The Half-New Musical
What disturbing trait do Forbidden Broadway, Menopause: The Musical, and Chuckleball all share?
I'm pained to add one more disturbing trend that I never see anyone criticize, but now it can genuinely be called a genre. Indeed, I never gave it much thought myself until a couple of weeks ago, when Menopause announced that it was playing its 1000th Off-Broadway performance. For Menopause belongs to a genre that I'll dub The Half-New Musical. This bookless entertainment is new in that it offers new lyrics; what it doesn't offer is new music. Instead, the creators of The Half-New Musical take familiar tunes and put new lyrics to them.
It started in 1982 with Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway, so successful a spoof of musicals that it begat Forbidden Broadway Cleans up Its Act, Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back, Forbidden Broadway 2001: A Spoof Odyssey, and whatever edition is currently running at the Fairbanks. "Redundant, redundant; this song is redundant," sang a Little Orphan Annie clone to the tune of Charles Strouse's famous anthem, "Tomorrow," in one of the first of hundreds of lyrics that Alessandrini would write. He's now in his third decade of parodying. Supply meets demand!
Not long after, a group in Washington called Capitol Steps felt that if Broadway could be spoofed, why not politics? So this troupe has done plenty of shows with such titles as It's Not Over 'till the First Lady Sings, When Bush Comes to Shove, and Papa's Got a Brand New Baghdad. Among the songs the troupe created is one in which a high-profile political defendant is put on trial while a prosecutor sings new words to the verse of Paul Simon's "The Boxer" -- leaving the defendant to raise his hand to testify before singing the exact same sounds that Simon wrote, only they come across to us as "Lie, lie, lie; lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie lie."
Capitol Steps only visits New York every other summer for a limited-run, but taking up the slack is Menopause (around since 2001), morphing "Stayin' Alive" to "Stayin' Awake," "Wishin' and Hopin'" to "Drippin' and Tricklin'," and changing "We're Having a Heat Wave" to "I'm Having a Heat Wave" -- enough to give original author Irving Berlin a stroke. Meanwhile, Chuckleball, the latest entry in this sweepstakes, spoofs the world of sports -- again, by putting new words to old songs.
Considering the money that Gerard Alessandrini has pocketed from his various Forbidden Broadways both here and around the country, I'm sure he's happy that he had the brainstorm to create these parodies. But I'm also sure he regards the situation as a blessing and a curse. Some years ago, when he and I were waiting to go on stage to debate whether or not we were in a new golden age of musical theater, I asked him what his next edition of Forbidden Broadway would be called. His doleful answer, "Forbidden Broadway Beats a Dead Horse," told me something. Alessandrini has written a few musicals with original scores -- not Half-New Musicals but Full Musicals -- yet they haven't had much success. I'm betting that producers have pigeonholed him as a parodist and don't believe that he's capable of more.
Does Alessandrini feel as if he's created a monster? I don't really hold him responsible for The Half-New Musical because had the idea of using Broadway melodies to parody Broadway shows at a time when it was fresh and unique idea to do so. How did he know that others would abuse the general concept by adapting any song for their needs? Still, I feel about the proliferation of Half-New Musicals the way I feel about the glorified staged readings of the Encores! series transferring to Broadway. One of those, Chicago, was fine; but when Wonderful Town crossed over to become another show with minimal scenery, I began to worry that theatergoers might begin to become used to minor production values. Many hoped that the recent Encores! production of Bye Bye Birdie would make the move to Broadway, but I'm happy it didn't. Woefully scaled-down productions are theatrical bastards with which we needn't become familiar.
I don't recommend that anyone become familiar with Chuckleball, ensconced at The Producers Club and easily the worst of the lot. That might be gleaned just from the credits: "Conceived, written, and directed by Jason Goldstein." While the world may very well believe that "Too many cooks spoil the broth," those in the theater know that if one person does virtually every important job on a show, it probably won't be any good. This was apparent to me moments after Chuckleball started. Goldstein's parody songs include "I'm Bobby Valentine" (referring to an ex-Mets manager), sung to the tune of "My Funny Valentine" from Babes in Arms; and "Greece is Fright'nin'," sung to the tune of "Greased Lightning" from Grease, with no interesting slant included. His "rhymes" include "sexy"/"arrest me" and "money"/"Cubbies."
I'd agreed in advance to interview Goldstein after the show, so he met me and immediately began talking for a good 15 minutes straight. No, make that a bad 15 minutes straight, for he wasn't the slightest bit interested in having a dialogue or letting me get in a question. Along the way, he told story after story that stressed how, at an early age, he was fearless in making cold calls to big shots. Can one take steroids for ego? Goldstein would suggest that one can. And yet, he did startle me when he had a moment of substantial self-awareness. "I may find writers to do the show in the future," he said. "I wrote the show just to get it started. I'm still not sure if I'm a producer or a writer." To which I immediately said, "You're a producer."
The Half-New Musical certainly appeals more to producers than to genuine theater artists. Some have said the reason that we're getting so many adaptations of movies is that today's theatergoers prefer titles that are already familiar. Maybe after the age of Sondheim, whose melodies and lyrics were often challenging, lazy theatergoers didn't want to listen very closely, either. Well, I always say that I'd much rather people have a good time than agree with me -- but I find that harder to say now. Menopause's 1,000-plus performances means that the show has outrun such Off-Broadway worthies as The Boys in the Band, Fool for Love, Cloud 9, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Fully Committed, Dinner with Friends, and Wit.
Notice that Forbidden Broadway and Menopause are Off-Broadway productions. Chuckleball, at the Producer's Club, is substantially lower on the theatrical food chain. But when Capitol Steps drops by every other summer, it's usually an Off-Broadway show, too -- although, this year, it'll just visit B.B. King's for two performances on August 27. That's surprising, don't you think? Wouldn't you have thought that, in an election year, Capitol Steps would have had a summer-long presence in the city? Still, let's count our blessings that it didn't book the vacant Booth, Cort, or Plymouth. Broadway is a barrier I'd not like to see crossed by The Half-New Musical.