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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The Music of Mel Brooks

By Norman Lebrecht / February 4, 2004

Mel Brooks is not a bundle of laughs. He has spent the morning selling The Producers to a roomful of coach operators, and he’s hurting for the BBC. ‘You know what’s disturbing me?’ he frets. ‘Your government wanting its pound of flesh. The BBC made a mistake, and they apologised. So how many people should they lose? How many valuable people who are good at their jobs and serve the public? They want to fire everybody? The BBC is an amazing institution.’

His pain is partly personal. His son, Max, worked as a production assistant on Michael Palin’s African rail pilgrimage and Alan Yentob, the BBC’s creative director, has been a friend for 25 years, after making ‘the best programme ever about me’. But politics weigh heavily on his mind and it doesn’t take much to set him off on a patter which, like all else with Brooks, goes straight from his heart to our funny-bone.

‘Let’s look at the big picture,’ he proposes. ‘Was America right to go to war? Did we ever find weapons of mass destruction? Did you find them? Did you find something that we don’t know about? No, so it’s a matter of methodology, of how it’s reported. You get crucified for style. They didn’t crucify Clinton for bopping that girl (or whatever), they crucified him for lying. They can’t get you for the real thing, but for lying about it you can go to jail for ever. Somebody lied, the Government looked bad and got nasty and we can lose the entire BBC.’

At 77, he has been doing a routine since the day he first shaved, playing drums in Buddy Rich’s band at 14 and writing gags in Catskills hotels. ‘I had this beautiful girlfriend,’ he tells bus-owners from Bournemouth and Blackburn. ‘Beautiful – but thin. I took her to a restaurant. The maitre d’ says: check your umbrella, sir?’

The Producers, which has been Broadway’s hottest ticket for five years, opens in the West End in October. Brooks says he thinks he knows someone who can get me a seat. 'Wasn’t there someone at the press conference from the Evening Standard,' he ponders. ‘Yes there was: Lyche? Litch? Luke Leitch, that’s it.’ How does he register one name in a room of 150 people? ‘Waiting tables in the Catskills,’ he grins. ‘You’d say: Mr Shmulevits, another heel of pumpernickel? He thinks: hey, he remembers my name. You get a nice tip.’

It’s always personal with Mel Brooks. The comedy comes from close acquaintance with human frailty. The youngest of four boys, his father died when he was two and his mother raised the family sewing sashes for swimsuit straps and sequins onto frocks. ‘One night I woke up, I was four years old and on the table was a mountain of diamonds. I said, Ma, we’re rich!. She said, no, they’re rhinestones. She worked tirelessly. She wanted to take me to the Harren High school of aviation trades when I was 12. My eldest brother Irving said: no, the boy’s too smart. This one we send to college.’

The army made him an electrical engineer and sent him to clear landmines after the Battle of the Bulge. ‘I had two-three months of war, shooting, ducking, very dangerous, then it was over. We were an army of occupation. I hung around Germany, it was great. Tall blondes. The beginning of my quest for Ulla, in The Producers.’

Did he fraternise?

‘Did I fraternise? I fraternised the shit out of those girls. There was Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, if there was a Baden I would go there.’ Brooks would become the first artist since Chaplin to see the funny side of Adolf Hitler – ‘the only Jew to make a buck off him.’ The Producers (shown as Fruehling fuer Hitler in German cinemas) was an exercise in execrable taste – two Broadway hustlers putting on a surefire flop that turned into cult success. This movie about a musical was made back into a musical when the music mogul David Geffen took it to the songwriter Jerry Herman, who told him Brooks would do a better job. Brooks had written three songs for the movie; he now added 14 for the stage, every one of them a winner. Herman had uncovered one of the darkest secrets of The Producers: the musical ambition of Mel Brooks.

He knows his music, does Mr Brooks. ‘My uncle Joe had a taxi cab,’ he relates. ‘If it came down the street without a driver, this big taxi, that was Joe: he was about four feet eleven, you didn’t see him above the dashboard. Joe knew all the concierges and doormen, the guys who got tickets to shows. He was a sweetheart of a little Jew. Late at night, in the snow, he would give them a lift back to Brooklyn, c’mon Marty, jump in, I’ll drop ya off. I was about nine, it’s 1934, and he says, I got two tickets, third balcony, for previews of this new show, Anything Goes. I said what’s it about? He said: it’s Cole Porter, it’s Ethel Merman. We go up to the balcony and I hear one tune after another … In olden days … You’re the tops … All through the night… I began weeping, just couldn’t contain myself. I said when I get big, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna write for the theatre. The real world stinks. This is the world I want to live in, the world of imagination.’

Brooks writes the lyric and melody, leaving harmony and orchestration to others. He is too much a Broadway guy to be deemed an original composer, but he has an unerring ear for speech rhythms that translate into melody, a gift shared with the likes of Schubert, Janacek and Noel Coward. ‘I work hard getting the first ten or 12 notes,’ he explains. ‘I start with an idea, what the song’s about. I was a drummer so I am very careful about the beats in between, the stresses and syncopation: we can do it, we can do it, we can do it, you and I…’ The Savoy tearoom falls silent to his song.

He also has taste, which in America passes for class. He respects Stephen Sondheim – ‘he’s doing a wonderful job, Sweeney Todd is a masterpiece’ – and, schlepped to the opera by his formidable wife, Anne Bancroft, he is delighted to discover that Puccini was no great shakes at harmony. Mel Brooks with The Producers reclaimed the soul of Broadway after two decades of subjugation to Lloyd Webber and Les Miz. For this alone he has earned a niche in music history.

His other achievement was to restore the wit and sparkle that made the Great White Way so effective a serpent of social and political subversion. ‘Comedy is like a rapier,’ he reflects. ‘If you wield it properly, you can do a lot of damage.’ He struggles to find the funny side of Bush and Blair, but he’s working on it. If I were Tony Blair, I would be very worried having Mel Brooks on my doorstep come October.

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