Last night at the Orpheum I laughed through an interesting failure. It was Young Frankenstein , Mel Brooks’ Broadway adaptation of the film of the same name, and more importantly, his follow up to his first incredibly successful Broadway adaptation, The Producers .
Young Frankenstein isn’t terrible. All of the leads have their individual charms, and they’re all trying their Broadway best. Anne Horak as Inga, Dr. Frankenstein’s bubbly blonde Transylvanian assistant, was particularly charming—but I have a thing for blondes who can yodel. (Just like Mel Brooks and everybody else.)
Despite the obvious effort of its cast, this one has been getting mixed reviews, with many of them accusing Young Frankenstein ’s songs of having a tossed-off quality. And they do, but most Mel Brooks’ jokes have a tossed-off quality, so what do you expect from his songs? And there are actually a couple good ones, if not classics. I laughed throughout Beth Curry’s prissed-out “Please Don’t Touch Me,” for instance, (even as I noticed my date memorizing all of the words before Curry even got through the first chorus). And the one holdover tune from the movie, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” featured some hilarious tap-dancing, especially on the part of the seven-foot green monster dude.
But no, it’s not a great musical. And although they may have been trying too hard, I don’t think it’s really the fault of the cast, or even the director. The entire production has two insurmountable problems to overcome: Young Frankenstein the musical is: 1) not as good as The Producers, and 2) not as good as Young Frankenstein the movie.
This is not about execution, it’s about concept. And I don’t mean that Roger Bart as Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “FRONK-en-steen,” naturally) is no Gene Wilder, or that Shuler Hensley is no Peter Boyle. He isn’t Wilder (who, incidentally, co-wrote the original screenplay with Brooks), but Roger Bart is actually quite good (his mustache is fantastic), and if he seems like he’s a little over-the-top, remember, he is playing the sweetly arrogant grandson of a world-renowned mad scientist in a Broadway musical. On paper, it seems like a challenge to make Frederick Frankenstein likeable, and Bart accomplishes that. Besides, Matthew Broderick is no Gene Wilder either, and he received pretty good reviews, right?
Now, Young Frankenstein is only Mel Brooks’ second musical adaptation, and I’m a big fan, but I’m not pleading with you to go easy on him. I am asking you to consider why The Producers worked so well: because it was the perfect candidate for a Mel Brooks Broadway adaptation! (Maybe the only candidate—shhtdon’t tell the producers of his next one.) It was a satire of Broadway, based around a meta-musical satire of Springtime for Hitler , the Broadway-play-within-a-Broadway play (which is what Brooks wanted to call the movie originally). He used satire in the trademark Mel Brooks style: a mixture of throwaway pop-culture references, disposable ancient vaudeville one-liners, and a lot of politically incorrect smut exposing the carnal hypocrisy of man. With The Producers , the Brooksian style served to satire the medium, and the medium was Broadway—an elegant closed loop, both for the movie and the musical. In Young Frankenstein the movie, he’s also using the Mel Brooks formula to satirize the medium: but the medium isn’t the Frankenstein story per se, but rather the horror-movie genre specific to the 1930s. Brooks was very fastidious about this: he even left the studio to ensure he could film YF in black and white, and the credits and the lighting and the score were all period-specific. The ties to that source material get lost in the transfer over to the Broadway adaptation. It might simply be enough to say that the movie was dated in a good way; the musical is dated in a bad way.
So Young Frankenstein is not nearly as complete a success as The Producers , —because, well, it was born a bastard. But that’s kind of fitting! And just like Frederick Frankenstein’s monster, the musical isn’t a complete loss—because bereft of Brooks’ cinematic bag of gags, the Broadway version is forced to concentrate more on the Frankenstein mythology, both the classic Mary Shelley stuff, and all the bastardized re-tellings of this ultimate bastard story. And the story means a lot, because Mel Brooks’ original re-telling is in fact a classic re-telling of this source material. This re-re-telling, not so much, but it is re-telling a great re-telling, so there’s that. (Are you confused yet?)
On stage, the songs aren’t great songs, but they do a good job of propelling plot points while simultaneously lingering on some of the ideas that have been around since the first Prometheus legend: man trying to play God over nature—the arrogance of his science and his reason in particular—while at the same time being subject to his own low drives. This is evoked by the fact that young Frederick is not only trying to abstain from following in his grandfather’s footsteps (“Together Again” when he first meets Igor, “Join the Family Business” when the ghost of his grandfather tries to convince him to give it a shot) but he’s trying to abstain from cheating on his fiancée (“Roll in the Hay,” “Listen to Your Heart”).
Here’s where Young Frankenstein really goes over the top and gets weird. The dance routines are all spiked with a sort of drunken burlesque, making all the double-entendres and innuendo and just straight-up dick jokes come off even a little more blatant and ham-handed than usual. The kidnapping/love scene between the mentally and physically retarded monster and Frederick’s fiancée feels dramatically more rape-y than it does in the movie, and the accompanying song, “Deep Love,” is rather unfortunate. Now, at the performance I attended, the crowd pretty much ate it all up, but maybe it was because we were all nervous. My theory is that because he wasn’t able to balance young Frederick’s story flush against the satire of the 1930’s horror movie, all this post-adolescent pervy repression kind of got the best of old Mel on this one. Still, Young Frankenstein the musical is aliiiiive! Well, it made me think, anyway.
Hopefully (as the cast mock-threatens in a final reprise of “Deep Love”), Mel works out a better formula before Blazing Saddles gets reanimated.
Young Frankenstein continues at the Orpheum theater through Feb. 14.