This show basically lived in the shadow of The Producers at the time of its release, and today is remembered fondly, but more noted for what its composer would write later than for anything in itself. It is, of course, based on the classic British film with its mix of raucous comedy and bittersweet honesty. The film was a promising choice for musicalization, full of intense feelings and with a showbiz setting that translated readily to song and dance, but while the show was a hit, and deservedly so, few considered it to have lived up to its source.
The score, by a then unknown David Yazbek, is excellent as pure music, with an appealingly funky and very distinctive sound and some sound comedy writing. The big showstoppers, “It’s a Woman’s World”, “Big Black Man”, “Michael Jordan’s Ball”, and the finale, “Let It Go”, show off this sound particularly well, with a rare combination of musical sophistication and sheer catchiness that almost sounds like a Pop version of Jason Robert Brown.
The principal ballads, “You Rule My World”, “Breeze Off the River”, and “You Walk With Me”, aren’t as smooth and sophisticated as the ballads in Yazbek’s next show, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but they have a real feeling of sincerity and tenderness to them, and their fairly basic simplicity helps contribute to that effect. And while the lyrics are not generally as good as the music, they do have their moments, especially on the fine comic showcases “Life With Harold” and “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number”.
But for all its good qualities, the stage adaptation kind of lets the material down. The film, for all its hilarity, was ultimately a rather sad and angry story about men who had their livelihood and self-esteem taken away by a cruel world, and are now trying to win those things back by whatever desperate means they think they can. But while the musical is more serious and bittersweet than Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or The Producers, it isn’t nearly as touching as it should have been.
The show largely tries to treat the material as a conventional early-2000s musical comedy, and most of the score, fine as it is, would have been at perfectly at home in any one of the dozens of Producers rip-offs that sprang up in the next few years. Only the powerfully angry opening, “Scrap”, and the darkly comic ballad “Big Ass Rock” approach the power and bite of the original film, and suggest what might have been done with the musical if the creators hadn’t watered down their source material.
Four years after this show opened, Yazbek would write one of the finest musical comedies of the decade, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and as a result, this show stayed in Broadway’s collective memory more than it otherwise would have. And there’s certainly no denying that Yazbek’s score for this show is well worth hearing, and made for an extremely promising debut for the composer. Still, this is ultimately a mid-range title, good but not great, and despite the arguments of certain proponents like Peter Filichia, there was really no injustice in the fact that this show was completely overshadowed by The Producers that year in every possible sense.