Like the old Lana Turner movie, love has many faces, and when it lights up the punim of Gerard Alessandrini, it is — without fail — a funny face, full of Peck's Bad Boy mischief. Alessandrini is show cop on the Broadway beat/case, his citations and criticisms taking the form of skits, sketches and rudely revised lyrics that, run end to end for 25 years on Energizer batteries, constitute Forbidden Broadway, an audacious "love offering" that's still giving a giddy good time in its silver-anniversary edition, now at the 47th Street Theatre.
The word "edition" is apt since Forbidden Broadway is the musical-theatre equivalent of newspapering: It has been in an unending state of update and repair since eight months B.C. (Before Cats), always reflecting the down-to-the-wire state of the arts. It was six years old when the current Broadway long-runner, The Phantom of the Opera, hit town.
"Of course, we're not technically a long-running show the way The Fantasticks is, because it's not the same show," points out Alessandrini the Purist. "The Dramatists Guild, in the book they put out on long-running shows, lists Forbidden Broadway as 20 different shows — which is just fine with me. If it's a question of having one long-running show for 25 years or 20 hit shows during the same period, I'll take the 20 hit shows."
By design more than by definition, Forbidden Broadway is the ultimate work-in-progress: "Once a number has been set, the tweaking begins. Every day, it's 'Change these lyrics' or, if a show closes, it's 'Change the tense.' I do two or three different new numbers for a show as we go along — then a big overhaul every new edition. I'm always changing the order. I almost phone it in day-to-day. It keeps the show fresh. People would be amazed if they actually came to the show twice in one week. They might see a different show on Friday than what they saw on Tuesday — not completely, but different numbers pop up. " Now a beefy 54, with a shock of wild 'n' crazy hair, he looks like he stayed too long at the bacchanal, but the grapes haven't dimmed the satirical, satanic glint in the eyes. Being a cut-up for a quarter-century has improved his parry and thrust. He avoids the jugular. Flesh wounds are a specialty and keep Broadway laughing all the way to the blood bank.
"The original idea of Forbidden Broadway was to make it a showcase for myself as a performer, and I did the show the first two years of the run, then took it to L.A. and did it out there. I was actually replaced by Jason Alexander, who did it better than I ever did. It wasn't long before I realized that it would be easier to find people who performed this better than I could. What was special about what I was doing was the writing and the directing." Voilà! A hyphenate was born.
The first person to recognize (and write) this was Rex Reed, who at the time was feuding with his Dakota neighbor Lauren Bacall, and heard that a little revue at Palsson's a short stroll from their building was wickedly ridiculing Bacall's husky alto in Woman of the Year ("I'm One of the Girls/who sings like a boy"). Reed was off like a shot — but if he came to jeer, he stayed to cheer extravagantly — and that rave put the show on the theatrical map. "Every time I see him," admits Alessandrini, "I say, 'Thank you.' I don't know if he remembers or even suspects how he started it all."
Bacall herself eventually bopped by — albeit circa 1990. "By then her number had been dropped, and it was almost forgotten we'd ever done it, but she enjoyed the show a lot."
Indeed, most artists who've endured the tongue-lashing of an Alessandrini lyric enjoy the experience — a theatrical rite of passage akin to a Hirschfeld caricature. "Merman and Martin came to see the show early on, and they were certainly effusive about it, especially Mary," Alessandrini recalls. "Carol Channing wasn't in the show and asked me to write her in, so I did. She said she was greatly relieved that she wasn't played by a man.
"Andrew Lloyd Webber got a huge kick out of the show. He has come a few times, but not as often as Stephen Sondheim, who loves to see his shows spoofed. He's sharp about what works and doesn't work, too. I'm really glad to be spoofing his shows. It gives Forbidden Broadway a smarter edge. Otherwise, we'd just be doing Xanadu and Grease.
"Some years you look at the ABCs, and it's a challenge because there aren't enough to spoof. Happily, the season that just ended was active and varied. You had serious hits like Spring Awakening and a throwback musical like Curtains and a corporate type musical like Mary Poppins — then it's Hairspray, Grease, Jersey Boys, Xanadu, all very similar, with that early-'60s pop thing going on — the jukebox-musical thing. It gives Broadway a certain sameness, and that I don't like. It makes our show look like one of those shows."
Not that Forbidden Broadway would or could ever be confused for something that ran with all the other horses. After a quarter-century of contrariness, ducking the slings and arrows of outrageous Alessandrini, The Establishment recently came around to his irreverent way of thinking and gave him an honorary Tony for his creative naughtiness.