Stroman Takes Hollywood: The Producers

July 31, 2007
It was only a matter of time until Susan Stroman made a big Hollywood musical. Her stage dances have long flowed cinematically, and just last year, she debuted
Double Feature, her homage to silent movies, for New York City Ballet (see “They Oughta Be in Pictures,” February 2004). So Mel Brooks’ 1968 film, The Producers, returns to the big screen as a musical based on its blockbuster Broadway incarnation. And who better to craft that new film than the choreographer and director whose stage musical spawned it? Stroman directs her Broadway stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, film stars Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell, and a cast that includes 300 New York dancers. The low-key, high-energy Tony Award winner took a break from editing her $50 million film, which opens nationwide December 16, to talk about the challenges and opportunities of going from stage to screen.
Was it intimidating to take on such a big project as your first film?
I was lucky enough to have done big musicals because preproduction for a movie was very similar to preproduction for a giant stage musical. In both cases it’s making sure that every department is on the same page as the director. I’d also choreographed Nicholas Hytner’s film
Center Stage
five years ago, working with dancers from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. I had a large number of dancers then as well, and it was a good stepping stone for this movie. 
You usually spend time planning your dances long before you rehearse them. Could you do that for the film too?
I did. I went into the rehearsal studio with three dance assistants—Warren Carlyle, Christina Norrup, and James Hadley. My first assistant director, Sam Hoffman, brought a little video camera, and I worked out the shots for all the production numbers. It was like making a moving story board, and the resulting film is very close to what I did in the studio.
What was your biggest adjustment to choreographing for film? 
When we were shooting the dance numbers, the camera essentially became another dancer. The camera has to move on the exact same counts and keep a spatial relationship as if it were a dance partner.
Were there some advantages to that?
I found that the camera gave me the ability not only to move with the dancer but also to show more clearly the emotion or the breath of a dancer in a close-up. Onstage, we constantly see dance in a wide shot. But on film, you see it in medium shots, head to toe, close-up, and raking angles. It adds more energy to the dance.
Does that make focusing the audience’s attention easier?
Yes. Onstage you have to make sure that 1,500 people are looking at the right spot, and you do that with lighting and costumes or with a choreographic step. On film, the camera tells you exactly where to focus. So in some ways it’s easier. If I want the moviegoer to look somewhere, I just aim the camera on that place.
Did you prepare by watching classic movie musicals?
Yes, I did. I went back and looked at movies like
Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Top Hat,
and Pennies from Heaven.
What did you learn from them?
Those directors shot a lot of their numbers without any cuts, and I wanted to bring that to this film. We are a good old traditional musical comedy, and there was no hiding that—we have a screenplay written by Mel Brooks and Tom Meehan.
Does comedy reign supreme within the dance numbers as well?
Yes. For example, Matthew’s character, the accountant Leo Bloom, dreams about being Fred Astaire, and at one point, his dance with Uma’s character Ulla becomes so romantic that her short dress turns into a long Ginger Rogers dress. Then, just when you think it most romantic, he trips and falls into the sofa.
Onstage you have actors who’ve been performing musical comedy a long time. How did Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell fare as dancers?
Uma Thurman is a wonderful comedienne and is in complete control of her body. She hadn’t danced before but she’d done all those martial arts movies like
Kill Bill
. She understands movement and understands how to learn movement. Uma was game to dance on the back of a sofa or be tossed over a chair. She’s fearless, and it’s that fearless quality that makes strong musical comedy performers like Nathan and Matthew.
Will Ferrell had to be a dancer on
Saturday Night Live
in his Craig the Cheerleader character. So as neo-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, he was up to the challenge of leading Nathan and Matthew in song and dance to the Fuhrer’s favorite tune, “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop.” 
Did you edit and expand your stage dance numbers or did you choreograph them all over again?
I started over completely, because I had the opportunity to make everything bigger. I had more dancers, more space, more chance for the camera to be in different places. I worked with my music arranger, Glen Kelly, and opened up the music.
What would be an example?
In Leo Bloom’s big number, “I Wanna Be a Producer,” we see him first at his desk, drawing his name in a marquee sign on his accounting book, then stepping through a portal into marquee heaven. Onstage, we just went to an open set with a backdrop that had his name in lights. On film, we developed three sets on three soundstages. One was an accordion set which opens up, another had a staircase, and the third had the marquee of his name lit up in various fonts and sizes. Dancers toss him into each set to the point where they push him back into the office and he falls into his chair.
How could you improve on your little old ladies dancing with walkers in “Little Old Ladyland”?
We took them to Central Park. When I was growing up, Fifth Avenue was a place Fred Astaire walked down and sang about, and there I was with a camera on Fifth Avenue. When Max Bialystock rings an apartment house doorbell, dozens of little old ladies come out the door and follow him like lemmings into Central Park. As Max takes their checks, the ladies start to fall like dominos, just like they do on Broadway. But on Broadway, they just fall across the stage. Here the dominos seem endless—they start falling in Central Park, continue to the Plaza Hotel, Rockefeller Center, and, finally, Shubert Alley. They fall from one film frame to another as if it were one continuous long line across Manhattan.
How many dancers are in the movie version of The Producers?
There are 83 dancers in the “Little Old Ladyland” number alone. When I cast a stage show, 300 dancers come to audition, and usually there are only openings for one or two or at most eight. This time I could hire 300 dancers.
A lot of those dancers look very familiar.
The Producers is filled with dancers I’d worked with before onstage. They’re from the Broadway company of
The Producers
, from Contact and Crazy for You, Oklahoma!, The Frogs. They’re from every Broadway show I’ve ever done, and especially my swing and dance captains. You’ll see Karen Ziemba in the opening night number. You’ll see Colleen Dunn, Holly Cruikshank, Charley King, Renée Klapmeyer, and Bryn Dowling.
What sort of orientation did you give the dancers who hadn’t been in films before?
I had to explain that the hours can be grueling. I let them know that we would be doing something full out, after which it would take half an hour to move the camera to the other side and then I’d ask them to do a full-out again. I explained how important it was for them to keep warm all the time so they could deliver 100 percent when I said “action.” I think the film crew was quite impressed with their discipline. The dancers would perform these numbers over and over and not complain. 
What was the best part of making this film for you?   
It truly was like I had imagined the old days to be. There were five soundstages at Steiner Studios, and you would go from one soundstage to the next to do big musical numbers. All of us in musical theater grew up watching those MGM musicals, and that’s where many of our dreams about being on Broadway began. Making a movie like this was an opportunity that most of us felt we would never have. 

Barbara Isenberg is a regular contributor to the
Los Angeles Times and Time Magazine. She is the author of Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical.