This weekend sees five performances of The Producers at the Lexington Opera House. The musical, which first appeared on Broadway in 2001, has become a smash-hit adaptation of Mel Brooks’ 1968 debut film of the same title. Playing Leo Bloom, the lovable neurotic originated by Gene Wilder, is Richard Lafleur. Here’s my conversation with Richard about the show, himself, and theatre in general.
UM: How long have you been on the road and how long is this tour?
RL: Almost a month. We end in mid-March, after 50 cities.
UM: Have the reviews and audiences been as expected?
RL: Well, we’ve been mostly in the northeast for the first part of the tour, and they all have loved the performances, so we’re excited to see what Lexington will think.
UM: Even with that kind of challenging schedule you must be riding high to have landed such a great role.
RL: It’s hard for me to believe. I didn’t initially see myself as Leo; the part had to grow on me quite a bit. They must have seen something in me during the audition process.
UM: So, you went through the process from beginning to end, it wasn’t a shoo-in?
RL: No. I went through the whole deal. I graduated this past December and saw they were casting Producers. I had been doing musicals on cruise ships and some of the material was getting a bit stale for me, so I went for it.
UM: You are from Montreal, right?
RL: Yes. Canadian. Not so much theatre in Montreal. I did a few plays in high school. I wound up getting into AMDA for musical theatre.
UM: The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York.
RL: Right. After that it was off to the cruise ships and while we were docked in Southampton, I wound up auditioning at the Bristol Old Vic.
The Old Vic is one of the best-loved and most-revered theaters in the world, boasting colossal talents like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Peter O’Toole.
UM: I’ll bet that was quite an experience.
RL: Incredible. The work ethic alone is outstanding. There is zero margin for error and excellence is expected daily. It was a 2-year course.
UM: I would imagine the classics were worked thoroughly.
RL: Oh, yes. I did a lot of Shakespeare there and it was wonderful. There are many terrific and well-known actors who are still very invested in the place, it being their alma mater. Daniel Day-Lewis, Patrick Stewart; the list is long.
UM: Any fun shows you particularly liked?
RL: Comedy of Errors and Northanger Abbey are up there.
UM: Comedy or drama? Preference?
RL: I feel more at home with comedy than straight drama.
UM: ‘A very serious business,’ like George Burns always said.
RL: Yes. Playing comedy for laughs doesn’t work.
UM: The impeccable timing needed for comedy goes hand-in-hand with musical ability. Do you feel working the classics really enhanced your musical theatre chops?
RL: Absolutely. If you notice, many of the men and women getting choice roles for television and film today are Brits, most of whom are people deeply grounded in the classics. They not only have a solid foundation in their craft, but they have spent a great deal of time with the pieces that have stood the test of time.
RL: Benedict Cumberbatch. We already mentioned Patrick Stewart.
UM: Are there some Americans, or even Canadians you admire who are similarly rooted in the classic training?
RL: Kevin Spacey. American actor rooted in the classics.
UM: I heartily agree.
RL: When I was studying at the Old Vic, Peter O’Toole passed away. Spacey had become the Artistic Director at the Old Vic some time ago and he came to speak to us after O’Toole’s death and it was amazing being able to talk with him.
UM: He seems to be a real presence and he definitely seems rooted in classical training.
RL: Yes. There’s just something about that training that allows one to be available to many venues.
UM: To have a wider palette?
UM: Producers debuted in 2001 at the St. James Theatre.
RL: Yes. Susan Stroman directed that production. She’s won a Tony Award for it, and she actually came and gave her blessing to our production before we started the tour.
UM: That must’ve been empowering.
RL: It was great.
UM: Who directed this show?
RL: Nigel West, who is terrific . He’s had a massive amount of experience as an assistant director, particularly with Producers, so he is a wonderful source for the material and knowing what works.
Nigel West started with the Bristol Old Vic in 1983. His credits are many from not only the Old Vic, but many other theatre associations abroad. He was a part of the original, 3-year Producers, tour and is well-known in professional theatre circles.
UM: Was there a tendency or desire on West’s part to rehash the original production? Matthew Broderick had originated the musical Leo Bloom under Stroman. Was there a sense of ‘let’s just replicate that’?
RL: Well, Nigel asked us to be true to the original Broadway production, but to bring a lot of our own stock to the show.
UM: Do you think you fall more on the Wilder side of Leo, or the Broderick?
RL: I’d say in-between. Maybe leaning just a bit more to Wilder.
UM: How so?
RL: Well, I had done quite a bit of research stemming from Wilder. I read Gene Wilder’s bio and he mentioned that Leo Bloom had been based on a character Mel Brooks knew. This, to me, smacked of a realism that helped the character come across as truthful to audiences.
UM: Do you feel this has given the character its longevity as well?
RL: Probably. There was a lot more material in the original script. I mean the Brooks screenplay. Satirizing something as serious as Hitler is a timeless thing anyway, but it feels like Brooks was really saying it’s important to be able to laugh at evil.
UM: Perhaps laughing about it disarms it somehow? Disempowers it?
RL: I think so. The musical script didn’t go into the same kind of depth, but it had its own feel. It really lives in the land of the surreal. Everything’s over-the-top.
UM: With a lot of truth underlying.
RL: Yes. Wilder himself said he felt it was the truth of the script, of the story, that gave it such power. It’s really a love story.
UM: Love story?
RL: Yes. Between Max and Leo.
UM: Max Bialystock, the role originated by Zero Mostel in the film.
RL: And Nathan Lane in the musical, yes.
UM: I could see that: that the two loved each other.
RL: Yes. It really comes across in the original film, and even if you watch the film version of the musical with Lane and Broderick.
UM: Despite all of their shenanigans, they seem to need each other.
RL: Yes. Leo is the everyman, the lens through which you see everything else happening. Leo goes from 0-60 in two minutes, so it’s difficult to get that pacing down. When he gets the blue blanket taken away, he goes crazy.
UM: And somehow Max is his comfort or something he can turn to?
UM: Do you feel you developed this relationship with your co-star?
RL: Definitely. David Johnson plays Max. He’s done three national tours before and a lot of regional theatre. It’s great playing opposite him. From day one when we started rehearsing it, it went well.
UM: It would seem trust is huge with two roles that are interlocked like these two.
RL: It would be impossible to do without that sense of trust and creative play.
UM: What about the rest of the cast?
RL: They are the most fantastically gifted group I’ve ever worked with. It was cast so well; they are their roles. Even when technically something goes awry, the practice pulls us through because everyone is so gifted and because we all know each other. It’s great we get along because, as you know, we spend a lot of time together.
UM: Are there other roles you’d like to land?
RL: I’d love to play Finch in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and Hamlet. If they ever do the Frankie Valli story…
UM: Do you have any idea of what you’ll do after the run?
RL: Ironically, my brother lives in Louisville and he suggested that I come and audition for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival and I think I might just do that.
UM: Awesome. Kentucky would love to see more of you.
RL: I hope so.
UM: Thanks again for the interview Richard and break a leg Friday.
RL: Thanks, Charles, and we will.
The Lexington Opera House run of The Producers, will feature the following five showings.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 13; 8:00PM
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 14; 2:00PM & 8:00PM
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 15; 1:00PM & 6:30PM
Please call (859)233-4567 to reserve tickets or to order online: http://www.lexingtonoperahouse.com/