Gerard Alessandrini is the mastermind behind Forbidden Broadway, the musical comedy revue that takes aim at Broadway: its shows, its stars, and its trends. A chain-smoking redhead sings "I'm thirty years old / Tomorrow, / And I haven't worked since I did Annie / When I was ten," to the tune of "Tomorrow" in one of Forbidden Broadway's more famous numbers. (The cast of Matilda might want to steer clear.)
Alessandrini started writing and performing his satirical lyrics in 1981, when he was still working as a struggling actor/waiter. Since then, the franchise has spawned 18 editions and 8 cast albums, helping to extend Forbidden Broadway's popularity well beyond Manhattan.
The latest edition, Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging!, is currently previewing at the Davenport Theatre. It opens officially on May 4. Yet according to Alessandrini, the show is always changing, making it more akin to old-school vaudeville than modern musical theater.
What can we expect from Comes Out Swinging?
I put numbers in as we go along. Some work; some don't. Sometimes it's fun to attend a preview because you might see more material than the people see on opening night. This is the first show in a long time that we've opened right at the end of the theater season. We're working on a Rocky number and something for Bridges of Madison County and Idina Menzel...and Les Mis! Our history is sort of tied to Les Misérables, so if it's coming back, we have to come back. The turntable is actually getting a number. It's been fired. It's a has-been star now.
Cabaret is back as well. Any comment?
I know! We call it the "revival of the revival of the revival of Cabaret." I walked by Studio 54 the other day and they have the exact same poster hanging. What, was it in the basement and they just dusted it off and put it back up?
That title Comes Out Swinging is a reference to Rocky, right?
Our opening number is a boxing match. I have to say, I was pretty thrilled by the last twenty minutes of that show. That was spectacle in the best sense of the word. Ummmm, the rest of the show? (laughs) I thought Andy Karl was terrific. I have to say, I understood every word he said. I can't say that about the cast of…some other shows. You've got to hand him that.
How often does the show change? Do you add and subtract lyrics by the week?
By the day. We have a lot of classic material too. So sometimes I say, "How about you do Bernadette tonight." The hardest part of the show is not the writing; it's the routining of it, with costumes and keeping the energy up. The actors work very hard. We have the ability to be very topical. We can put in a reference to Adele Dazeem right away. It can make the show seem a little rough, but it also makes it fresher than a lot of Broadway shows [that] are planned to the second. They're like theme-park rides. Forbidden Broadway is rougher, but it has more surprises. It's more immediate.
You started doing this in 1981 when you were working as a waiter and maître d' at Lincoln Center. Did you expect to still be doing this in 2014?
No, I didn't. I have done other things in between, just nothing as exciting or well known. When you assign yourself that homework to keep the show updated and topical, it's hard to let that go. You always want to keep it updated. You never want to say, "The show was funnier last week."
What has changed on Broadway in the last 33 years?
One thing I've learned is that things are cyclical. Things change, they change again, and then they change back. It seems to be like clothing fashion. It changes every few years. One year it's spectacle, then dramatic insightful shows, then revivals. There was the British invasion. Meta-musical comedy became very fashionable for a time. Now we're back to a spectacle era. Things come and go and if you just wait long enough, things will change to suit your tastes.
I read that you're rarely given free tickets to Broadway shows. Is that still true?
Yes. I was never able to get on the press list. Maybe they're afraid of me.
At this point, if I was a Broadway producer I would feel slighted if you didn't write about my show.
It's true that Forbidden Broadway is really only spoofing hits. If a show is only going to run a few weeks and close, we don't bother.
Who is the target audience for Forbidden Broadway?
We have a split audience. First, it's ardent theatergoers who see all the new shows, a lot of people in the Broadway community. We also get a real tourist audience in the summer. Sometimes it's a problem because if you write something that's really insider-y and new it may not play in front of the tourist audience. The tourist audience wants to see our old Annie spoof. I try to balance it. It's a show that comes out in layers. If you're really inside theater world you get it. If you're not, you still enjoy the music, the costumes, and physical comedy. We're constantly juggling that.