The most unlikely playwright in liberal New York

Phill Jupitus in The Producers.
Phill Jupitus in The Producers.

“Well, comedy is such a subjective thing, isn’t it,” says Phill Jupitus, “but this has certainly got be right up there.”

The Producers plays the Theatre Royal Brighton from April 13-18 – the glorious tale of a success no one wanted.

Impoverished by a string of flops, New York producer Max Bialystock recruits timid accountant Leo Bloom to help him pull off Broadway’s greatest scam. They aim to produce the worst show ever and run away with millions, but they soon learn that showbusiness can kick you in the teeth.

Phill plays Franz Liebkind, the playwright they bring in the hope of disaster.

“I saw the (1967 Mel Brooks) film (starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) between 1972 and 1974,” Phill says. “I know I saw the films in the wrong order. I saw Young Frankenstein and then Blazing Saddles and then The Producers.”

Blazing Saddles stands up really well: “Americans and absurdity... You look at the Marx Brothers and what they did. It’s in that line.”

And so is The Producers: “It’s a fantastic one, such a great story. It’s the fact you have got these two miserable characters brought together who see this way out. They are brought together really by the desperation of the circumstances, and all the people they meet are just escapists.”

As Phill says, with Liebkind, the ex-Nazi, you couldn’t dream of a more unlikely person to be a playwright in the heart of liberal New York.

“He is this World War Two veteran who somehow ended up living in New York. He is so deluded. He bought into the whole Leni Riefenstahl era, that Hitler is a good guy and the saviour of the German people. He doesn’t see the evil in Hitler’s core. He has got post-traumatic stress disorder. He has been destroyed by World War Two. He ends up with his pigeons and his dreams. He really buys into what Bialystock and Bloom are saying. He thinks they really believe in him.”

It’s the latest in a succession of great roles for Phill whose recent stage credits include Spamalot and Edna in Hairspray: “Edna was just something that came in under the radar, just something you don’t consider until it is put in your lap. When I see a role, I like to think I can act. I think my view is that if you are a good stand-up comedian, acting is always part of your armoury. You have it in there. All the best stand-up comedians can be actors. You think of Lee Evans and Eddie Izzard. Lee and Eddie have done lots of acting work.”

So yes, the acting has always been there for Phill, though it was as a poet that he started out in the business, back in the days of political engagement in the 1980s.

“What you forget as you get older is that you are changing as much as the world is changing around you. I think what politicians have allowed to happen now is that they have allowed the white noise of the media to obstruct them in their job. They pay too much attention to focus groups and consultants. You have got to be grounded to be a good politician.”

As for his own career: “The way it’s gone has been quite reactive to circumstances really as they come along. If you look back over my CV, you will see there is no particular focus. People say ‘You must have a plan.’ I don’t have a plan. They say ‘You must have a strategy.’ That’s where it all goes wrong if I start to try to have a strategy!”

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