Courtesy of ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
Roger Bart doesn’t have a Facebook account. Not now, anyway. Too much uncontrolled access for people who were — and would remain — total strangers to him.
“They think they know me,” he said. “It just gets weird.”
But last year, when he still had an account, Facebook came in very handy. He was on tour in “Young Frankenstein” in Toronto when he heard one company member, Jennifer Lee Crowl, mention that she’d be in Kansas City this summer to do “The Producers.”
“I went online, I looked it up, and I had worked here before and thought it was fun, and I thought: Kansas City in late August, what better place to be?” Bart was deadpanning.
But he did send Denton Yockey, Starlight’s president and executive producer, a message via Facebook. He had already talked to his colleague and frequent acting partner, Brad Oscar, about the possibility of doing “The Producers” in Kansas City, and Yockey thought the chance to get both of them was too good to pass up.
“So we were cast via Facebook, and it’s the first and probably last time that’ll happen,” Bart said. “The only benefit I found to Facebook, besides Denton Yockey, (was) that I remembered birthdays a little better. That was it. Other than that, I have no use for Facebook. If you want to get in touch with me, you’ll find me.”
Kansas City audiences saw Bart and Oscar in February, when “Young Frankenstein,” another Mel Brooks musical hit, played the Music Hall. Bart had the title role, and Oscar was double cast as the Germanic Inspector Kemp and, in a particularly memorable bit, the blind Hermit.
But Bart and Oscar have been sharing stages off and on for 10 years, since they were cast in the original Broadway company of “The Producers,” Brooks’ phenomenally successful stage musical. It’s based, of course, on Brooks’ 1968 movie about a couple of scam artists intentionally trying to produce the worst musical in history.
Oscar was initially cast as Franz Liebkind, the crazed German expatriate who writes a musical glorifying Hitler, and received a Tony nomination for his efforts. Bart played Carmen Ghia, the absurdly effeminate assistant to cross-dressing director Roger De Bris.
But both actors understudied the title characters — small-time producer Max Bialystock and accountant Leo Bloom — and eventually inherited the roles after the original stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, left the show.
So now they’re together again, for one week in Kansas City, with Oscar playing Max opposite Bart’s Leo.
“It’ll be 10 years in December when we started rehearsals,” Oscar said during a recent lunch break at Starlight.
“We met on our first day — and what a day,” Bart said.
Since then each man’s stage career has been devoted largely to Mel Brooks material.
“Thank God it hasn’t been pure Mel Brooks,” Bart said. “But his stuff in the theater has been very fun. I enjoy doing comedy and funny musicals. I’m not necessarily a great singer, so I’ll never be knocking out a tune that has people clapping for 10 minutes afterward … but Mel is such a brilliant comic writer that it’s wonderful to have his words.”
Oscar said the material echoes with comic traditions going back to “Your Show of Shows,” the early-1950s live comedy show that Brooks wrote for, as well as vaudeville and burlesque.
“Mel’s stuff plays so well on stage, I think, because it’s so rooted in that,” Oscar said.
Bart conceded that the humor in a Brooks show — at once absurd, vulgar and witty — isn’t to everyone’s liking.
“A lot of people understand it as a nostalgic brand of comedy, and they look back and go, ‘I love this kind of stuff; it still makes me laugh,’ ” Bart said. “And then there’s another group of people who were not necessarily appreciaters of it in its (original) form, way back when, who see it as antiquated and old, just kind of silly. But I kind of recognize it as nostalgic and brilliant.”
“It’s so universal,” Oscar added. “I don’t think this kind of comedy ever goes out of style. There’s something pure and simple about Mel’s humor.”
There were sections of “Young Frankenstein” that allowed a certain amount of ad-libbing. Not so with “The Producers.”
“It’s not an ad-libby show,” Bart said. “There’s no need to tweak it or amp it up. It’s just really, really well-written. We bask in its pure form, you know.”
Oscar put it this way: “It’s such a joy as an actor to go on stage and know that you don’t have to work to make this material work. We don’t have to work to make it work. It works. So play it, live it, feel it, breathe it, enjoy it.”
Bart and Oscar closed their leg of the “Young Frankenstein” tour on Aug. 1 in Los Angeles. After “The Producers” they both go home to New York for the first time in what seems like a very long time. They see the Starlight show as a fitting way to end an era they’ve shared.
“It is, by the way, the perfect bookend to our decade with Mel Brooks,” Bart said.
“The cherry on the sundae,” Oscar agreed.
At the time of this interview, Oscar was awaiting a final decision on how to handle Max’s first line in the show, which includes a particularly well-placed expletive. Yockey was considering substituting a Yiddish word that means the same thing but might go down with the audience a bit easier than the Anglo-Saxon F-word.
“They have a great disclaimer on the website here that says this is what it is and it’s not suitable for children, and part of me feels that should be enough,” Oscar said. “I’m shocked in a way that it’s even an issue in the day and age we live in. It doesn’t even have to be cable anymore to hear language. So much of the onus has been taken off these words in a way. But I do understand.”
Both men agreed they would have been reluctant to take the Starlight job without the other.
“If I had to do this and it weren’t Brad, it would be very difficult,” Bart said. “These are big parts and the rhythms of the show — we know them so well, and they’re so essential to the playing of the show. The idea of coming here to do this with Brad was what was fun, because we always had a great time on stage together.”
Both actors have performed for the camera. Bart had a recurring role on “Desperate Housewives” for several seasons, he has made a couple of horror films (including “Hostel II”), and he’ll be the heavy in the season premiere episode of “CSI: Miami.” But he said the difference between stage acting and film acting was so great that there was virtually no comparison.
“There’s an amazing visceral part of performing on stage, the connection you have with your audience and the feeling you have in your body of commanding the room,” he said. “If you get to do it 50 or 100 or 200 times, you can really master your role. The other medium, in film, is trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
“What’s exciting about it is that you try to really do it and really be in it and really kill it that first 20 times you do it over and over again, and hopefully they capture it and you never do it again. It’s disposable and done. And there is no audience except for the people behind the camera and the director, who become your audience, but it’s not quite as gratifying as when you’re commanding an audience of, in our case, 7,800 people.”
Lunch was done and the interview over. Bart and Oscar had a few minutes before rehearsals resumed, and they made their way down a corridor toward an exit door. They were going to step out onto the huge Starlight stage to see what it felt like.
Said Oscar: “We want to see how broad we have to be.”
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This show is not suitable for children or patrons who are offended by sexual references and other Mel Brooks' comic vulgarities.