Chore­og­ra­pher worked on ‘Spring­time for Hitler’

Santa Fe New Mexican - - THE WEATHER - By Richard Sandomir

Alan John­son, a chore­og­ra­pher renowned for his campy movie col­lab­o­ra­tions with Mel Brooks on the “Spring­time for Hitler” goose-step­pers-and­show­girls ex­trav­a­ganza in The Pro­duc­ers and the “Put­tin’ on the Ritz” tap dance in Young Franken­stein, died Satur­day at his home in Los An­ge­les. He was 81.

His death was con­firmed by his nephew Todd John­son, who said that he had re­ceived a di­ag­no­sis of Parkin­son’s disease sev­eral years ago.

John­son had danced in the orig­i­nal Broad­way pro­duc­tion of West Side Story and be­gun his ca­reer as a chore­og­ra­pher when he started work­ing with Brooks, whom he had al­ready met through a friend, lyri­cist Martin Charnin. Brooks, best known at the time for his work with Carl Reiner on the 2000 Year Old Man records, was de­vel­op­ing The Pro­duc­ers, about a pro­ducer who schemes with his ac­coun­tant to cre­ate a cer­tain Broad­way flop and steal the money in­vested in it by un­sus­pect­ing old women.

The show they choose — Spring­time for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Ber­cht­es­gaden — is the film’s mu­si­cal show­piece, a taste­less par­ody of 1930s mu­si­cals with Nazis sing­ing and danc­ing and chorines wear­ing out­size beer steins and pret­zels on their heads.

“There’s a Mel Brooks the­ory of film­mak­ing,” John­son said in an in­ter­view for The Mak­ing of The Pro­duc­ers ,a doc­u­men­tary in­cluded in the 2002 DVD re­lease of the film. “Three-quar­ters of the way through the film, give the au­di­ence a zetz” (Yid­dish for a smack on the head). “For­tu­nately for a chore­og­ra­pher and dancers, it’s a mu­si­cal num­ber.”

John­son added that “Mel threw out ev­ery crazy idea he could think of ” for the Spring­time num­ber, in­clud­ing an over­head shot in which black-uni­formed Nazi dancers cre­ated a swirling swastika.

John­son agreed to stage the scene. But, Brooks re­called in the doc­u­men­tary: “Alan said, ‘Oh my God, are we al­lowed to show this? Oh my God, can we show this any­where?’ I said, ‘Look, my fa­vorite ex­pres­sion is, When you go up to the bell, ring it, or don’t go up to the bell.’ I said: ‘We’ve gone too far. We have to ring the bell.’ ”

John­son un­der­stood Brooks’ comic aes­thetic.

“Ev­ery time we’d hit a level, we’d go broader and big­ger,” he said. There were no lim­its to what we could do.”

In 1974, Brooks re­leased two films, both of which fea­tured John­son’s chore­og­ra­phy. In Blaz­ing Sad­dles, a Western par­ody about a black sher­iff who saves a fron­tier town, John­son staged two mem­o­rable dances: Made­line Kahn’s comic ode to her en­nui, “I’m Tired,” and a num­ber with Dom DeLuise as a petu­lant chore­og­ra­pher re­hears­ing about two dozen men in top hats and tails as they sing, “Throw out your hands/Stick out your tush/Hands on your hips/Give them a push!”

In John­son’s tour de force in Young Franken­stein, Dr. Fred­er­ick Franken­stein (Gene Wilder) tries to prove that the mon­ster (Peter Boyle) he has brought back from the dead is ac­tu­ally a “cul­tured, so­phis­ti­cated man about town” by danc­ing with him in for­mal wear to Irv­ing Ber­lin’s “Put­tin’ on the Ritz.”

“Alan taught me how to teach Gene and Peter the steps, work­ing out the tim­ing with not only the taps but also the cane,” Brooks said in a book he wrote with Re­becca Kee­gan, Young Franken­stein: The Story of the Mak­ing of the Film (2016). “It’s very in­tri­cate tap­ping if you use the cane as well as taps.”

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