A Life in the Theatre: Gerard Alessandrini

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Gerard Alessandrini Meet the man behind the funny, mean and loving lyrics of Forbidden Broadway.
Gerard Alessandrini
Gerard Alessandrini

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Gerard Alessandrini is the creator and writer of Forbidden Broadway, the very funny and very irreverent spoof that has parodied the best — and worst — of New York theatre since 1981. It is Alessandrini who writes those clever, biting and often hilarious lyrics, who had "Stephen Sondheim," in clown costume, intone the Follies-style lament "The Everybody Loves Me But Nobody Will Produce Me Blues." And who had "Patti LuPone" sing "I Get a Kick Out of Me," with lyrics like "flashing some guy with my Stubby Kaye thigh." Sondheim, a fervent Alessandrini fan, once said about the parodies, "The meaner the better."

Q: So what is it about the theatre that drew you to it, that made you want to spend your career in it?

A: I think it's because I feel that the theatre, especially in New York, is a community. And despite the backbiting and competition that goes on, you feel that you're part of that thriving community. I know that sometimes I'm the one who does the backbiting, but there's cohesiveness in New York, and a sense of brotherhood. I've worked on TV and in Hollywood, and it doesn't exist there. I think people do theatre because they love it, because there's not necessarily a lot of money in it. And of course, it's an art, and it's live.

There's a feeling that we're all in it together. It's like being in a war. You're in the trenches with everyone else, and the main objective is winning the war. It's hard work, it's difficult work, and it makes everybody come together rather than go apart. Q: How, and where, did it all begin for you?

A: I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, in Needham, MA, though I was born in Boston. I'm from a family that is basically Italian, and they were very much into the arts — they were all opera lovers, an aunt was a clothes designer, my father sang. Everybody did something. I was introduced to opera at a very early age, and musical theatre, of course, is just a short jump from that. When I learned about musicals I loved the fact that they were in English and I could understand the words. And they were often as melodic as opera.

So by the time I was an early teenager I would try to write lyrics, make up my own songs. I became an avid fan of musicals. Also at that time, many Broadway musicals would try out in Boston, and I got to see a lot of them. I remember seeing Stephen Sondheim's Follies. And I also became interested in performing in them, an interest many people have when they're young.

Q: Did you perform in school?

A: I had a very nice singing voice — at least I was told I had — and I got to perform a lot. I played most of the leads in high school musicals — Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, Camelot. I did the same thing through college. I went to the Boston Conservatory of Music and studied performing in musical theatre, as well as writing musicals. I studied dance, too. I started writing books and lyrics. It was a very good school to learn how to be in the business — most of the people I went to college with are successful in theatre and television.

Q: What did you do when you graduated?

A: I came straight to New York, as most of my classmates did. I worked a lot of regional theatre, still singing — at the time it was mostly singing. I worked at a place called Light Opera of Manhattan. At the same time I studied musical theatre writing at the New School with Aaron Frankel and at BMI with Lehman Engel. Both of them were inspirations to me.

It seemed to me that I was a struggling artist for many years, but I got to New York in January 1979 and I had my first hit in 1982, so it was really only three years of struggling.

Q: How did Forbidden Broadway happen?

A: One reason I wrote it was because I was a performer — I wanted a showcase for myself and for a friend, Nora Mae Lyng. We started doing it, and it soon became apparent that we could expand it, add two people and make it a revue. I was very naïve back then — I was still in my early 20s — and I assumed that revues still happened.

We started doing it weekends at Palsson's Supper Club on West 72nd Street, and only a few friends showed up. We started previewing it in November and December of 1981, and we had an official "opening night" of Jan. 15, 1982. Nobody came. We just picked a night for friends and relatives to have a party.

Q: How did the word get out — how did it become a success?

A: It just caught on. One of the exciting things about the original production was that many celebrities came to see it. Hal Prince brought his family. Sondheim came, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It was like the family of the theatre. Those people who discovered it told other people in the theatre, and the others started to come. Carol Channing came with Mary Martin and George Burns. There weren't many other people in the audience that night. We weren't spoofing Carol Channing, and she requested to be spoofed. When we did, she came back and brought Ethel Merman. It was exciting — we didn't know which legendary star would be there each night. In a few months, the whole town discovered it — the newspapers started writing about it and the general public started to come.

Q: Why do you think it was so successful?

A: I think it was the right show at the right time. Broadway was finishing its golden age, and it was ripe for parody. It was repeating itself; strange new shows, British shows, were coming in. It was the era of "Saturday Night Live," and it felt good to make fun of sacred cows. I think my take was different enough from other shows — I took the music and changed the lyrics. People have been writing parodies for centuries, of course, but this seemed a very fresh take. I don't know whether I did it accidentally, but I had been studying lyric writing for many years, and it seemed pretty simple to take the lyrics of a real show and fit my lyrics to them. We did the first few productions for just a few hundred dollars. We didn't have a press agent. There was no advertising budget. People just discovered it. It was all very surprising. Stephen Sondheim told me that Forbidden Broadway was one of the first metamusicals — one of the first self-referential musicals. We were singing about theatre. Now, of course, everyone does it.

Q: How do you do it?

A: I guess I just have a talent for parody. I've been writing lyrics since I was a child. When I was a boy I tried to translate the lyrics of operas and operettas. I even tried to write lyrics to The Nutcracker when I was young.

Q: Do you have any special memories of those early days?

A: I just love that it was all considered 'underground' in those days. I also love that it has continued all these years. I really appreciate that it has survived and I've been able to make a career out of it. But I miss the days when it wasn't an institution, when it was something subversive and countercultural, when it was a secret that people discovered. Q: Any favorite lyrics, or sketches?

A: There are so many. But maybe the newest was in the most recent version, where I had 'Daniel Radcliffe, a.k.a. Harry Potter' sing 'Let Me Enter Naked.' It's a real parody. Instead of 'Entertain You' I wrote 'Enter Naked,' which is so close to the original. Those are the ones that make me laugh — when you take the original and change just a few words to give it a totally different meaning.

Q: You were quoted as saying that last season's show was the last in New York. Are you sticking with that?

A: I think the press picked up incorrectly what I said. I said I was done for now, not forever. I said I closed the show in New York because I think Broadway needs to renew itself. I felt I had said all I could about what was going on on Broadway in the last 28 years. I need to have a new set of shows to parody. I thought my last show was a good one, so it was a good one to end on. I don't have plans to bring it back, but in theory I might in two or three years, when there are all new shows on Broadway. I hope to bring it back. I really do.

Q: Meanwhile, you're doing Forbidden Broadway in London, right?

A: Yes, this summer. I've done new numbers. Billy Elliot. And I'm spoofing some of the American shows playing there — Carousel, A Little Night Music. And there's a new Andrew Lloyd Webber spoof, just for there.

Q: What are you doing now?

A: I'm the co-writer and director of Creature From the Black Lagoon, a musical based on that terrible old monster movie from the 1950s, for the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. It has funny, huge special effects and giant puppets.

Q: And, appropriately, its publicity notes that it has 'hilarious, toe-tapping music.' What about the future?

A: I hope to write a new musical, an original musical comedy with three-dimensional characters, more like a musical play, where the book is prominent. I'm trying to find something to do with a major composer — I can't say who. I plan to be doing that for the next couple of years, and I hope that it will be good enough to bring to Broadway.

Q: And if it comes to Broadway, and if Forbidden Broadway returns, would you parody it?

A: Absolutely. There are many more nasty things to say about myself than I can think of to say about Patti LuPone.

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