It takes chutzpah to adapt a comedy-classic movie for the stage, where nuance is scarce. It takes adroitness to rework the original's witty rapid-fire dialogue into a musical, a genre typically light on narrative. And it takes ingenuity not only to pull it off, but also to snag a dozen Tony Awards, which The Producers has done.
Of course, it helps to have Mel Brooks, writer-director of the 1968 film, as author and lyricist of the stage version. "Mel Brooks is funny," says Don Stephenson, who plays Leo Bloom, the put-upon accountant in the touring production of The Producers. "That's the main reason people come to this show."
The Producers' greatest hook is its premise. Beleaguered theatrical producer Max Bialystock and accountant Bloom stumble upon a scam to keep Max from bankruptcy: raise more money than needed for a guaranteed Broadway flop, and pocket the difference. So they conceive Springtime for Hitler, a musical comedy about the infamous leader of the Third Reich.
"It's an equal-opportunity offender," Stephenson explains. "By offending everybody, Mel Brooks creates this atmosphere for everybody to enjoy."
The Broadway production opened in April 2001. Since then, it's been a top moneymaker and become the most-awarded show in Broadway history; it's also kept the Great White Way in operation since September 11. Much credit goes to original stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick -- big steps to follow, Stephenson admits. "The shadow of Gene Wilder [the film's Leo] is even bigger," he says. "I watched the movie and [stole] whatever he did that was really good.
"And whatever Matthew added that was good, I stole that, too. You steal from the best."
Better yet, there's room to grow in the role, Stephenson says. "Leo is thrown into a situation he's never had to deal with before. He's a surrogate for the audience.
"The challenge for me is to be totally innocent every night. And that's not easy."