'Forbidden Broadway' thrives by continuing to bite the hand that feeds it


September 22, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

Appearances to the contrary, this sure ain't Broadway:

actress in a familiar curly red wig and a little red dress is belting out "Tomorrow," but she's chain-smoking and singing, "I'm 40 years old, tomorrow!"

Then there's Cameron Mackintosh -- producer of "Miss Saigon," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miserables" and "Cats" -- hawking souvenirs and proclaiming, "It costs $50 to see my show, and it costs $50 more to leave."

No, this is not the real Broadway, it's the mock, or, more precisely, the spoof -- the long-running satirical revue "Forbidden Broadway," coming to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Saturday as part of Lifesongs 1991, the fourth annual benefit concert to support the Health Education Resource Organization (HERO) in its fight against AIDS.

Now in its 10th year off-Broadway, "Forbidden Broadway" is the little revue that grew.

"It is very ironic that something that was very out-of-the-way and in its own sense avant-garde has become something rather conventional and institutional, which is sort of what we were knocking in the beginning," says Gerard Alessandrini, the show's creator.

Specifically, the revue knocks the institution of Broadway. Besides chain-smoking Annie and Cameron the Huckster, the Lifesongs audience might see Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno struggling to explain which one is which. Or "Hello, Dolly's" Carol Channing backed up by a duet of waiters singing, "Promise you'll never do this show again!"

The "Forbidden Broadway" lineup for Lifesongs hadn't been determined at press time. However, Jonathan Scharer, the show's producer, explained that the segment presented here will be excerpted from the touring production, which is aimed at a wider audience than the Broadway cognoscenti who return year after year to see what new victims Mr. Alessandrini has added to the "Playkill" (as the "Forbidden" playbill is called).

But wait -- a touring production? That's just one indication of how "Forbidden Broadway" has proliferated. Last year the five-person revue traveled to 39 cities, and that's not counting the various productions that have played long runs in such cities as Philadelphia, Kansas City and Boston (where it ran seven years). There's even a version in Australia.

In addition, two cast albums have been released; the latest -- a compilation of greatest hits -- came out this year. In New York, the joke is that "Forbidden Broadway" has run longer than most of the shows it lampoons.

This is pretty impressive for a revue that began as "sort of a hobby," as 37-year-old Mr. Alessandrini puts it. A graduate of the Boston Conservatory of Music with a degree in musical theater, he had written parodies "ever since I can remember . . . maybe [age] 12." But he never planned to make it his life work.

Then he ended up waiting on tables at Lincoln Center. A friend suggested he turn his Broadway parodies into a cabaret act to help him gain exposure as a performer. "Forbidden Broadway" opened at a west side supper club in 1982; after six years it moved to Theater East, near Bloomingdale's, where it is still running.

Along the way, the revue has attracted a following that includes some of its own targets. Carol Channing reportedly requested that her lipstick-smeared send-up become a permanent part of the program. Stephen Sondheim is also a devoted fan; "he's even gracious enough to supply Gerard Alessandrini [his] music before it's published," Mr. Scharer says.

In fact, the producer acknowledges, being parodied by "Forbidden Broadway" has come to be regarded as a sign of success. "If you're spoofed by 'Forbidden Broadway,' you're among the best," he says.

But not all of Mr. Alessandrini's targets are so open-minded. He ++ has been unable to secure the rights to much of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music. And the creators of the current Tony Award winner, "Will Rogers Follies," "did not like the parody we created, which was called 'Swillomania,' " Mr. Scharer says. "They called and asked us to stop. Of course, we didn't."

"Will Rogers" withheld the musical rights, however, forcing Mr. Alessandrini to find other melodies for his satirical lyrics.

Despite what you might expect from someone who turned "Grand Hotel" into "Grim Hotel," Mr. Alessandrini insists he creates his parodies out of, if not love, at least a deep-seated fondness. "I have an affection for the things that we spoof, and I've been told that that comes through," he says. "It's harder for me to come up with something funny for a show that just bores me or doesn't do anything for me."

Highlights of the revue's latest New York edition -- called "Forbidden Broadway 1991 1/2 ," since there wasn't enough to spoof until six months into the year -- include a duel between two of Broadway's biggest stars, the helicopter in "Miss Saigon" and the chandelier in "Phantom," as well as Stephen Sondheim bemoaning the passing of his latest effort, "Assassins," singing, "You Can't Get a Hit With a Gun."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.