By John Polly
What’s the secret to maintaining a successful long-term relationship? Some couples may base their bond on honesty. Others credit common interests, mutual respect, or a shared past and sense of history. But, of course, sometimes it just comes down to chemistry.
“It’s the sex,” admits Broadway and film star Nathan Lane, when asked why he and his onscreen and onstage costar Matthew Broderick have endured and prospered as one of showbiz’s hottest couples over the last few years. “We stay together because of the sex,” Lane cracks. “The emotional life is dead now, but the sex is so good I can’t let go.” And let’s just say that the rest of us are more than happy to bathe in the frisky afterglow of Lane and Broderick’s onstage connubial bliss.
It’s been four and a half years since Lane and Broderick teamed up for the stage debut of the zillion-ticket selling, multi-Tony-winning, showbiz phenomenon that is “The Producers,” the musical theater version of the hit 1968 Mel Brooks film (which starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) telling the story of two showbiz shysters who hope to cash in by producing a sure-fire Broadway flop.
As soon as the Lane/Broderick pairing hit the marquee, tickets sales soared. Then, as the show roared its way to becoming a critical and audience smash, the bond between Lane and Broderick as the millennium’s new “First Couple of the American Theater” was sealed. Ranking up there with such storied showbiz pairing as Lunt and Fontanne or Martin and Lewis, the yin and yang of Lane as boisterous, has-been wise-guy producer Max Bialystock and Broderick as nebbish, numbers-crunching producer wannabe Leo Bloom has proven a force to be reckoned with.
During their first few months in the show, choice orchestra seats for The Producers at the St. James Theater went for upwards of $400 a pop. And currently the prized pair is working their sold-out mojo again onstage in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”
But this month’s big news is the much-anticipated opening of “The Producers,” coming to a multiplex near you. Yes, the splashy movie version of the stage musical based upon Mel Brooks’ film had now been translated back into a film. It’s all a bit “meta” – and terribly exciting for filmgoers all over.
Of course, none are more excited than Lane and Broderick who – alongside most of the creative team who brought the show to Broadway (including director Susan Stroman and co-stars Gary Beach and Roger Bart) – are also just happy to be part of the film.
“Listen, it’s been nice that we even get to do the film,” says Lane. “I used to joke with Mel Brooks and ask, ‘So, when are you going to make the movie version of this with Jack Nicholson and Ben Stiller?’ He’d say, ‘No! If we do a movie, you and Matthew will be in it.’ But you never really know. Look at “Chicago;” they essentially got all movie stars to be in the film version of that.”
Of course, none of the Broadway stars of “Chicago” generated the buzz (or ticket sales) or garnered the wild acclaim, as did Lane and Broderick. The furor around their performances was apparent to folks who never even made it to New York to catch a single performance. And while Broderick, who’s well schooled in the ways of Hollywood, also initially had his doubts about whether or not he’d figure into the movie version of The Producers musical, that didn’t last. “Once Nathan and I came back into the show again last year and it sold out again, I felt a little more secure. You could feel that part of the package of the show was me and Nathan. They were stuck with us!”
As it turns out, the only principal roles in the new film that didn’t go to the Broadway cast members were that of the Swedish bombshell Ulla (played by Tony-winner Cady Huffman) and the hysterically daffy Neo-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, originally played onstage by Brad Oscar. For these roles, Hollywood beckoned. So in came Uma Thurman to inhabit Ulla’s tight white dress, and Will Ferrell to raise Franz’s pigeons onscreen. And the results?
“Will Ferrell is hilarious,” affirms Lane. “And Uma did a terrific job. She worked very hard, and she took to the dancing terrifically. She’s very funny and when she comes onscreen, she’s stunning. She’s a movie star.”
No strangers to film stardom either, Lane and Broderick still felt themselves experiencing the odd task of translating their well-worn stage personae to the silver screen. “Well, we knew the lines already,” chuckles Lane. “But we were used to having an audience with these characters, so you kind of have to start over. And it’s tricky because this material demands a certain size, and it’s even operatic in nature at times. So for the film it became a matter of negotiating between doing bits in a small way in close-up that suit the movie, or giving them the St. James Theater version of it.”
Broderick concurs. “It felt like doing a matinee on a Wednesday about eight months into the run-but with a very quiet audience,” he says of the movie set vibe. “That was a big change, because a lot of the timing and the jokes came from the audience.”
Persevere they did, however. “There were moments when Matthew and I would look at each other and go, ‘Well, here we are, this is it,” says Lane. “This is going to be put down on film for posterity, so let’s do the best we can.”
And fear not: All of your favorite bits are there. The walker-wielding grannies dancing in “Along Came Bialy”; the riotous and wrong-natured follies of the “Springtime for Hitler” number, and of course, Gary Beach and Roger Bart’s campy scenery-chewing genius in what may be the feyest film number ever, “Keep It Gay” – which gets appropriately pumped up for the film version.
“At this point, it couldn’t get any gayer without spontaneously combusting,” laughs Lane. Broderick even gets his “I Wanna Be a Producer” number turbo-charged, as his onstage bevy of eight chorus gals gets supersized: “I’ve got 20 dancing girls with me now – it’s very exciting.”
But after spending the last five years associated with their Producers alter egos, are Lane and Broderick finally ready to turn in their fedoras? “It’s a great way to end this little journey, getting to do it on film,” says Lane. “For all of those people who missed us in it on Broadway, or saw the show when I was out sick, it’s preserved forever now.”
Or as Broderick puts it, “I think we squeezed everything out of this onion,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know what else we could do with it – though Mel says he wants to think about a Claymation version, so maybe Nathan and I can supply the voices.”
While Bialystock and Bloom head off into the sunset – with some likely Oscar buzz to keep them company, no doubt – Lane and Broderick will have other showbiz fish to fry. The openly gay Lane will continue to cut a swath onstage and onscreen playing roles that most out actors don’t get to. Lane may play a gangster heavy in one film, a bullying Hollywood agent in another, and even the occasional raging, nelly queen as he tackles widely varied roles.
“I’m just that good,” he jokes, when asked how he avoids stereotyping. “My sexuality has never really been a focus. I’m a character actor, so it’s never been an issue.” Or as Broderick puts it: “Nathan can just play everything.”
In the meantime Lane and Broderick, both admitted fans of big movie musicals, are hopeful that their version of “The Producers” will enter the pantheon nobly. They both cite “Singing in the Rain” as a favorite musical film. Broderick also favors the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicles of the 1930s and “A Star Is Born,” while Lane loves the Lucille Ball version of “Mame.”
“She was shot through linoleum, but she’s very funny in it,” he insists. “And I love seeing Lucy and Bea Arthur together; that’s one of the great meetings of all time on film.”
High praise, surely. And who’s to say the celluloid pairing of this Producers pair might not inspire similar enthusiasm. After all, their chemistry and rapport is pretty unbeatable – even off-screen. For instance, when each was asked to reveal a secret about the other, Broderick responded, “Nathan’s very good at whiffle-ball. He can hit and pitch very well; he has excellent hand-eye coordination.”
Lane’s answer? “I’m not supposed to say it, but Matthew’s gay. He’s really gay. He’s much gayer than I am. It wouldn’t take much – a couple of drinks. He’s very agreeable.” While Lane laughs, Broderick dryly quips: “Well… Listen to her.”
Most married folks should get along so well.