Actor Rob Wilson speaks to Nigel Morley about reprising the role of a lifetime in FAOS Musical Theatre Group’s The Producers.
A newcomer to FAOS, Farnham’s musical theatre company, Rob Wilson is experiencing déjà vu or, at least, déjà joué. He is reprising a role he last played ten years ago: Max Bialystock, the comedy giant at the heart of Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
Long before making films such as Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety, Brooks came up with the outrageous concept for his 1967 movie, The Producers.
His idea: it’s New York, 1959. Max Bialystock is a Broadway producer who is so incompetent all his shows close on opening night. His accountant suggests a scheme tailor-made for a man like him: simply raise far more money than you need, then make sure the show is a flop. No one will be interested in it, and you can pocket the surplus.
Brooks’s film was a run-away success. Today, it sits at number 11 on the AFI's ‘100 Years...100 Laughs’ list.
Fast forward 30 years, and Brooks turned it into a Broadway musical, in the process winning a record-breaking 12 Tony awards, despite, or probably because of, its handling of sensitive subject matter.
Rob Wilson is playing producer Max Bialystock, a character he describes as crass, rough around the edges, and not at all deranged. Loveable rogue Max is an absolute delight to play, Rob says, because he never thinks things through and constantly gets himself into impossible scrapes. “It’s a little like being at a horror film – you just can’t help watching.”
He describes Bialystock as a man who’s never had a friend and doesn’t know how to handle it when, in the show, friendship is offered. This gives an actor a wonderful space in which to explore and find the character.
“It’s funny, not because the actor is a comedian but because it’s so skilfully written.”
Rob absolutely adored The Producers when he first saw it in London in the early noughties. He couldn’t believe his luck when, ten years ago, the chance arose to audition for his favourite stage show with Basingstoke Amateur Operatic Society. It felt like too good an opportunity to miss.
He landed the part but with mixed feelings: the show was scheduled to a couple of weeks before his wife was expecting to deliver their third child. In the event, the baby was born a week early and, remembers Rob, “Every time the Act One curtain came down, I’d be checking my phone in the green room”.
And that sensitive subject matter? Well, the song at the heart of The Producers is called ‘Springtime for Hitler’. With a show-within-the-show celebrating Hitler invading Poland, how could Max fail in his scheme to guarantee his production would flop?
Brooks’s hutzpah was breath-taking but those twelve Tony awards confirmed his instinct for digging up comedy gold.
So, what’s it like to reprise a role you’ve played before? Rob feels he has a better appreciation of the complexity of Max’s character this time around. “Last time, I think I played him too angry. In fact, he’s more disappointed than angry.”
Max is actually quite lost, struggling to understand why his schemes misfire so outrageously, why nobody likes him. “The challenge for me is to draw more out of his character,” muses Rob.
But isn’t it also a physical challenge? “Certainly,” agrees Rob. “I’m on stage a lot and there’s a lot of physical comedy in the show. But I try to pace myself, both in rehearsal and, hopefully, in performance. I’m really mindful of the need to provide the right foil for the actors I’m interacting with, and to give them space too.”
And putting in the comedy? “It’s funny, not because the actor is a comedian but because it’s so skilfully written.” Rob comments that the laughs carry on landing, no matter how many times he hears them.
So, would he play Max a third time, if the opportunity ever presented itself. “Yes, of course!” But, he adds, it would be great fun to play some of the other characters too.
Such as the uber-camp Broadway director Roger De Bris? – wonderful; the fanatical still-a-Nazi-but-only-in-private Franz Liebkind and his troupe of Heil-Hitler pigeons? – too good to miss; but maybe not Leo Bloom, the accountant with the clever money-making idea – I can’t imagine doing a better job than our Tony Carpenter. He has previously inhabited the role of Stan Laurel and he totally masters the comedy of the quiet underdog.
So, why should people want to come and see FAOS’s The Producers? “That’s easy,” says Rob, with a broad, almost proprietorial smile. “It is simply the cleverest, funniest show I’ve ever seen."