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Mel Brooks: the King of Musical Comedy

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With audiences weeping with laughter and critics hailing him as the musical theater’s brightest new talent—at 75—Mel Brooks can’t help crowing about The Producers, one of the biggest Broadway smashes in history. “I’m on the top of my game again,” says the comic-writer-director-now-theatrical-wonder. “I’m the real Mel Brooks once more.” You remember Mel: the no-joke-is-too-low madcap madman behind such ’70s comedy classics as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. But in the ’90s he slowly sank into gloom, like a wrinkled party balloon heading for the dirty confetti below. His movies bombed. Friends (notably Catch-22 novelist Joseph Heller, who died in 1999) began succumbing to old age and infirmity. “He was not funny,” says his wife of 37 years, actress Anne Bancroft, 70. “So full of angst.” Then, on April 19, 2001, the curtain rose on The Producers, a musical based on Brooks’s 1968 cult hit about two swindlers who try to stage a deliberate flop about all-singing, all-dancing Hitler and friends. Overnight it was springtime for Brooks, who was nudged toward the project by Bancroft (“my Obi-Wan Kenobi,” he calls her) and megaproducer David Geffen. The politically incorrect joke juggernaut, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, is already Broadway’s top grosser ever (sold out through spring 2002) and its most awarded. Two of its 12 Tonys went to Brooks, who wrote the music and lyrics. “It’s the most miraculous thing,” says comedian Carl Reiner of his friend’s triumph. Freed of high anxiety, Brooks no longer even dreads meeting the Great Ziegfeld in the sky. “If I die, I die. But I’ve wised up. I’m making young friends. The hell with it! Let them lose me.”