The guy who gave the world “Springtime for Hitler” and “The 2,000-year-old Man” will be celebrated in song and skit this weekend when the Forum Theatre revives its Words and Music intimate concert series to explore the fascinating back stories of Broadway.
“The King of Broadway: Mel Brooks” will be co-hosted by Forum founder Kathryn Page Hauptman and Broadway veteran Ray Wills, a Wichitan who knew Brooks personally after being in the original cast of the record-setting “The Producers” (12 Tony Awards) as well as being understudy for Tony-winning star Nathan Lane.
Romping through Brooks’ satirical music from such shows as “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles” and “High Anxiety” are Wills, Kim Dugger, Ted Dvorak and Sarah Gale McQuery. The troupe also will recreate some moments from Brooks’ classic comedy routines from his partnership with Carl Reiner, an actor, producer and writer.
Accompanying the 20 songs is Tim Raymond at the piano.
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Dressed in casual concert black, the performers will chat informally with the audience about Brooks’ career, punctuating key moments with his songs. Brooks was best known for his broad, often vulgar farces, but he also produced serious work like “The Elephant Man” and was married to elegant Oscar-winning actress Anne Bancroft.
And he’s one of the few EGOT entertainers, meaning he’s won all four major awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Because of his contact with Brooks on Broadway, Wills will share some personal stories.
“To audition for ‘The Producers,’ we all had to tell a joke to Mel Brooks,” Wills said. “I was scared to death because, well, Brooks has heard ‘em all before. He’s written a lot of ‘em. What do I do to make him laugh?”
Wills was cast as star Nathan Lane’s understudy and ended up being with the show for two-and-a-half years on Broadway. Wills and the rest of the original Broadway cast worked with Brooks on a daily basis from audition through rehearsal, plus a full month of tryouts in Chicago before opening on Broadway in 2001.
“He wasn’t just the producer, he also co-wrote the book and wanted to make sure we got it just right,” Wills said. “He enjoyed being there every day.”
After 2 1/2 years on Broadway, where he went on for Lane a number of times, Wills transferred to Los Angeles when the show opened there, understudying Jason Alexander (George on the TV hit “Seinfeld”), who took Lane’s role.
After 25 years of near-constant performing, Wills returned to his hometown of Wichita in 2012 to take a breather and, for the past few years, has taught acting classes “to give back” at Wichita State (the school he graduated from) and Newman University.
“Over the years, people have asked what it was like to work for Mel Brooks – was he mean or egotistical in real life because he’s known as a funny man,” Wills said. “No. He was wonderful to work with. I even got to help him rewrite a joke (for the Nathan Lane character) to get two laughs instead of one. I can honestly say working with him was nothing but laughs.”
The Words and Music series was created in 1997 by Hauptman and former Wichitan Laura Bergquist, now a New York-based composer, director/music director and Broadway conductor (last year’s “Allegiance”), when both were with Stage One.
“It was based on a very popular Broadway series that introduced audiences to new composers and lyricists, combining music with personal history,” Hauptman said. “We thought it was the perfect combination of education and entertainment.”
The local program went by the wayside as Bergquist moved to New York and Hauptman founded a new performance group, The Forum Theatre, in 2012.
“People have been asking me for the past couple of years why we didn’t bring Words and Music back, and I finally gave in,” Hauptman said. “I love the format (a fast-paced, uninterrupted 90 minutes) and I also love the informality of it, which allows interaction with the audience. That’s fun.”
“The King of Broadway: Mel Brooks”
What: First concert of Forum Theatre’s Words & Music Series featuring Brooks’ satirical music as well as classic comedy skits
Where: Performances in Wilke Center in First United Methodist Church, 330 N. Broadway. (The entrance is near 3rd and Topeka.)
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18.
Tickets: $20; call 316-618-0444
Information: The Forum Theatre Company, www.forumwichita.com.