Mel Brooks first took the musical version of his 1974 monster comedy Young Frankenstein to Broadway in 2007. The Producers, his stage musical based on his first film, had been racking up Tony Awards at the time, and actual theater producers were begging him to adapt something else from his catalog of shticky comedies.
The Young Frankenstein musical lived for about 14 months on Broadway.
“It was a little too long and a little too heavy,” says Brooks, who wrote the music and lyrics for both of those shows. Then in 2017, as he explains it, England called and asked him to bring his creature back to life. “The version I did for the British is lighter, quicker, something that you could tap-dance to. I cut 18 or 20 minutes, which makes it an easier evening for everybody. I wrote two new songs and cut four songs I didn’t need, nothing delicious, believe me. That’s the show I wanted to bring to America.”
The streamlined Young Frankenstein: The Musical makes its U.S. premiere at the Walnut Street Theatre on Wednesday, Sept. 11, following a week of previews, and will run through Oct. 20. Charles Abbott directs. Malvern’s Ben Dibble sings in the Gene Wilder title role as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein.
Brooks, now 93, sat down to talk with The Inquirer, by speakerphone from the back seat of a car in Los Angeles.
I always loved singing, but I never thought I was a composer. I used to do parodies of songs. When I was in the Army, I wrote [he sings to the tune of "Begin the Beguine”] “When we beg-in, to clean the la-trine … ”
It all happened with “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers. I was gonna get John Morris, who is a real composer. But John Morris couldn’t write funny lyrics. Once I started writing the lyrics, the music came naturally. That first line sang itself: “Spring-time, for Hit-ler, and Ger-ma-ny.” Anne said — I was married to Anne Bancroft. Yeah, I was married then in ’64, right? She said, “What are the next words?” I said “Win-ter for Po-land, and France.” It just wrote itself. Anne said, ‘You’re a natural, you’ve got an Irving Berlin thing, a little Gershwin thing.’ I’ve been writing songs ever since. John Morris and I wrote “Blazing Saddles” together, and Frankie Laine sang it. [He sings again] “He rode a bla-zing sad-dle …” I mean, who rides a blazing saddle? It would be difficult.
I got a note from Frank Sinatra after he saw High Anxiety. He said, “Tell Jack Entratter …” — I didn’t know who Jack Entratter was. I found out later he ran the Sands Hotel. He said, “Tell Jack Entratter, whenever I get sick, I want you in there subbing for me.”
So how did a “Young Frankenstein" musical happen?
After I did The Producers, which was gargantuan hit, mind you, I was asked to do another show. I thought High Anxiety would be good, because I already had a title song. Then I thought Blazing Saddles. I wrote five or six songs for that. But Young Frankenstein really appealed to me because it was the most emotional.
I thought of that! And I said it simply doesn’t work. The stage is different. In a movie house you can go back to another age. But in the theater, you’re there. They’re alive. They're talking to you. So therefore color is very important. It had to be in color.
The things that work, I never touch.
Sometimes I would go on stage after the show, just to get free applause. And I would say to them, “You’re not acting very British.”
I added a goodbye song. We have a song at the beginning that goes “Together again for the first time …” So at the end, we say, “together again for the last time …” To thank the audience, and say come back when you get more dough. I wrote the goodbye song for Philly, for the Walnut Theatre.
I don’t know. There are so many ideas in comedy about what is in vogue. For my money, politeness or political correctness has damaged comedy tremendously. Don't hurt anybody's feelings? The purpose of comedy is to destroy people's feelings.
I’ll tell you, I haven’t said this to anybody. Don’t tell anybody — but tell everybody. I’m thinking I missed a good bet in not putting Blazing Saddles on stage. The only thing keeping me from it really is my dilemma over the N-word. In the movie, the bad guys, the idiots, are spreading the N-word around. To use it today could be truly in bad taste. If even a few people are hurt, it would hurt me the same. That’s my dilemma. If I ever solve it, you’ll see Blazing Saddles on stage. Because I could cut it down, and it would be a fabulous musical.
[Laughs] You can’t — it’s silent! Shame on you. I may take you on stage with me.