for the show are very good, and all reports suggest that Mel Brooks and crew have given new life to their monster. It’s definitely on my list of shows to see on my next London trip.

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