I almost don’t want to run this transcript because it just can’t capture the hilarity of Roger Bart and Gary Beach in person. They riff, they do impressions, they gesture and make faces. It was a show unto itself.
You may know Roger Bart from Desperate Housewives, but both he and Gary Beach originated the roles of Roger DeBris (Beach) and Carmen Ghia (Bart) in the Broadway version of The Producers. Flamingly gay, the duo is who Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick turn to when they need the worst director in the world to make their newest show – Springtime for Hitler - flop. In fact it’s DeBris who decides that history is too sad for Broadway, and changes the ending to have Hitler win.
The Producers, a wonderful and funny film, opens in New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago and Toronto tomorrow. It goes wider on Christmas, which is a Sunday, so I don’t get that.
Q: Other people in other casts have done your roles in the theatrical version. Being the ones to get to put these characters on film, was that something you felt protective of?
Beach: We always feel protective of our roles no matter what the show. We were just happily lucky that they were protective of them too and wanted to recapture what we had 4 years ago on the stage on Broadway, whatever it was we do.
Bart: Historically often supporting roles and even often the lead roles in musicals were made famous by somebody on Broadway and then they were replaced [in the movie]. So we were just feeling happy and glad to be there. Most people that have taken over my role, what I do is I sneak into the back of the theatre and I have one of those little spit ball things and I shoot right up there. They don’t steal all my stuff, I shoot them.
Beach: I’ve never seen anyone else play Roger DeBris. We just feel so happy that they came to us. We read about it in Army Archerd’s column. That’s how we found out we were doing the movie.
Q: How did you guys decide how broad to go with these roles?
Bart: Gary and I had many conversations about that because obviously we played to 1700 seat houses so much. The very first scene we shot was a rather farcical scene known as the cop scene and it’s the only time where we run around screaming our heads off.
Beach: It’s the scene we talked about the most because it’s very broad. Will [Ferrell] comes with a gun shooting the cast, the whole thing.
Bart: We’re screaming.
Beach: We’re thinking, ‘Is this going to be over the top?’
Bart: What are we going to be small in that scene when some guy is going ‘I will kill you with a gun for doing that show and insulting the Fuehrer’?
Beach: The great thing about farce is that it is life and death at all times.
Bart: We came in totally prepared to do this independent film version. We wanted to do Bareback Mountain for a long time. Then sure enough we have no choice, we know we have to scream. We have to say lines like ‘Darling, quick back in the closet.’ And it’s really hard to tone that down.
Beach: It’s Mel Brooks’ world and that’s the world we’re living in at that point.
Bart: We were screwed at that point. Then later we had to go through the first scene and I literally had a mantra ‘Tone it down, tone it down’ and I think I went in and did one take and then Susan [Stroman] says ‘Bigger!’ But on Desperate Housewives I got this a lot [makes a smaller gesture with his thumb and forefinger].
Bart: They trusted it and they trust the style. Really we’re both convinced that after about 60 or 70 minutes of the movie you’re really going to adjust to it.
Q: Roger, will Desperate Housewives fans flock to see this change of performance from you?
Bart: Well, first of all that would imply that people love George so much that they would say ‘I can’t wait to see what he’s in next!’ That in and of itself is very wishful thinking at this point. It’s a question of whether they will run from the theatre when they first see
I hope so.
Q: You are such an accomplished stage actor. Why the decision to do television at this point?
Bart: Because basically I was just vamping in theatre until I got a TV show.
No, I’m kidding! In truth, we all want to be as diverse actors, to work in as many mediums as we can. I am excited to announce that I am going to be on a Carnival Cruise next. [Laughs] It’s just important to do lots of different things and I was really excited about the idea of doing something on television and movies. And being a bad guy was thrilling. I am looking forward to the next really gay creepy role.
Q: Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell are new to the cast. Have you spoken to the actors who played those roles in your original cast about it? And what was it like working with these new actors?
Beach: When we heard he was cast we said of course, I mean who better to play Franz Liebkin? He’s really from that Ken Mars mold too. He goes there, he’s a little mad, and trust me he fit right in to this crowd. He was wonderful. Uma I danced with a few times and she was so spot on, she’s great, she’s gorgeous, she looks like Ulla.
Bart: And what was cool about the movie, although it didn’t really make the editors cut: Uma and Carmen Ghia had a huge, huge fight with karate and a lot of blood and it somehow ended up on the floor. I don’t know why
Q: Have you talked to the actors who played them originally?
Bart: I have.
Beach: Yeah. You know, it’s disappointing. Hello? We would have been disappointed but Cady [Huffman] has gone on, she’s now got a regular role on One Life to Live and Brad Oscar is down in Washington D.C. playing the Devil in Damn Yankees so everybody moves on.
Brad is in the movie. You see him as a cab driver when Matthew is trying to get away from Nathan he runs and gets in a cab and says ‘Where to?’ That’s Brad Oscar.
Q: In putting the play on film did the filmmakers succeed in keeping it gay or did it have to be toned down for American audiences?
Bart: Versus the foreigners who showed up on Broadway.
Beach: Yeah, the French people love it.
Bart: We haven’t seen an American in a Broadway audience for a long time.
Beach: No, it really didn’t have to be toned down. It is what it is. It’s our world, you walk into the home of Carmen Ghia and Roger De Bris.
Bart: It’s like, we’re here, we’re queer, come on over! That’s really what it was like. When they had the GLAAD Awards, the first people they called were us and they wanted to do ‘Keep it Gay’ so I mean they loved it. Gary and I played an incredibly successful couple. We were happy – we fight in the middle of a scene and I come back a minute later with a smile on my face. I know I am the only man in his life. Except for the six guys upstairs.
Beach: And the Village People!
Bart: I think that people just thought we were joyous. That’s the most important thing. Two things, we were joyous because we were in a loving relationship and we were joyous because we do what we want to do, which is get dressed for the Choreographer’s Ball.
Beach: And put on shows. I always say if you have done two musicals you know Roger De Bris and Carmen Ghia.
Bart: I don’t know if anybody would ever come across Carmen Ghia.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about being part of a new movie musical tradition?
Beach: I think that the last 25 years is the aberration, before that movie musicals were a huge staple of movies. I mean if you look at the Best this, Best that, over the years prior to the 70s, musicals were what everybody went to the theatre for on the weekend because it was escapist. Then I think we got into the mood for having realism. Well folks it’s really hard to be real and then sing, it looks silly. That’s why in our world when someone says ‘You know what?’ you are going to hear a song right away. That’s just what it is and I think Mel has written that show and we are performing that show and that’s why if the movie is successful it’s because we brought that from another era. Susan Stroman has definitely brought it from another era. She’s filmed this thing, it looks like something that someone found in an archive maybe that has been lost for 25 years, it has that feeling about it.
Q: I wanted to talk about Susan’s directing style on the movie as opposed to on Broadway. Was it markedly different?
Bart: The cool thing about our show and having an enormous amount of experience with it is like a great hypnotist, you could pretty much snap your fingers and I’ll be Carmen Ghia for you, and same with Gary. So stopping and starting and things like that, we just know these guys so well.
Beach: That was a luxury for all of us to be so familiar with the material and you have a compressed amount of time to do it. One day we were doing the ‘Gay’ scene. We were filming up here in a beautiful mansion up here on 5th avenue and ‘Ok, action’ and we take off. I’m going, ‘Two, three, kick, turn,’ the scene happens and ‘Cut!’ It felt successful and Nathan [Lane] said ‘Did anybody notice Matthew [Broderick] is not here?’ We had done the whole scene and we didn’t care. That’s how we just turn it on and off like that, it was fun.
Q: Roger, so are you completely dead on Desperate Housewives?
Bart: Yeah, I am. Where were you when I was being bad? Everyone was like ‘Get him off the show!’ I’m dead; it’s all over. It was fun. Can you imagine? How about throwing the therapist off the bridge? Fantastic, it was great. My daughter’s friends were scared to meet me.
Obviously it’s a huge chick magnet, that part. It really is, people can’t wait to date me. Last year, it took 2 or 3 dates to convince somebody I wasn’t a homosexual and now it takes them 2 or 3 to convince them I won’t poison them or give them a roofie. You can imagine my dating is just great.
Q: How big a kick is it to finally get to see your work in this show?
Beach: I thought the top of my head was going to blow off while I was watching the movie the first time, actually. There’s excitement, your adrenaline is going, and you are going, ‘Everybody else is great.’ You watch everything you do, and now I’m looking forward to seeing it a second time with my friends.
Bart: Matthew said it best about 2 months ago to me. ‘I don’t know if I ever wanted to see me do this.’ So it is a little strange that way. But Gary is right, sometime around 2009 when I am lying in bed and it’s on cable and it happens to flip to it I will probably enjoy it a little bit more. It’s still strange seeing myself.
Q: Why do you think it is this property that has gone over so big?
Beach: I have no idea but I do have a guess. I think people were ready for Mel Brooks again. He hadn’t disappeared but – I had been living in Los Angeles, and I came back to do this and I was getting a satellite dish hooked up. This guy is in my living room on his hands and knees and said ‘What brought you from California to New York?’ and I said ‘I’m doing a new show.’ He says ‘What?’ ‘Oh, it’s a new show, The Producers’ and he says ‘I’ve got my tickets already.’ I was like really?
It appealed to absolutely everyone, the idea of this show. There is such a fondness for Mel throughout this country and I think the chance to revisit that and have this kind of humor? When was the last time you were in a movie theatre and heard people really laughing?
Bart: Nothing against [Stephen] Sondheim too, because I like him and I like doing his music, but Mel Brooks did not have to put an article in the New York Times explaining the show. Do you know what I mean? It was just nice to come to the show and have something that was just there. It’s smart, but it’s not so complicated. It’s just nice to do a show that’s character driven and has a great story and has fun jokes.
Beach: It’s one of those shows where the more you know the funnier it is but you don’t have to be brilliant to see it. For instance in the live theatre when I sit down on the edge of the stage to get comfortable there are nights say ‘He must be tired.’ They don’t know where I’m going with it and then there are nights that the audience goes ‘Oh my God.’ It’s a fun thing. In the movie it’s going to be interesting to see how that happens.
Bart: I can’t wait to sit in the audience in Peoria and watch (I never will).
Every once in awhile the second performance I would make on stage when the show was about 2 years into the run I’d hear people in the front row go ‘Oh, Jesus.’ As soon as the light would come up on me the second time they were like ‘Oh God, him again.’
Q: Did they ever stare at you with their mouths half open?
Bart: Oh God, yes, totally and we’d say great we’re all for it.
Beach: We always used to say we’d start off by scaring them a little in the first scene. ‘Where are they going with this? We hope there is no audience participation.’ And by the end of the show they want to go out to dinner with us.
Bart: They want to get in a conga line. They do.
Q: Stage is a different medium. You have to know how to work space, silence, how to bring something that is not always choreographed or directed. Can you talk about the transition that this project makes from stage to film.?
Bart: We’ve heard that question 60 times and that was the most articulate so far. I enjoyed that. I don’t know how to answer it yet.
Beach: The answer is almost in your question actually. There is an obvious difference but the one thing I think I loved, taking it to the film, was the reality of the sets. We were no longer dancing around on a proscenium stage with this drop behind us, we were in a room with four walls and it did something to your performance. You can’t make it small, we are living in the world of Mel Brooks here.
Bart: We never felt like making an independent film. Really, I was joking about that before.
I just never forget Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles with his eyes crossed looking at a pair of 38F breasts and going ‘Hello Boys!’ you know? That’s the guy who wrote this show.
Beach: And Mel, very early in rehearsal he came in with a statement that I think says it all ‘Don’t tap the bell, ring the bell.’
Bart: Go up and ring it, so we certainly did. Probably a little loud.