I am always looking for insights into story. I listen for the mythic beats of the journey when a friend tells me about their trip to the supermarket. I watch furniture wax commercials on TV and look for the “arc” of the housewife/protaganist (believe me, it’s in there). The point is: There are lessons in the simplest stories. And they are often easiest to see in comedies — which is why I tend to reference them.
While watching the movie version of The Producers: The Musical, I noticed one such lesson. This is the movie based on the musical based on the movie. (Is there another example of this ever happening?) I never saw the Broadway version (although I did catch the road company production featuring Erik Estrada and “Screech” from Saved by the Bell), but from the first movie starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder to this one starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, there were a few notable changes in the story.
Let’s start with the fact that both versions are funny. One is a raw, flat-out comedy spoof with an almost “Indie” feel, while the musical is bigger, more fleshed out, and more “whole.” You will never be able to repeat the experience of seeing “Springtime for Hitler” for the first time, but it’s interesting to see how the musical enhanced what were very simple characters in the original — and boosted the story as a result.
For one, they gave accountant Leo Bloom much more of a role in the musical. When Matthew walks into the offices of the washed-up Bialystock Productions, he has something Gene didn’t: In his wallet is a ticket to a performance he saw as a kid of one of Nathan’s earlier hit shows! Not only is Matthew a fan, he offers Nathan a callback to his more successful days. Matthew also has a second thing Gene Wilder didn’t have in the original: a specific dream. Matthew has always had a secret desire to be a Broadway producer (thus the ticket in his wallet), so when he is offered the chance by Nathan, it’s more than just a scheme to make money. And it also leads to one of the most fun musical numbers, “I Want to be a Producer,” set in Matthew’s accounting offices. Finally, in the musical version, Matthew also has one other thing: a woman problem; he is painfully, terminally shy. In the musical, that is solved too when Ula (in the original just a sight gag) arrives and has a more important role (played in this version by Uma Thurman) and is the love story with Nathan as observer.
The result: The Producers: The Musical has really become much more Matthew’s story, an interesting shift from the original film.
Why bring this up? When fleshing out heroes of stories, my question to any writer is: What does your hero want? I always ask the writer to be specific, because what a hero wants is the hero’s character — and it is also the story! And while the musical version of the cult classic may not be a better version of The Producers (nothing can compete with Zero Mostel, who was more a force of nature), in fleshing out a story and making it whole, it is a more complete version. Think about what writers Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan did that the divine Brooks, the sole original writer,Â left out of the original film.
The changes are more satisfying in terms of understanding the theme of the story and a great lesson in rewriting: When you are told your characters are a little “two-dimensional,” think about wants, needs, goals — and “Bialystock & Bloom.”