The Producers, playing at the Saenger Theatre this week, is Mel Brooks' musical within a musical, in which a scheming producer and his bumbling accountant conspire to produce the worst musical ever to belly-flop onto Broadway. They've realized that the profit from a flop far exceeds what they can make from a hit, and think they have a sure loser with the Nazi paean Springtime for Hitler. But not everything goes as planned.
Ruck has some big shoes to fill in the role of the hapless accountant Leo Bloom. Gene Wilder originated the role in the 1968 film, written and directed by Mel Brooks. The Broadway play opened in 2001 with Matthew Broderick as Leo and Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock, in a production that won a record 12 Tony Awards and still boasts sold-out performances. Ruck says he wasn't shy about appropriating mannerisms and gags from those who went before him. "The truth is that all actors steal everything," he says.
At the time his agent handed him the script of The Producers, he says, "I actually hadn't done a proper play for about 11 years." He'd spent most of those years in Los Angeles working in film and television, including a six-year run on the popular sitcom Spin City, in which he played the mayor's acerbic chief of staff. He was eager to try for the part of Leo Bloom, he says, but a couple of concerns kept popping into his brain. He'd have to sing. He'd have to dance. And he'd have to audition for Mel Brooks himself.
Ruck started out in theater, first in Chicago in the late 1970s, then making his Broadway debut opposite Matthew Broderick in Neil Simon's play Biloxi Blues. Thus began a productive friendship between Broderick and Ruck, who went on to make a lasting impression on the American movie-going consciousness with the 1986 classic John Hughes comedy, Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Ruck played Cameron, Ferris' hypochondriac friend and deeply reluctant partner in skipping school. Although he was 29 years old when he took the role of a high school student, Ruck's portrayal of the acquiescent, moping, angst-filled Cameron resonated with a generation of teenagers.
The character of Cameron was so distinctive, says Ruck, that he had a hard time shaking off the role in the years following the movie. "There were times in my life when I couldn't get a job, and that really bothered me," says Ruck, now 47. "I thought, wow, one-trick pony, and everybody knows the trick." Now that many other successful acting gigs have followed, it no longer rankles when people greet him as Cameron. "I'm happy that people have fond memories of that movie," he says.
As he prepared for his audition with Mel Brooks, Ruck had to reach deeper into his past than Ferris for inspiration. "I sang in high school, and I could always carry a tune, but I never pursued that," he says. "And I took dancing, again, when I was in high school and that was about it.
"Mel's a legend. So of course I was nervous," Ruck admits. "I drove my family crazy! I just kept singing those songs over and over, for six weeks." At the audition, Ruck's vocal training paid off, and his comic timing carried the day. There was only one sticking point: his hair. It wasn't nearly unkempt enough to fit the scatterbrained Leo Bloom, Brooks told him as he got busy with a comb. Once he was satisfied that Ruck could look as untidy as the best of them, Brooks gave him the nod.
What followed was four weeks of musical-theater boot camp to prepare him for doing the song-and-dance routine eight times a week. "They worked me pretty hard in L.A., they beat it into me," says Ruck with a rueful chuckle. "At the end of the first day, I had been sitting on the floor and I got up on my knees to turn off the television, and every muscle in my legs from my heels to the top of my butt seized up. I was just stuck there, I couldn't move."
Ruck says he's found a certain freedom in his return to the stage. With film work, "you spend so much of your day waiting for them to get the lights right. Television is a lot of fun, it's quicker, there's a live audience, at least in sitcoms, and that's enjoyable. But nothing is in your control, really; it's all still the director's or the producer's call.
"But when you're in a play, at least for those two and a half hours that you're on stage, you're free. You might get in trouble when you get off stage at the end of the night, but for that couple of hours it's yours."