YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN * Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan * Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks * Directed and choregraphed by Susan Stroman * Starring Roger Bart, Megan Mullally, Andrea Martin, Sutton Foster, and Shuler Hensley * Hilton Theatre, New York City.

Given the gigantic success of Mel Brooks’s Broadway version of The Producers, it seems inevitable that a musical version of Young Frankenstein would be next in line. The 1974 film, a gorgeously stylized black-and-white parody/tribute to old sci-fi mad-scientist monster movies, is if anything more beloved than The Producers, “Springtime for Hitler” notwithstanding. Whether you saw it when it came out or discovered it on video, you probably have a handful of favorite images and/or hilarious lines that you have replayed innumerable times in your head and among other fans: Gene Wilder’s Frederick insisting that his last name is pronounced “Fronk-en-STEEN,” Teri Garr’s Inge demonstrating her desire to “rrroll, rrroll, rrroll in de hay,” Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher offering the doctor an array of bedtime beverages, Peter Boyle’s monster with a zipper in his neck, Madeline Kahn’s Elizabeth returning from being ravaged by the monster with a lightning-bolt streak in her frizzed-up hair. There’s nothing particularly gay about the movie, but Kahn is so extravagantly campy that she’s an icon for gay guys too young to get Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.

Mel Brooks and director Susan Stroman count on audiences bringing a stockpile of beloved memories into the theater with them, and they have gambled heavily on the assumption that people want to re-experience exactly what they saw in the movie. Young Frankenstein, the musical, scrupulously reproduces the strongly drawn characters, funny situations, and zingy lines of the screen version. That makes for an enjoyable musical comedy experience for those who haven’t seen and memorized the movie and a familiar buzz for those who have. 

It’s kind of a weird phenomenon, isn’t it? Before home video, seeing old movies in the theater was a communal pleasure for both cultists and neophytes. Now you can watch them by yourself on DVD but that’s a lot less fun. So people will pay $100 to watch live performers act out old movies onstage. With Young Frankenstein, there’s no particular added value. It’s in dazzling color, rather than black-and-white, but that’s not necessarily a visual plus. And unlike The Producers, which at least takes place in the world of Broadway musicals, the story of Young Frankenstein contains no reason for people to sing and dance. Every time they do, the show grinds to a halt while some succinct plot point is inflated into a witless and unnecessary number. Of the 18 songs in the score, the only one that sticks with you walking out the door is not one of Brooks’s ditties but “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which Irving Berlin wrote in 1929. (It’s also the only song that appears in the movie, when the doctor gets to play Professor Higgins to the monster’s Eliza Doolittle by teaching him to rhyme “Gary Cooper” with “Super duper!”)

Both the look and the sound of Young Frankenstein are pretty generic, and I found myself seeing the performances not in relationship to the characters but to their screen counterparts. Roger Bart works hard, but his Gene Wilder – I mean, Dr. FrankenSTEEN! lacks charisma. Christopher Fitzgerald does a reasonably funny approximation of bug-eyed Marty Feldman as the hunchback Igor, and Sutton Foster is actually twice more adorable than Teri Garr as Inge. It would be nice to report that Karen from Will and Grace – I mean, Megan Mullally lives up to the memory of Madeline Kahn, but sadly she does not. (She also has to inhabit one of Brooks’s unfunniest musical tit jokes.) The performer who comes closest to creating an independent existence is Andrea Martin, whose perverse comic deliciousness almost makes you see her as Frau Blucher (cue the whinnying horses) rather than a pale imitation of Cloris Leachman. 

There’s a core of intense queer subtext at the heart of the Frankenstein saga. Gay historian John Lauritsen’s fascinating new book The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein makes the case that the original novel was written not by Mary Shelley but by her husband, the bisexual poet Percy Shelley, and that its dominant theme is love between men. Wouldn’t it be great to see a Broadway show tackle that idea? From Mel Brooks, though, no one expects – or gets – anything but dumb fun. For the stage version of Young Frankenstein, he makes it a point to acknowledge our existence by making the village idiot gay. Thanks, Mel! Remind me to nominate you for a GLAAD Award.

The Advocate, December 18, 2007