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  • The Producers just entered its fourth year. This musical juggernaut, with music and lyrics by Mel Brooks and choreography and direction by Susan Stroman, starred the redoubtable Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. It received 15 Tony Award nominations, winning 12 -- more than any other musical in theater history. [Ironically, in two categories three actors lost to their co-stars.]

    All that is the past. The show has moved on with two new leads, long-time
    members of the company.

    Brad Oscar was a Tony nominee in the Featured category, at that time playing off-kelter pigeon-loving, Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind [you know, the nut who wrote Springtime for Hitler]. Now with his name in lights, he's playing one of theater's most coveted roles -- producer unextraordinaire Max Bialystock, one of the most degenerate, but charming shlemiels of all time. "I'm having the best time and what's really nice is that I own Max."

    His is a fascinating journey, going from struggling actor to ensemble work,
    to Off Broadway to starring on Broadway.

    Oscar grew up in Washington, D.C., where he worked in local theater and appeared on TV. He came to New York in the late 80s. In 1990 he made his Broadway debut as one of the swings in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love, and later did the tour. From 1992 through 1994, he played "many roles" Off Broadway and Los Angeles in editions of Forbidden Broadway.

    Just before being cast in The Producers, he jokes, "I was killed over 1,500 times on the road, on Broadway and by the critics in Jekyll & Hyde. It was glorified ensemble work [he played four roles], but since I was there from the beginning [1997] the company was generous in giving me leaves of absence to do other projects. Usually, if you leave a show for another job, you're gone."

    That other job was usually playing Santa Claus in tour editions of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. "Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous," he laughs, "but it was fun and a change and paid well. I grew up loving that sort of thing. What I loved most was that there were vestiges of Broadway musical comedy."

    He was playing Santa amidst those leggy Rockettes in the mid-West country music entertainment capital of Branson, MO, when he got word that J&H was closing. "I wasn't too depressed," he says. "I took it as a sign I'd have to move on and find other work." Then the phone rang. It was his agent asking if he'd come to New York on his day off to audition for Stroman and The Producers.

    With three weeks to go before the start of rehearsals, she didn't have a stand-by for Lane and Franz. "So," recalls Oscar, "they faxed me the sides. I got a plane Sunday and read and sang for Max and Franz Monday morning. I left New York the next day. While I was changing planes in St. Louis, my cell phone rang. It was my agent. I'll never forget hearing the sweetest words every actor yearns
    to hear: 'You got the job!' Radio City was very generous in letting me out of my contract three weeks early. And boom!"

    It was boom, alright -- actually, boom boom! "The first day we did a read-through and heard the songs. I thought, 'This is really funny!' As more and more was pieced together, I knew it was going to be something special."

    However, when rehearsals began, Oscar got more than he bargained for: he was covering six actors. "I was so grateful to be a part of this project," he says, "that I didn't mind working my ass off."

    Nothing could have prepared him for what happened in Chicago when, four days before the start of previews, the actor playing Franz was down with a knee injury and Stroman came to him in a frenzy and said that he was going out there an understudy but coming back a Nazi playwright.

    The first performance was an invited dress and Oscar won't soon forget it. "There we were in this 3,000-seat theatre and the sound of that many people roaring in laughter -- the sound of their applause -- for almost three hours was overwhelming. Their reaction, their warmth, was unbelievable. I never experienced anything like that. That's when it really dawned on me what we were in for, what was coming, full speed ahead."

    Finally, Oscar had the opportunity to create a "real role." "Since this was my first time to make my mark, I was and will forever be grateful to Nathan, Matthew, Roger and Gary Beach for their generosity. Because of their faith and support, I was able to really go for it in a fearless way."

    He has nothing but high praise for the "comic genius" of Brooks. "In spite of all the tomfoolery, Mel's a very smart man with great strengths. We benefited time and again from his instincts for comic timing and comic bits."

    As for working with Stroman, he sums it up with one word, "incredible!" He also pays tribute to co-book writer Meehan, who he says, "knows structure better than anyone in the business."

    Since he had been the Max understudy, it came as no surprise in April, 2002, when Lane's first replacement, acclaimed English actor Henry Goodman, left the show and he stepped up to the plate with Steven Weber playing Leo. Almost everyone felt the part was his and that the honor was long overdue.

    That December, however, Oscar left the Broadway company, but before long he got another call and was hired to originate Max in the Second National Tour, which premiered in Boston [where he graduated from Boston College], running for three months. Among the subsequent stops with Oscar were Milwaukee and Chicago. In general, he claims, audience response was the same as on Broadway.

    "By the finale, most audiences were standing and cheering and loving it," notes Oscar. "But there were certain lines that didn't get the laughs they got here. The humor is New York Jewish, but with the Mel Brooks treatment -- and Mel Brooks' films play pretty well all over. His brand of humor is well known. That said, depending on where we were, certain lines landed and others didn't."

    There were no problems landing anything in Boston. "When we opened at the Colonial, it was opening night all over again," he says. "And this time, it was mine. That really pumped me up."

    What was fantastic, he says, is finally getting to do what was impossible when he understudied Max and inherited the role from Henry: be in rehearsal with a new company and really re-explore Max from the bottom up. "I started from scratch and was able to develop new schtick," says Oscar. During this process, while respecting everything from the show's initial phases, he put his own stamp on Max.

    Next, he took a much-deserved break "to clear my head and body, physically and vocally." Coming back to the role, Oscar feels "a lot of the ghosts are gone. I can take chances and be bold without worrying that I'm in someone else's shadow. Everything has settled in."

    Oscar says that Bart [a 1999 Tony winner for You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown], who originally played Carmen Ghia and now essays the role of accountant Leo Bloom, feels the same.

    "We're different," explains Oscar. "Everyone playing these roles is going to be different. My onstage relationship with Roger is different from Nathan's with Matthew. Time's gone by. I don't feel I have to deliver what was. That's the nature of theater. It's happens tonight and it's done; then it happens twice on matinee days and again the next night."

    With a book by Meehan [1977 Tony winner, Annie; 2003 Tony, Hairspray] and Brooks and based on Brooks' Academy Award-winning 1968 film of the same name, The Producersis the story of a down-on-his-luck theatrical producer and his mousy accountant who hatch the ultimate scam: raise more money than you need for a sure-fire Broadway flop and pocket the difference to live in paradise. But their sure-fire fiasco becomes a SRO hit, landing them in deep, deep -- shall we say -- trouble.

    The greatest gift, says Oscar, "is Mel Brooks' incredible material as our base to work from. You don't have to 'work' to make it work. Our job is to go out and tell the story. That's what you hold on to. The story's the same, just with a different beat. Roger and I feel lucky to be working with a company that's been so supportive and generous about trusting us and allowing us to make the roles our own."

    The cast is a close-knit company, "just like a family," he says. "Every member has an ability above and beyond what they're called on to do. What's particularly nice is the show allows everyone to have a moment that's uniquely theirs. And we have a good time. We break ourselves up onstage and off. Roger and Gary are so good, I have to really watch it and control myself or I'll lose it."

    Sometimes they actually try to break each other up, "but," laughs Oscar, "that's the nature of a long-running show. You want to keep it fresh, you want to keep it alive. Keep it gay! We have the type of material you can play with and go different places with every performance."

    Oscar has played Max 800 times and counting, becoming the longest-running actor in the role. "There's never been anything like this. It's the role you wait your whole career for, what every actor dreams of. I don't know if I'll ever be able to top it."


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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