Christopher Fitzgerald and Jeremy Shamos 
in Gutenberg! The Musical!
(© James Ambler)
Christopher Fitzgerald and Jeremy Shamos
in Gutenberg! The Musical!
(© James Ambler)
There's a lot to be learned at Gutenberg! The Musical!, but those lessons have nothing to do with the German inventor who refined and popularized the printing press. What you can discover from this two-act, 90-minute tuner -- especially if you're thinking of writing one yourself -- is a series of "theater don'ts."

Don't think that just because you're being tasteless, you're being funny. Don't think that taking an unpromising subject for a musical and then putting "The Musical" in the title is anything less than a thoroughly depleted show-biz gag. (Do think it's an immediate tip-off that there are writers present totally devoid of inspiration.) Don't think self-referential musicals are the least bit original as 2007 dawns. And, for Pete's sake, don't include an Elton John joke in your exposition after The Drowsy Chaperone has laid that allusion so hilariously to rest.

Don't think that just because you're spoofing bad musicals, you're going to entertain anyone for very long by writing bad songs. Don't think that hiring gifted musical comedy performers like Christopher Fitzgerald and Jeremy Shamos means they're going to transform themselves into the world's first genuinely successful alchemists and turn your dross into gold. Don't believe the old comment about certain transcendent actors being able to read the telephone book and make it amusing -- it's just a nice saying.

And don't convince yourself that framing a send-up of deficient shows as a backers audition is the latest in clever premises. It's been done before -- and done and done. I encountered the idea 38 years ago when Leonard Sillman offered New Faces of 1968 in a stylized stage interpretation of his luxurious East 72nd Street flat. And even the flamboyant Sillman may not have been the first to come up with the conceit.

But a backers' audition is precisely how Scott Brown and Anthony King have shaped their sophomoric show, which has been directed obstreperously by Alex Timbers. Fitzgerald and Shamos, as collaborators Bud Davenport and Doug Simon, arrive breathlessly eager to lay out the plot of the supposed show-within-the-show, in which Gutenberg, who runs a wine press, loves a dim-witted local girl called Helvetica (like the typeface, yuk-yuk) and is menaced by a fiendish monk.

Those characters are only three in a supposed cast of tens. Brown and King assume it's rib-tickling to have Fitzgerald and Shamos impersonate each of the figures by putting on white-and-blue baseball caps with identifying names on the front. (Incidentally, one of the caps says "Dead Baby," while another says, "Feces.") All the caps rest on an upstage table when not in use, and Fitzgerald spends an inordinate amount of time with his back to the audience arranging and rearranging them so the constant switching happens efficiently. He's masterful at the busy work.

When the show's second act begins, Shamos says: "Gutenberg! The Musical!" Fitzgerald replies: "Why did we write it?" There is no satisfying answer.