It was supposed to be the savior of the West End musical. In a lackluster season in which new shows like Bat Boy and The Beautiful and the Damned posted early closing notices, no show has been more hyped than The Producers, the smash American musical comedy that in its three-year Broadway run has raked in $193 million and won a record 12 Tony awards. With opening night set for Nov. 9 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, posters and playbills were printed up headlining Richard Dreyfuss, who would be taking the leading role in London as Max Bialystock, a shyster showman who puts on a surefire flop so the tax collectors will never spot that it was designed to bilk hordes of investors.
But just days before the American import was set to begin previews last Friday, Dreyfuss seemed to be drawing a little too much inspiration from his determined-to- fail character. First the star of Mr. Holland's Opus and Jaws admitted to Metro Life magazine that he can neither holler nor hoof, and suggested that the show's producers should "take out an ad on the front page of each arts section in town and have it say, 'Please don't think that you're paying to see Richard Dreyfuss sing and dance because you'll only be pissed off.'" Worse, he went on to accuse writer and co producer Mel Brooks of bullying. "Tell Mel Brooks this," Dreyfuss instructed. "'Please don't yell at Richard … Richard thinks of this as fun, not business." Then came a television appearance on Oct. 14 in which he warned viewers of ITV's Frank Skinner Show not to come until after Christmas: "If I see a face from this audience [before Christmas], I swear I'll kill you. I'll skin you."
By last Monday, just four days before the first preview, Dreyfuss was out of the show. A press release blamed a recurring shoulder injury, but industry watchers are skeptical as to why Dreyfuss waited until a week before previews to produce a sick note. Lead producer Rocco Landesman has stuck to the medical story but concedes that Dreyfuss's behavior was irritating: "You don't want your star performer to go on TV and say, 'Don't come and see this show.'" Co writer Tom Meehan is more blunt. "Musicals aren't fun to rehearse," he says. "These actors must be like athletes training. They have to build up stamina to do a very physical show eight times a week. I wouldn't call it bullying, but you shape up or ship out."
But the show's loss is also its gain, because rushing to the rescue is the acclaimed Nathan Lane, who originated the role of Max on Broadway, and will replace Dreyfuss for three months. (The good news: based on the first preview, Lane's fabulously manic, archly knowing interpretation is intact.) After his stint, Lane will leave to shoot the movie version of The Producers. The cast has already felt the difference. Says leading lady Leigh Zimmerman, "We've all been ready to move up a gear for a couple of weeks but couldn't. Now with the fire Nathan brings to the role, at last we can." So far, no replacement candidates have materialized to play Max after Lane moves on. British actor Henry Goodman, who replaced Lane in New York City before being sacked after just 30 performances, says he loves the show, but the role can crush a star's creativity: "I wasn't allowed to try anything, not one step, that was different. Mel Brooks said to me, 'Go and see Nathan Lane every day and do what he does.'" Even Landesman acknowledges the enormous energy and patience needed to nail the role. "Casting Max," he says, "is a constant problem."
Bringing The Producers to London also raises the question of whether hit musicals can survive the trip across the Atlantic. "Since Cats and Phantom of the Opera, everyone expects a successful musical to replicate itself around the world," says Meehan. "But those shows don't depend on the star like we do. Nobody knows who's playing the Phantom in New York, but potential audiences care who's playing Max." Case in point: the day the London theater announced that Lane was replacing Dreyfuss, the box office doubled its ticket sales. But after Lane leaves? The Producers' London backers may end up with a surefire hit on their hands for three months and just a handy tax shelter after that.