“I haven’t seen people in Seattle this excited about anything,” says my date to the new Mel Brooks Broadway musical Young Frankenstein, which had its world premiere in Seattle at the Paramount Theatre on Aug. 7.
The lights have just gone out on the final scene, in which Dr. Frederick Frankenstein embraces his beautiful Scandinavian lab assistant, while Igor, his hunchbacked sidekick, plays the French horn below a luminescent full moon.
The orchestra kicks into a final, clomping tune, prompting most of the audience to clap along in unison as the actors return to the stage to receive their applause. Everyone in the theatre rises to their feet.
Throughout its three hours, Young Frankenstein packs in as many bad jokes as it does good ones. This is Mel Brooks after all, so nearly every minute is filled with sexual innuendo and double entendres. One song is dedicated almost entirely to breasts and another celebrates the “large” and “deep” love only a creature with the monster’s sizable proportions can give a woman.
But what makes the production fun to watch isn’t necessarily the raunchy humor. It’s the spectacle.
With a high-tech system of pulleys controlled from a console located inside the bowels of the Paramount, huge sets are maneuvered onto the stage, transforming the scenery from one tune to the next.
At one moment, Dr. Frankenstein is singing in a laboratory with Tesla coil-like devices rising to the ceiling. At the next, crazed villagers search for the monster in a foggy forest. Clouds projected onto a backdrop look as real as any you might find in the Seattle sky. The effects are so sophisticated that at times the production feels less like theater performance than some sort of live movie.
That Seattleites get to see such a production before the rest of the world is a rare event. Hundreds of technicians, actors, promotions people and others have worked for months behind the scenes to make it happen.
But Josh LaBelle, executive director of the Seattle Theatre Group, the non-profit arts organization that runs the Moore and Paramount theatres, deserves a share of the credit. As head of STG, LaBelle is charged with providing a vision for the organization and support to its staff. He is also one of the point persons for Broadway Across America, and was therefore instrumental in bringing the production to Seattle.
Productions the size of Young Frankenstein typically open in bigger cities such as San Francisco and Chicago. So when LaBelle received a phone call from the general manager of the production, wondering whether, on short notice, STG would be interested in a pre-Broadway engagement, it was a bigger opportunity than most. It was also an attractive offer that matched LaBelle’s vision of STG as an organization designed to serve the “broad community” and the Paramount as the “people’s theater.”
“Occasionally, big opportunities to launch a tour, or in this case a production like Young Frankenstein, come across our plate,” says LaBelle in an interview at the Paramount a week before the opening. Most of the lobby is covered in boxes and a dancer is practicing her routine in a narrow strip of open space. “We got excited about it because we thought Seattle, Western Washington, and the Northwest in general is likely better off if things like this can happen here first.”
What followed was months of negotiations, with Seattle the likely underdog among the cities competing for the show. Economic impact, according to LaBelle, would be approximately $15 million. Shows already slated to run at the Paramount had to be rescheduled. Some were moved to Portland, others a few blocks northwest to the Moore. With the exception of comedian Lewis Black, for the last two months the Paramount didn’t host any performances while it worked to prepare the theater for Young Frankenstein.
Twenty-three semi-trucks worth of gear were unloaded into the theater and the loading dock was converted in a makeshift workshop. The only show the Paramount has hosted with a comparable size was the The Lion King, which visited Seattle in 2004. The difference, of course, is that The Lion King took seven years after its opening on Broadway to make it to Seattle.
LaBelle grew up in a Reform Jewish family in Los Angeles. He is a musician by trade, who earned his undergraduate degree in Ethnomusicology from UCLA. After college, he worked professionally as a drummer while taking a day job in the music division of the prestigious William Morris Agency.
His time at the agency was like a “business boot camp,” LaBelle recalls. He would listen in on negotiations conducted by some of the most high-powered agents in the business. It also gave him an introduction to Seattle’s music scene, as the agency represented bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, who were then breaking into the mainstream.
After leaving William Morris, he played music for the musician/producer T-Bone Burnett (winner of a Grammy for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack), going out on the road for almost two years. He eventually landed in Seattle with a girlfriend and “talked his way” into a job at the Paramount putting together a program of rock concerts.
“I left the traveling circus and came to the stationary circus,” LaBelle likes to say.
Today, he is 42 years old, unmarried, the proud custodian of two dogs. He still plays drums, but as a hobby with friends. He is also emphatically humble about his work, and quick to praise his entire staff.
“Take really great care of great people,” he says, explaining the key to success, whether you’re putting on a multi-million dollar production like Young Frankenstein or playing music. “That’s all it is…that’s the gig.”