Olney Theatre’s production of Mel Brooks’s 2001 musical The Producers only has three more performances, but it’s not going to close without a bit of manufactured controversy. Audience members at Montgomery County playhouse are going to have to walk past a small coterie protesting the show’s play-within-the-play, because, the demonstrators say, it makes light of Adolf Hitler and the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany.
“I understand the intent is satire,” says Jeffrey Imm, who is organizing the demonstration through his anti-discrimination group, Responsible for Equality And Liberty. “This is the point of morality: some things we have to recognize as absolute evil. When 6 million people are murdered, we don’t view it with knee-slapping, we view it with reverence.”
In The Producers, which is adapted from Brooks’s Oscar-winning 1968 film of the same name, two crooked Broadway producers endeavor to profit off a critical and commercial flop, which they believe they find in Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, which portrays Hitler as a flamboyant dandy.
Even though the jokes in The Producers come at the expense of show-business types and Nazis, Imm is not impressed by its humor, or the original Broadway run’s record 12 Tony Awards. Contemporary audiences, he argues, are no longer frightened by genocide.
Imm finds The Producers even more objectionable in light of Thursday night’s mass shooting at a movie theater in Layfayette, Louisiana that left two people dead and nine more wounded. The gunman, who also took his own life, has been connected to extremist websites, including some that praise Hitler’s regime. On his organization’s website, Imm writes events like last night or last month’s massacre of nine parishoners of a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina occur because cultural depictions of Nazi and Confederate symbols have “normalized” them.
“The problem is how people have gotten about Hitler,” Imm tells Washingtonian. “They’ve forgotten how horrible it is. They let the years go by with Hogan’s Heroes and all that. They’re not horrified by that.”
At least one actor in Olney’s Producers says Imm is missing the point. In a column for the Jewish magazine Tablet, Brandon Ambrosino, a member of the show’s ensemble, writes: “Brooks wasn’t trying to whitewash Hitler, and he certainly wasn’t trying to glorify him. As Brooks has often explained, he saw it as his goal to mock Hitler.”
But to Imm, there are some things that are beyond satire. “It would be no more funny if somebody did a comedy with a play that’s not going to work because it’s about Osama bin Laden,” he says. “We cannot laugh about that.”
Imm says this push to close The Producers two days before the end of its run is an unusual protest for his group, which he says usually focuses on discrimination and violence against women, minorities, and gays in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and China.
“We live to fight for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights around the world,” he says, referring to the 1948 United Nation document that seeks to establish a global standard of human rights.
But according to Imm, Brooks—a Jewish World War II veteran and certified EGOT winner—has been flouting the declaration for the last 14 years. “I think he’s ignoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he says. “I know about his comedy. I don’t agree with him. I think it’s vulgar.”
Although Imm’s demonstration against The Producers has only elicited about a dozen emails to Olney Theatre and will only attract one or two other demonstrators, he believes his cause will grow.
“Call the Southern Poverty Law Center and ask them if they think it’s okay to do a play about Hitler,” he says.
Says SPLC spokesman Mark Potok: “We don’t have an opinion on this.”