Gerard Alessandrini, Forbidden Broadway's creator, director, and lyricist, is a theater critic's alter ego. When he aims his laser wit at Broadway's mega-hits with surgical precision, he gets to say things we often can't. While we have to treat these shows seriously, Alessandrini mercilessly--if humorously--exposes their flaws, going where critics fear to tread. He cuts to the core and, with his inimitable comedic touch, strips shows (and actors!) of their pretensions.
My first time at Forbidden Broadway, I witnessed the famous duel between Phantom's chandelier and Miss Saigon's helicopter--and I haven't missed a version since. I always know that this is one night when I'll enjoy myself at the theater.
About 20 years ago, Alessandrini was combining a well paying waiter's job with his life as a musical theater performer. He would set up at 4:30 p.m., serve diners who had to make an 8:00 curtain, and dash out to perform somewhere himself. "Sometimes I'd wear my waiter's tux to a nightclub where I was doing stand-up," he recalls.
One of his routines parodied the great musicals. He called the segment "Forbidden Broadway," and he soon realized that it "was more of a show than an act." And so, what is now a cherished tradition began 18 years ago--appropriately, with Alessandrini's spoof of Fiddler On The Roof, in which the song "Tradition" becomes "Ambition".
To his surprise, the show was immediately successful. "I was too busy working as a waiter to go around inviting people," Alessandrini recalls, "so I guess word of mouth did it." The reason for FB's success was it's refreshingly unique concept. ("I thought everybody was doing it," Alessandrini says now. "After all, parody is as old as Greek theater.") In 1981, the show's creator had to relinquish his two other careers, acting and waitering, to devote himself to the precarious life of a "shoestring impresario."
Through the years, Forbidden Broadway's audiences have been treated to a hissy fit between two male swans (providing the high camp missing from the recent Swan Lake) and to a spoof of the terminally cute, sanitized Footloose (a payback for those who had to sit through it). Alessandrini bravely exposed the nastiness of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, put Leo & Kate where they belonged on the deck of Broadway's Titanic, renamed Ragtime Gagtime, and exposed the chiropractic needs of the cast of The Lion King cast.
Old theater icons are similar targets: the indestructibly weird Ann Miller, manic Mandy Patinkin...even La Merman, trying to get the Phantom off mike. All are accompanied by the brilliant musical director Mathew Ward, who plays the whole show on piano from memory--except the Footloose number, which he reads from the score. ("I refuse to put that music in my head," he explains.)
When asked what he does when he really loves a show, Alessandrini replies, "It's hard, sometimes, because I'm supposed to be mean all the time, but it really isn't about my opinion. It's more about the buzz on a show, what people may be complaining about." Producers do not usually encourage the creator of Forbidden Broadway with comps: "I have to buy my own tickets," Alessandrini admits, "and it becomes rather expensive."
One wonders at the response of targeted performers and producers. "Hal Prince was the only one who publicly expressed anger at the spoof of his rather disastrous Merrily We Roll Along. But when he actually saw our show, he appreciated the humor of its intent, and quickly became a fan."