Picking my way across the cluttered, dimly lit stage of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, I trip and nearly sprawl across the white-leather casting couch on which mad Max Bialystok seduces old ladies into parting with their money in order to back his terrible shows. Susan Stroman, the director and choreographer, has rather bigger problems. An hour after our interview on Tuesday, she will be having her first rehearsal with the new star of the show. Previews start tomorrow.
The decision to cast Richard Dreyfuss, 56, who had never sung or danced on stage, as Max, was the sort that in such cases is usually called "quixotic." Other, less polite, words must have gone flying across the room after Dreyfuss told a chat show audience last Thursday not to see The Producers before Christmas. Reports have been heard of Dreyfuss's technical inadequacy in the taxing part and his marked inferiority to his co-star, Lee Evans, but Stroman denies that the decision to replace Dreyfuss with the original Broadway star, Nathan Lane, had to do with anything but his physical condition. "The rehearsal process took a toll on his body. He had a herniated disc, a knee problem, an arm problem. There were moments in rehearsal when the performance was getting stronger, so we waited until the last minute, in the hope that something would change. But his body just wasn't ready."
(The sudden switch, ironically, echoes the plot of the musical. When the star of the show-within-the-show, Springtime for Hitler, literally breaks a leg on opening night, he is replaced by the campy director, Roger de Bris.)
Still, even for someone with the egotism of an actor, it was astonishingly selfish to say that the show should play to empty houses until he felt comfortable in the part. (One could imagine Mel Brooks, the creator of the show, yelling, "For this I'm paying him?") Stroman's smile tightens, but doesn't falter. "Perhaps."
Smiling through has always been the style of the imperturbable Stroman, who cheerfully calls musicals "blood sport". The wholesome but very authoritative blonde in baseball cap and pony-tail, a "soccer mom" to the life, isn't troubled by a reference to Henry Goodman, either (when he replaced Lane two years ago on Broadway, he was fired after a few weeks). "What happened with Henry was something that happens a lot. It just got a lot of attention because of who he is and because of the show. He was wonderful in rehearsal, but, with an audience, he just couldn't make a connection. Max needs to be a lovable rogue, and that just did not come naturally to him." Goodman, she agrees, is fine at parodying warmth, not so good at personifying it. "But," she continues, in full PR mode, "I think Henry is a marvellous actor, and I hope that I can work with him on something else in the future."
Stroman may not be given to unguarded slips and frank confessions, but she's definitely the type you'd want in charge of a £5.5m enterprise. And she certainly has had a fantastic success in New York. The Producers scooped a record-breaking 12 Tony awards, including one for Stroman in each of her two jobs. The box office broke records, too, taking $3m (£1.7m) the day after it opened. The show's knockout numbers, such as an ensemble of old ladies dancing with Zimmer frames, have quickly become legend. So fluid was the choreography, wrote the critic for the The New York Times, so visual most of the jokes, that "it would be possible to enjoy The Producers without hearing a word."
By all accounts Stroman is friendly and easy to get along with, but she also describes herself as "a stern taskmaster". The only time the corporate smile changes to a genuine giggle is when she's asked about real-life absurd auditions. (One of many highlights of The Producers is the scene in which increasingly, screamingly inappropriate actors audition for the role of Hitler.) "There was one actor last summer," she recalls. "I kept calling the name on the sheet - 'Demon Child! Demon Child!' but no one came forward. Finally this guy says, 'Excuse me, it's not "Demon". It's "De-mon".'" The demonic one then launched into a rendition of "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York", in which he demonstrated that leaving anyhow, for anywhere, would be a good idea.
When Stroman was approached to transform Brooks's 1968 cult film, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, into a stage musical, she insisted on several changes. While the main love story in the show is that of Max and Leo Bloom, the accountant he inveigles into perpetrating a giant theatrical fraud, Stroman said she needed a conventional romance as well so there could be a boy-girl song and dance. The result was to transform Ulla, the dumb Swedish blonde actress, into someone with whom Leo genuinely falls in love. Ulla is as sexy as ever, but "she isn't stupid now - she just has a language problem."
Since Stroman was five, and living in Wilmington, Delaware, she knew she would be not just a dancer but a choreographer. "I would not only hear music in my head, I would visualise it - see people dancing to it. I was on the other side of the table before I knew there was a table." Stroman always admired George Balanchine and Bob Fosse, but "the one with whom I connected the most was Jerome Robbins. Fosse is like Picasso - you can always recognise his style - but Robbins would forfeit his style in order to achieve a believability in his character. I've always aimed to put the character first. When I did Oklahoma! [at the National Theatre with Trevor Nunn], I didn't research the original production. I did research on the Old West, on the dances of that period. I had to forget about being a woman, an East Coast woman, and give the dances a rough, masculine feel. When I looked into the period, I saw that there was a lot of fighting, a lot of challenge, and I wanted to get that feeling into the dances." Stroman's work was by then so respected that the notoriously protective Rodgers and Hammerstein estate allowed her to do original choreography rather than following the original Agnes de Mille dances, something they had never before permitted.
Stroman is best known in the UK for Contact, a "dance play" telling three stories, including the sizzling one of a girl in a yellow dress who enters the life of a man who has considered suicide, and gives him a reason to live. Contact, Stroman has said, is the story of her own life. Its tales all pertain to loneliness, to people who come to New York "to be somebody, top of the heap. They climb the ladder of success, and suddenly they look around and find they are all alone." While Stroman was creating Contact, her husband, the British director Michael Ockrent, whom she had met when they were working on the 1992 Broadway production of Crazy for You, was dying of leukaemia. If the show is, as she says, a memorial to him, it has also inspired others to a new life. Another story concerns a wife trapped in a wretched marriage, who finds refuge in daydreams. One day, after Stroman gave a lecture, a woman approached her, crying. "She told me that she had been living the same awful life, and when she saw that character daydream her life away, she couldn't take it any more. She left her husband of 14 years, and she's never been happier."
Yet, for all its passion and innovative choreography, Contact, which ran for three years in New York, lasted only eight months here. "I'm not sure why," says Stroman, though she acknowledges that the British public does not share America's love of song and dance. "I think Miss Saigon, Phantom [of the Opera], shows like that, with their special effects, have taken over from dance. But it's coming back." Another problem, she agrees, is that young actors are not trained even for the legitimate stage, much less the musical one, and many can't use their bodies well. "I think it has to do with the influence of TV and movies. They are so often shot in close-up for greater impact. A lot of young actors seem to think they only exist from the shoulders up."
Like most New Yorkers in show business, Stroman, who remains close to her Jewish husband's family, considers herself "an honorary Jew". Is she never troubled by treating Nazis as harmlessly comic, especially during a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe?
"I'm a storyteller," says Stroman, "and the story is that Max is looking for the worst show that could ever be written [so he can oversell shares in the production and pocket the money when it folds after one night]. And what's that? A story about a comic Nazi." And Max, she emphasises, always makes his distaste for his daft Nazi author perfectly clear. He may sing "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop" in order to secure the rights - even hold up his hand to take the Nazi oath, says Stroman, demonstrating, but then... She slams four fingers against her palm, leaving the middle one sticking up.
Though Dreyfuss's departure will mean a rocky patch for the show, his replacement by Lane - whose own departure from the New York cast caused a steep dip in bookings - should make The Producers better off. Still, Stroman is taking nothing for granted. As I start a well-known New York proverb, "If Hitler was alive, he should..." she finishes it with me: "be put in charge of a musical that's having trouble."
'The Producers', Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London WC2 (0870 890 1109) from 9 NovemberReuse content