Exactly what it was about the character of Max Bialystock that attracted me I'm not sure. There are evident links of experience in common: we've both spent our lives in the theatre, we've had more than our share of ups and downs there, and in the end we are determined survivors.
I certainly liked the script in terms of its humour, its strong connection with vaudeville and burlesque, but there's what I see as an Australian larrikin streak running through the piece as well; maybe that was the appeal. For whatever reason I convinced myself I could do the part justice: it's right up my street, I thought. Mind you a lot of other people thought so too. Current theatrical offerings don't often contain a significant role for a veteran such as me, so advance notification of the new Mel Brooks musical The Producers immediately caught my attention.
In early 2002 I put my hand up, asking the Australian producer John Frost to consider me for the role played in the 1968 film by Zero Mostel and by some major American stage performers in the more recent stage musical comedy version, notably Nathan Lane. Frost was more than happy to include my name on his list of wannabes but signposted that the original American creative team would be coming to Australia to oversee the production and I would have to audition. I hadn't been down that road since the do-or-die moment in 1969 when I'd determined, by hook or by crook, to earn a place in the musical Hair, but if you want to win the prize there is plainly no alternative. Would the Yanks consider me too old, too grey, too fat, not fit, not right?
Tom Burlinson up for the co-starring part of Leo Bloom and I were summoned to Los Angeles for a face to face hearing with the mighty Mel Brooks and the show's award winning director/choreographer, Susan Stroman; also present, a dozen other important Broadway production bigwigs – a crowd scene of 'heavies' in an overheated dance studio in West Hollywood, just perfect for sweating out of hand and nervously shitting yourself. Brooks chatted to me a little that afternoon and suggested that I'd probably never manage to portray a credible Jewish Broadway producer but I shouldn't bother trying; he did say, "I'd rather the audience said that's Reg up there, and we love him". When he shook my hand and said, "I know you haven't auditioned for forty one years, congratulations you've got the part", I didn't know how to react; back at the old time Hollywood hotel where Tom and I had been staying I let out a sigh of relief forceful enough to have extinguished the candles on a birthday cake a mile away.
During the months prior to the start of rehearsals in Melbourne in early 2004 I had plenty of time to think about the role and my approach to it, finally deciding to use Zero Mostel's performance as the point of reference, and I worked extensively on the vocal score with our Australian musical director, Peter Casey; come the day of the first rehearsal, I wanted to be well prepared, and entirely thanks to him was so. What I wasn't ready for was the kind of rehearsal process the Americans had in store for us, a blueprint as fixed as the points on a compass; it was evident from day one that the laid back Australian work ethic was out of place. Listening to the tales of others who'd been in previous reproductions of Broadway musicals in this country revealed they'd been through exactly the same process; no one really likes it, but it's the 'norm' nowadays; it's direction by numbers, indeed there are numbers actually stuck down on the floor to ensure you don't stray from your set positions. You're told what to do, though not often why. Lines, gestures, steps, everything is tightly choreographed, which should come as no surprise when the director is in fact a choreographer. It is only that at the outset we were also told, "in time you will make it your own"; the daily routine and instructions were so unyielding you had to wonder if this announcement was intended as a promise or a dare, it was certainly difficult to imagine it actually happening.
Susan Stroman was in attendance for the first week only, leaving the production in the hands of three people generally referred to thereafter as the 'creatives' – "the best in New York", she told us: Steven Zweigbaum, Associate Director, Warren Carlyle, Associate Choreographer, and the Broadway Musical Supervisor, Patrick Brady.
When we moved to the Princess Theatre for the technical rehearsals and after we'd come together with the orchestra for the first time, it was possible to see the piece taking shape at last and to experience a rising sense of excitement. Everything looked and felt superb. Confronted for the first time by the amazing production components I felt very much as if I wanted to throw up. I now had an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility, dearly wanting to justify the trust and faith so many had vested in me.
But during the process I'd been toeing the line, to the letter, offering little if anything of my inventive self; much of what we were doing in the production was the by-product of the original American rehearsals anyway, the direct input of stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, duly written into the script and set in concrete. I couldn't see how I might improve upon it nor was I requested, and the number of notes I was regularly receiving from the 'creatives' left me weary and confused. These notes were delivered on small filing box cards; by the end I had collected enough of them to wallpaper my dressing room. I suppose my general unhappiness quite simply stemmed from a bruised ego, the fear that I had somehow been fooled into surrendering my identity, a state of mind not helped by the Australian executives who'd hired me and were impatient for the 'Reg factor' to click in. I daresay some of the cast found it easier than others, may even have enjoyed their brush with Broadway, but the eight weeks training I endured left me feeling intermittently bruised, irrelevant, patronised and occasionally unworthy.
Mel Brooks arrived in Melbourne four days before the Saturday April 17 Gala Opening. He slipped into the theatre the same night unannounced, and saw his wonderful show performed by a line-up of remarkably energetic first-rate Australian performers: among the Principals was Chloe Dallimore, Tony Sheldon, Bert Newton and Grant Piro. Brooks was certainly impressed, and most complimentary to me personally; over the next couple of days he and I enjoyed one-on-one conversations out of which I extricated the most useful suggestions and advice I might have wished for, indeed had been waiting for. He'd picked up on my uneasiness, knew exactly what was bugging me about the rehearsal process, and with a few well-chosen words set me free. "You're too straight", he announced slyly. Then he spoke about the audience. "They love you, they love you; you're probably the Mel Brooks of Australia". He said I was Max, I was the character, "it's in your mien", he told me; "You could do this on Broadway". Thereafter I received no more notes from his minions and by the opening night the canary was out of its cage, already experimenting with the limitless possibilities the character of Max encourages. 'He brings to it all the lightning timing and the brooding introspective melancholy of a great musical comedy actor … a starry and magnetic talent' is what Peter Craven, the critic for The Financial Review wrote of me later. I quote him here to make the point that even though we are often involved in reflecting the lightness of being, actors really do like to be taken seriously.
The opening night was a stunning occasion. It paid off in every way imaginable, and certainly reaped the rewards an audience bestows when it's presented with something so well crafted, so expertly prepared, so funny and so entertaining. The Americans had done the job well; even the trials and tribulations I experienced were quickly forgotten. It was incredibly fortunate for me that this opportunity came along when it did, the timing was perfect, exactly right; we were ready for one another.
I am probably the oldest Max Bialystock in the world, by the way.
Photos: By Jeff Busby
Photo: Reg Livermore as Max Bialystock