Forbidden Broadway Paints the Great White Way With a Coat of Parody
By Harry Haun
Forbidden Broadway, the satiric revue that pokes commercial theatre in the eyes, is back. And no one, not even Jesus, is spared.
"There were three Jesuses on Broadway this year — Jesus Christ Superstar, The Book of Mormon and Godspell," notes Gerard Alessandrini. "And when you think about it, who else but Jesus could star in three Broadway shows at once?"
No one, not even the Son of God, is safe from Alessandrini's satirical wrath in the 30th-anniversary edition of Forbidden Broadway, which opens Sept. 6. Brace yourself for multiple Jesuses jumping all over the stage — somewhere between that gleeful revolutionary Ricky Martin and a dancing Matthew Broderick.
Alessandrini is returning to the scene of his past crimes against Merman, Martin and Minnelli — the 47th Street Theatre — with a renewed vengeance. In a manner of speaking, it's a kind of second coming. After 27 seasons of incisive satire, Forbidden Broadway took an intermission that lasted three years, Alessandrini preferring to sit it out till Broadway stockpiled enough spoofable targets to make a decent ribbing.
"That break definitely helped," he says. "Before, it was always 'Is there enough stuff around to do a new edition?' Now, having skipped a few years, that's not a problem at all. In fact, there's probably more to do than we can actually do." (A good thing.)
He's spending all of August — plus a week on both sides of that — in previews, trying out material, seeing what works and what doesn't. Currently the bill of fare is in great flux. "Comedy, you have to hone. You have to find out where the laughs are. For the true theatre aficionados, I always say, 'Come for an early preview, then come back. You'll see a different show.'
"It'll probably be the same length as the other ones. That's about 30 numbers: 16 in the first act, one or two less in the second."
Alessandrini's conspicuous love of theatre somehow keeps his laughs from landing mean-spiritedly, and that love has been returned with an honorary Tony and, indeed, awards from virtually every theatre organization in existence. You'll not find him at the theatre furiously scribbling notes with a quill dipped in venom. In fact, you may not find him at all, subtly disguised as a member of the audience like a Times restaurant critic. "I hate to take notes because it distracts you from looking at the show. I just try to go to the show and enjoy it, or not enjoy it, as best I can."
His modus operandi is quite different from that of the card-carrying critic. "I can study a show after it's opened. I can get the cast album — sometimes, the script or libretto or music. And, of course, I love to listen to the buzz around town. When you hear certain complaints repeated, then you know you're in the right ballpark."
There's no time limit on these fun-pokes, either. "Something doesn't have to be running to be stuck in an audience's mind," he says. "People still talk about Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music, and if they're still laughing about her Tony Award number, we might go there and see if we get a response.
"There's something about theatre audiences: You aren't restricted to doing what they do on Broadway. If a celebrity's not in a show but attached to it — Bono with Spider-Man or Trey Parker with Book of Mormon — you can bring them into the skit."
Alessandrini admits he'll likely go after Parker, but won't try for any Spider-Man swatting. He'll take the lower road, thank you very much. "The accidents have already been highly satirized in every media outlet in the world. I think what we will focus on will be Bono and Julie Taymor and the pending lawsuit."
Continuing to throw a wide net, he hopes to ensnare Hugh Jackman in the upcoming Les Misérables film as well as Megan Hilty and Angelica Huston in the "Smash" series.
And the fact that Elena Roger is the first authentic Argentine to play Eva Perón on Broadway does not give her special dispensation. In fact, Alessandrini threatens, "We're thinking maybe we should have Patti LuPone come in and give her diction lessons."
Audra McDonald does rate a pass in Alessandrini's book, but the fast-and-loose treatment of the Porgy and Bess score does not. "Well, Gershwin's Gone Now So We Can Do What We Want" may be the line of attack. "I thought the music was unjustly tampered with. The music in the movie version was tampered with by Andre Previn — but in a really great way. He expanded the orchestrations, made the perfect cuts, moved this, moved that. It's so brilliantly done that it's true to the idea of the original and closer to what Gershwin would have wanted."
Then there's Newsies, that aggressive song-and-dance about the 1899 newsboys' strike against their penny-pinching publisher, Joseph Pulitzer. "I really enjoyed that show," Alessandrini beams blissfully. "I think they should have given it the Pulitzer Prize, just for a good sense of humor, but they didn't — so we'll have to in Forbidden Broadway."
At 58, Alessandrini is still Broadway's bad boy, on an eternal wild tear around town.
(This feature appears in the August 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)
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