When asked about his work, Gerard Alessandrini is modest.
“It’s nothing new,” he said of his now-famous musical parody, Forbidden Broadway. “People have been changing lyrics to favorite songs for millenniums.”
And, with Alessandrini’s continuous work, this tradition may continue for many more millenniums. The creator and author of the off-Broadway parody of the Great White Way has created a popular and successful show that has lasted for two decades and shows no signs of slowing down.
A roast of the current and past Broadway seasons, Forbidden Broadway parodies musicals, plays and the actors in them. Nothing is safe in this show – everything from the topics to the performances to the marketing is addressed.
Alessandrini is no stranger to the theatre world. He has been seeing shows his entire life. His first was Follies, which was trying out in Boston. “People were taken aback by it,” he said. “it was so rich and full of so many layers. It was tremendous – not only was the story great, but the staging was out of this world.”
Throughout his life, his standards have remained high. He said he appreciates theater that tells a solid story. “I like…when the songs are integrated, not superfluous,” he said. “I don’t like musicals when they stop a story they are telling to sing a gratuitous song. I like when the song tells the story.”
Forbidden Broadway began 25 years ago, with spoofs of Evita and Dreamgirls. Nine was in its original production then, and Rex Harrison was starring in a revival of My Fair Lady and Lauren Bacall was the star of Woman of the Year. The response, Alessandrini said, was enormous.
“No one had heard anything like this,” he said. “People were very tickled by it. It was Off-Broadway – you discovered it yourself. It was a very in thing to do.”
The show’s topics have spanned original productions like Rent, long-standing legends like Les Miserables, and revivals like Kiss Me Kate. The current show, Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit examines some of the crimes committed on the Great White Way by criminals such as Harvey Feinstein, Disney and Yoko Ono.
“When I see a show, I’m not thinking at all how to spoof it,” Alessandrini said. “I have to pay for my own ticket anyway – if I pay a lot of money and feel ripped off, I feel the same anger that an audience member would feel. I go and enjoy it or not enjoy it, and I think, ‘We should do a parody of the show, because a lot of people have seen it. How can we do it? What’s funny about this show? What’s unique? How does it fit into the Broadway landscape? Is it a rehash? Is it part of a trend?’ When I find out how it fits, then I look for songs in the show that we can use.’”
Along with the shows themselves, Alessandrini is also a fan of parodying the stars of Broadway. Past victims have included Brooke Shields, Chita Rivera and even the New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley, with “I Hate Men” rewritten to be, “I Hate Ben.” Many times, the person who is being spoofed is in the audience, watching a parody of his or herself onstage. Current “victims” include Julia Roberts and Patti LuPone and Hugh Jackman. When the celebrities are there, they are generally good sports, Alessandrini said.
The artistry, or lack thereof, on the Great White Way is a popular topic in Alessadrini’s show, but the business and financial aspects are not ignored and touched upon several times in the Special Victims Unit performance. The title song of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is rewritten to be “Beauty’s Been Decreased,” and The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” changes the word “love” to “pain,” addressing the actor’s costumes and how their physical ailments are treated by a doctor “who works for Disney, too.”
“I’m not for commercialism,” he said. “I think it’s OK to an extent, but when it’s only that, when people aren’t experiencing the storytelling of theatre, I think they’re missing something. When the finances make it impossible that only spectacle or commercial theatre can be done, that’s unfortunate. I don’t mind being the person to say that.”
While a new production of the show comes out about every two years, Alessandrini frequently updates his skits to include recent openings or closings. He compared his comedic work to being the fashion editor of a magazine. Despite Forbidden Broadway being a small show, he considers its appeal broad, and if the material becomes tired, it can be renewed and refreshed.
While his parodies can be quite scathing, Alessandrini is generous with his praise of the current Broadway season. Ad admirer of Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening, he was impressed by both show’s sound and storytelling.
“I’d like to see more of what Grey Gardens and The Light in the Piazza and Avenue Q accomplished,” he said. “Those were new ways to integrate the songs into the stories and tell the stories. And we always have great revivals. If you look at any great musical, that’s what they are – singular. Unique. That’s why they’re great – each one has to reinvent the one for its own world.”
While Alessandrini has ambitions of his own writing, he plans to continue Forbidden Broadway as well.
“I don’t want to do it just for the sake of doing it,” he said. “I keep my pencil sharp.”