'Stro' is once again at center stage

Susan Stroman - the director-choreographer of the "The Producers," opening on Broadway next week - tells a story nearly as funny as the gags that roll across the footlights each night as the musical previews at the St. James Theatre.

When she and Mel Brooks finished the first version of the script and score a year ago, they hired 10 actors for a read-aloud workshop and sent invitations to 75 producers working in New York. Nathan Lane, their first choice, read the role created by actor Zero Mostel in Brooks's 1968 Academy Award-winning film of the same name.

"When Nathan read aloud one of his lines, 'I'm a lying, despicable crook, but I have no choice. I am a Broadway producer,' they all howled. And then they started to throw money at the project. They all wanted to produce the show," Ms. Stroman recalls, speaking by telephone from New York.

On its preview tour to Chicago this winter, the live musical version of "The Producers" won rave reviews from the critics and sold out every night. The New York previews, running since late March, have had the same effect at the box office.

It's not surprising that a producer would want to join Stroman: Her winning streak includes the 1999 monster Broadway hit "Contact," now in rehearsals for a national tour, and the revival of "The Music Man," still going strong on Broadway. She's collected a heap of prizes for her directing and choreography, including Tony Awards for "Crazy For You," "Showboat," and "Contact."

"The Producers" is based on the now-classic film about a Broadway producer, Max Bialystock, and his accountant sidekick, Leo Bloom, who set out to stage the worst script they could find as a scam. If the show closes on opening night, Bloom has figured that they can make money because they will have raised more money than they need. The show they come up with is "Springtime for Hitler," a title guaranteed to offend everyone - or so they think.

Stroman and her husband, the director Mike Ockrent, had never met Brooks, but they knew his considerable reputation as one of America's funniest writers, actors, and directors of films. They didn't know he was also a composer and had written a score for the musical.

"Mel Brooks called me and my husband and said he wanted to come over and meet us," Stroman says. "I opened the door, and he stood there and started to sing 'That Face,' one of the songs he had already written. He danced down our long New York apartment hallway and landed on top of the sofa, saying, 'I'm Mel Brooks.' " Unfortunately, Ockrent died while they were working on the script, but Brooks asked Stroman to continue the collaboration.

The production went into rehearsal last summer. "Every person had to sing, dance, and tell a joke. They had to be funny the minute they walked into the room," Stroman says. Lane remained in the role of Bialystock, with Matthew Broderick cast as Bloom.

During previews, "Stro," as Stroman is universally called in the industry, would give notes to the actors every night at 7:30 p.m., then "watch from every seat in the house, including the highest row of the balcony," she says. "I'm not just looking at the acting and the dancing, but the set as well. We have to be sure that the audience has an unobstructed view."

Stroman's nights are spent with "The Producers," her days with other projects. Earlier this month, she was still working on "The Producers" "to tweak" the details, while rehearsing the national company of "Contact" in the morning and holding auditions for "The Music Man" that afternoon. She's also thinking about her next show, a musical by Harry Connick Jr. called "Thou Shalt Not," based on the novel "Therese Raquin," by Emile Zola. "Thou Shalt Not" goes into rehearsal in August for an October opening at New York's Lincoln Center.

Will she take vacation before then? "Not right now. It's OK. I'm happier in the studio," Stroman says.

'The Producers' opens on Broadway April 19. 'Contact' plays at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco from May 15 to June 24, and then begins a national tour.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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