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."
"The show's been running for 18 years," Ayers adds. "Can you believe it? It takes an amazing mind to come up with something every time a new show opens. Forbidden Broadway changes as often as Broadway changes. In the past month, we've added two new items--Saturday Night Fever and Minnelli on Minnelli--plus references to the closing of Cats and the opening of Aida. So this is one of those shows you can come back to over and over."
Asked how it feels when a role you've rehearsed and performed over and over is changed or dropped, Kaplan responds: "It's a little nuts, and a test of your ability to keep it together, because you're basically working on keeping a character true. But Gerard knows where he's going. The wheels are turning in his head. You are a piece in the big picture, and he sees where it's going. You might think that even some of the tried-and-true numbers, like Rent and Les Miz, are getting stale; but when audience members come up to you and say how much they enjoyed those numbers, it inspires you to keep them fresh and stimulating."
Alessandrini's versions of Cats, Les Miz, Phantom, Rent are favorites because people know the shows, but one wonders if the spoofs of more recent productions suffer in that a large percentage of the audience hasn't seen the shows being targeted. To which Ayers responds, "I don't think so. The people we are portraying are so identifiable, like Bebe Neuwirth. Even if you haven't seen her in Chicago, you know her from television."
Kaplan agrees. "The greatness of Gerard is the details he's incorporated about the show or the characters within it. If you've seen the show we're spoofing, you feel like a theater insider; if you haven't seen it, you learn more about it."
"And of course, there's the visual," Kaplan adds. "We try to look like these people as much as possible." Costume designer Alvin Colt does a marvelous job with innovative bits and pieces. For instance, in The Lion King one of the giraffes comes out with a couple of canes, and the elephant's nose is industrial tubing attached to a gas mask.
Obviously, the audience has to be interested in Broadway or they wouldn't have entered the Forbidden zone in the first place, so they are pretty savvy. In a wise move, the show trasferred to the Stardust Theater in the heart of the theater district several years ago, after previous engagements on the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side. Also, FB is very intelligently scheduled to begin 15 minutes after every other show on Broadway--so if you can't get into your first-choice musical, you can always come to Forbidden Broadway for a skewed, capsule version of the show you might have seen. You can even have dinner while you're watching.
Over the years, Alessandrini and his casts have garnered two Lucille Lortel Awards, an Obie, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and two Drama Desk Awards. Ever the modest fellow, Alessandrini confides, "They make me feel better about what I do." Critics and audiences alike applaud the sentiment.