When the stage version of "The Producers" played in London in 2004, British reporter Toby Young was assigned by Vanity Fair magazine to interview Nathan Lane, the star of the show.
Young opened the interview by asking Lane whether he was Jewish. After a long pause, Lane snapped, "Yes, yes, what of it?" Encouraged by the answer, the reporter's next question was, "Are you gay?"
Lane responded by getting up and walking out of the interview.
When Young returned to his office, he was confronted by his irascible editor, Graydon Carter, who had already gotten an earful on the incident.
"What were you thinking?" stormed Carter. "You can't ask celebrities whether they're Jewish or gay. In the future, just assume they're all Jewish and all gay, OK?"
To get to the bottom of this important Jewish story, this reporter flew from Los Angeles to New York earlier this month to see if we could do any better than the hapless British journalist.
The press junket was underwritten by Universal Pictures, which flew in some 35 reporters to meet with the stars and director of the musical movie version of "The Producers," a monster hit on Broadway and elsewhere, which was released Dec. 16.
We had been warned that Mel Brooks, who has guided and created every aspect of "Producers" in its various incarnations as nonmusical film, musical play and musical movie, wouldn't be available.
Right on schedule, though, was Lane, followed by Matthew Broderick, who portrays Leo Bloom. Each was allotted 25 minutes to field questions from a gaggle of three dozen reporters, so there wasn't much time for probing analysis and follow-ups.
Here's how my dialogue with Lane went:
Q: "Even though you were born into an Irish Catholic blue-collar family, just about everyone assumes that you're Jewish and that you changed your name from Rabinowitz. How did that impression catch hold and how do you feel about it?"
A: "Well, I did change my name. I was born Joseph Lane, but when I applied to the actors union, they said they already had a Joe Lane on the books and I'd have to change my last or first name. I had played the character of Nathan Detroit, whom I liked very much, in 'Guys and Dolls,' so I took the name Nathan.
"I'm really an honorary Jew, you know, all the best people are. I really do feel Jewish, even though I'm a Catholic. The way the Church has been behaving, I'm happy to be Jewish. You know, I've played so many Jewish characters, it's been a great part of my life."
Next it was Broderick's turn.
Q: "In playing Leo Bloom, and other Jewish characters in Neil Simon plays, did you draw on your own background?"
A: "I suppose so. My mom was Jewish, so some would call me Jewish. Neil Simon and Mel Brooks and 'Your Show of Shows' guys are what I grew up loving. So I probably drew on my New York background and my Jewish background for that, sure."
So there you have it. But what about the movie itself? Well, "The Producers" has become part of our folk culture, and watching it is a bit like listening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." You revel in the familiarity and listen for the nuances and emphasis, rather than the main themes.
Then there is the memory of the very first "Producers," the 1967 nonmusical film, with the unforgettable Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the title roles. Broderick himself observed that he could unspool the entire movie in his head at any time.
The new "Producers" is a great piece of showmanship, harking back to the days of Busby Berkeley and the grand old MGM musicals. Hundreds of high-kicking chorus girls (and one klutzy one for comic relief), water fountains galore, Broadway lit up with blinking billboards, the whole works.
Lane and Broderick have practically patented their roles; Uma Thurman, in her first singing and dancing role, is God's gift to mankind; and Will Ferrell is a hilarious addition as the Nazi "playwright."
Among the 18 musical numbers, one showstopper is "I Wanna Be a Producer," in which director Susan Stroman displays her roots as a choreographer. In "Betrayed," Lane's Max Bialystock, behind bars, acts out a miniversion of the show.
For the final scene, the film returns to Broadway, lit up with the titles of future Bialystock & Bloom hits such as "She Shtupps to Conquer," "Katz," "South Passaic," "A Streetcar Named Murray" and "High-Button Jews."