Here it is…the show that gave Broadway the shot in the arm it so desperately needed. Because this show has been imitated by countless lesser shows for the past decade, and because of the mediocre movie they made of it, it’s now hard for some people to remember how brilliant this show is when seen with fresh eyes. The book draws from one of Mel Brooks’ best movies, but it actually improves upon it, softening the blackly comic edges and making the characters far more likable while retaining one of the great comic plots of the last century.
The score is outstanding, with delightful numbers that echo the styles of old-fashioned, classic Broadway, from Fred and Ginger (the uptempo love song “That Face”), to Show Boat (the hilarious intro to “I Wanna Be a Producer”), to Fiddler on the Roof (the outrageously beleaguered “King of Broadway”), to West Side Story (the howlingly funny “Keep It Gay”), to Rodgers and Hammerstein (the hilarious but genuinely touching climactic song, “Til Him”). Almost every number is a showstopper, and the two biggest, the “Springtime For Hitler” sequence (which Brooks turns into a massive star salute in the vein of “Hello Dolly”) and “Betrayed” (a comedic version of “Rose’s Turn”, complete with fragmentary reprises of earlier songs), are a class of showstopper hardly ever seen on Broadway.
Some have accused the lyrics of being heavy-handed, but Mel Brooks had spent his entire career doing this kind of low comedy, so one might ask what they expected the show’s lyrics to sound like. Besides, despite the frequent use of blunt but utterly on-the-money shock humor, there are actually several genuinely clever moments in the score, from the dazzling string of rhymes at the climax of “The King of Broadway” to the risque wit of “If You Got It, Flaunt It”.
The conventional wisdom says that the show depended entirely on its original leading men, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, to make it work, but I saw the show twice with the replacement casts, and it works just fine without its stars. The story, score and staging are what really make it hilarious. I might go so far as to call this the greatest musical comedy of the decade. It certainly sparked a Broadway renaissance that would last for several years to come, and it deserved every bit of its acclaim.