Theater Writers Aren’t in It for the Freebies, but We Dine With Mel Brooks

OK, we picked from the same buffet.

A good sign: no infected toenails.

A good sign: no infected toenails.

It’s a matter of some debate which critics get wooed with the most free stuff. Movie and television critics routinely get flown out to L.A. junkets and feted at parties, while music critics head to supremely cool towns like Austin at least a couple of times a year for music festivals, to say nothing of backstage passes and tabs at the bar. Writing about theater, you rarely get more than the occasional trinket glued to your press packet and a trip down the postshow buffet line with the rest of the first-night patrons. Free food, and very occasionally free wine, is the only perk you’re guaranteed.

So it was no surprise that the recent “media reception” for the cast and crew of Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ own musical adaptation of his classic 1974 film, featured as the main draw a respectable buffet, including a cheese platter, roast beef and ham sandwiches, some chips, and a big plate of lox and bagels. Oh, yeah, and some actors and production staff to interview.

The event was low-key, despite the presence of most of Seattle’s media scene (about 30 people) and a clutch of actors, producers, and assorted other artists. I was whipped through four interviews in about 20 minutes by the efficient staff of Seattle Theatre Group, including chats with the fetching, Tony Award–winning actress Sutton Foster (who plays the doctor’s sexy maid, Inga) and Wicked vet Christopher Fitzgerald (who plays Igor). Both actors, along with book writer Thomas Meehan (who co-wrote the book for The Producers and worked on that other Seattle-born musical hit, Hairspray), were refreshingly honest about some of the challenges that they still have to face during the next few weeks of previews, including the huge dance numbers and a score of about 18 songs that needs to be slimmed down. The biggest challenge, all agreed, was comparisons between the musical and the much-loved film. “Young Frankenstein is a comedy classic loved by millions,” says Meehan. “And we have to meet their expectations while creating something new.”

It’d be flattering to think that Young Frankenstein is premiering in Seattle because of our reputation as a first-tier theater town like Chicago or San Francisco, but STG head Josh Labelle is bluntly honest about why we beat out both of those cities: “We’re a smaller market, and the producers liked the idea of opening the show far enough out of town that they wouldn’t get too much attention while they work to fix it.” So for a change, we’ve got our relative obscurity to thank for some theater luck.

Brooks himself made a late entrance, and seemed, like the other associated artists, to be charmed by the low-key nature of the event. Instead of giving us a humble speech naming those who’d made this possible, he leapt into a few minutes of classic stand-up, complaining that our streets are too clean (“when I go to Starbucks I just throw my cup on the ground afterwards; makes me feel right at home”) and that Seattleites are nice, except the hotel maid who won’t give him enough towels. I’ll admit I’ve never seen a living legend with more charm and less pretension, and he’s pretty damn spry for an octogenarian—he practically flew out of the room to continue private interviews.

After the rest of the media left, the various STG staff and associates drifted over to the buffet to do some grazing, and I picked up my free bagel and a generous portion of lox for the walk home. Suddenly into the room returned Brooks, who charged straight for the buffet and the bagels I’d just left. Well, all right. I like Seattle’s low-key attitude, and the way that even our media events are no big deal. What’s good enough for Mel Brooks, when it comes to free food, is good enough for me.

John Longenbaugh

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