Choreographer worked on ‘Springtime for Hitler’
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.”