Practically Puerile in Every Way

I note from the weblog of Marianne Levy that she has been to see the West End version of Mary Poppins. All I can say is that I am very jealous, because when I was last in London looking for a show to see it had sold out (it being a spontaneous spur-of-the-moment type visit) and the rest of London being full of depressing Wagner and Schiller I found myself purchasing tickets for Mel Brooks’ much-lauded winner of three Oliver awards (including best new musical, no less), The Producers. And my God, did I find myself regretting it.

Because in spite of the good reviews, the awards and the personal recommendations it has received, it is an awful show. The songs are badly written and nobody has been brave enough to make cuts to the overlong and poorly-structured script, but most surprisingly of all it just isn’t funny, with the exception of one sequence which is almost identical to its appearance in the 1968 film of the same name.

The sequence in question is the justly famous “Springtime for Hitler”, a superb parody of a tasteless, dreadful musical – the ultimate send-up of a Broadway flop. As a piece of satire on bad theatre, however, its effectiveness is much diminished by the fact that it now forms the climax of an equally tasteless, dreadful musical. Whereas the deliberately corny showtunes and outrageous bad taste in “Springtime for Hitler” are a glorious pastiche, in the rest of the show they are just – well, rubbish tunes and bad taste. Perhaps the whole thing is just meant to be a big joke, but if that’s the case then it is a joke which wears thin very quickly.

And if it is a joke (I have my doubts), it stands out in a show which doesn’t strain itself to tell genuine jokes when it can get a cut-price laugh from a social stereotype instead. So we get the sledgehammer humour of old, randy ladies, mincing queens, Swedish blondes and sieg-heiling neo-Nazis. None of which, contrary to what Mel Brooks clearly believes, are inherently funny. A man in a dress – how droll! A Bavarian giving a Nazi salute – hilarious! And a burly, unattractive lesbian – comic gold indeed. It is comedy with all the subtlety and wit of a man shouting “bum” (a subtlety which is incidentally more than matched by Lee Evans and every single other member of the gurning, pratfalling, attention-seeking cast).

How depressing, then, that this show has not only been hailed from many quarters as an artistic success, but that audiences have been loving it. The show itself pokes fun at such undiscerning crowds, with “Springtime for Hitler” being received rapturously by critics and audiences alike – never has life imitating art seemed so tragically ironic. At least it demonstrates a certain accuracy in this particular piece of satire, because for the most part it is far from clear who the show is lampooning. Who exactly are the gay stereotypes targeting – people in the theatre? Camp people in general? Or is it that audiences still think homosexuals are pretty laughable? After all, laughing at them is a way of making them seem less threatening – it’s the same principle as making jokes about Nazis.

Though it isn’t clear to me exactly why the Nazi character is funny, either. It isn’t as if he’s given anything funny to do or say. Are we just meant to be tickled by the fact that he’s a German? (The Swedish secretary is certainly nothing more than a crude joke at the expense of foreigners: they have unpronounceable names and speak with funny accents, my word what a side-splitting observation.) Or do people genuinely still consider stereotypical Nazi characters to be the cutting edge of humour? Haven’t we moved on from 1945?
It would be different if, instead of a neo-Nazi with a Hitler musical, the character was a Middle-Eastern terrorist with a musical about 9/11. But that would be a show with considerably less mainstream appeal. Because in spite of its celebrated vulgarity, the middle-class masses are flocking to see The Producers and loving it – it’s as subversive as Last of the Summer Wine. Under the smokescreen of a naughty grin The Producers says it is okay for people to laugh their heads of at old ladies, Germans and other assorted foreigners, blondes and queers. And the sophisticated 21st century theatregoing crowds don’t need to be asked twice.

I suspect Mary Poppins is actually a far better social satire, for reasons already explained, and not for the first time in my life I find myself wishing that I was Marianne Levy.

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