At the time, I thought the routine was one of the funniest send-ups of musicals I'd ever heard. Since then, I've encountered countless additional tuner ribbings. In Martin Charnin's 1987 No-Frills Revue, the lyricist included what were supposedly Stephen Sondheim's lost manuscripts but were actually Charnin's rewrites of parts of classic shows by other composers in the Sondheim style. Then, of course, there are Gerard Alessandrini's couple decades worth of Forbidden Broadway jibes, not to mention all those self-referential musical comedy jokes in the recent Broadway clicks The Producers and Urinetown.
The above stroll down Tuner-Ribbing Lane is prompted by the arrival of The Musical of Musicals -- The Musical!, created by composer-librettist-performer Eric Rockwell and lyricist-librettist-performer Joanne Bogart with the kind of determined verve that suggests they think they're the first people in history to whom the idea of sending up musicals has occurred. Their notion, somewhat less tedious than their title, is to show how a number of famous theater songwriters would have handled the same storyline -- one that, they eventually state, is basically the same for all shows. Their narrative involves a damsel in distress, usually called June, who can't afford to pay her rent when the mean landlord Jitters, or similar moniker, arrives; June nevertheless prevails after receiving advice from wise lady friend Abby and last-minute aid from her beau, Billy (or some form thereof). Rockwell and Bogart set this tale five times over with scores that, as slide projections tell us, were written "in the style of" Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and John Kander and Fred Ebb.
Perhaps the best way to rate the Rockwell-Bogart labor is to suggest that one will appreciate it in inverse proportion to how many affectionate lambastes one has been exposed in his or her lifetime. The fewer of these evenings a musical-lover has seen, the more The Musical of Musicals -- The Musicals! is likely to seem fresh and cogent. Exceptions to the rule might include people who can never get their fill of musical comedy in whatever form; this one will probably appeal to the ticket-buyer who races to the first preview of Never Gonna Dance and then files an intermission report on Talkinbroadway.com.
I put forth that shopping tip because, by this moment in the history of humorous takes on musical comedy, it's necessary for new purveyors to be more and more clever about their undertaking -- inspired, really -- if they hope to amuse those who've seen it all. Measured by this yardstick, Rockwell and Bogart don't fare so well. There's no gainsaying that the two have listened closely to the work of their forerunners and have understood their various styles and idiosyncrasies; they've absorbed, with no small amount of acuity, the lyric and music tropes typical of Rodgers and Hammerstein et al. They know the famous songs and dialogue and can rewrite what they know into skewed homages instantly recognizable but not exact.
But that isn't enough, if what's wanted from an evening such as this is more than a grab-bag of allusions to and puns on familiar lyrics, lines of dialogue, and musical riffs. The authors are big on contriving speeches that allow them to drop in reworded phrases; for example, in the Sondheim segment, there's a comment about someone making "specific overtures," and the Herman segment includes a query about whatever happened to "the boy with the bagel." The Sondheim segment works the best of the five because, in basically Sweeney Todd-izing the piece, Bogart has produced her canniest lyrics: "What would be the matter / With the murder of a model? / If the model were a moron / In the middle of a muddle?"
The other four sections are sparked by occasional clever outbursts; in the Kander and Ebb Chicago/Cabaret treatment, Fraulein Abby decadently sings "Sell Your Body" to woebegone Juny. But, more often than not, Rockwell and Bogart don't deliver the goods consistently enough to sustain their central conceit. The Rodgers & Hammerstein stretch, based mostly on Oklahoma! and called Corn, is corny. The funny bone isn't tickled when the gooey words of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone" (from Carousel) and "Climb Every Mountain" (from The Sound of Music) are reworked into "Follow your dream / Don't ask me why / Follow your dream / Until you die." As the Kander and Ebb Speakeasy section unfolded, my theater companion said, "This is more of a send-up of Bob Fosse" -- and I had to agree with him. In Aspects of Junita, which seeks to skewer Lord Lloyd-Webber, the main guffaw is the old saw about that Brit's plundering of the operas of Puccini. And calling attention in Dear Abby to Herman's writing roles for larger-than-life female performers is another gray-bearded gag.
Bogart and Rockwell are joined in the performing department by Craig Fols and Lovette George, and here's where they go far towards making silk purses out of material that frequently has the texture of sow's ears. On James Morgan's non-set (only a piano, a short, metal staircase-ladder, and the occasional chair are used) and clad in all-black ensembles (one each for Act I, another each for Act II) by John Carver Sullivan, the foursome can be very diverting while assuming the disparate affects associated with the work of the writers being mocked.
The best of them is Lovette George, who has a gleam in her eye whatever she's doing and possesses a light touch. Usually, she's the one who tentatively comments "That was so helpful" whenever Joanne Bogart as Abby blares one of her advice songs. Bogart, whose voice isn't especially strong, nevertheless makes her opportunities count. Fols is more than serviceable, as is Rockwell, who spends most of his time at the piano. (The other three sometimes pound the keys as well.) And Pamela Hunt has directed and choreographed the piece with commendable invention; the original productions of the musicals ridiculed here may have cost a lot, but Hunt proves that you can do a lot with a little. On the other hand, Bogart and Rockwell do little with a lot.