Has it really been 100 years since Forbidden Broadway last showed its impudent face in New York? Factually, the most recent version only closed in 2009, but that apparently feels like a century ago—not only to me, but to the show’s jovial perpetrators, Gerard Alessandrini and Phillip George: They open its latest edition, Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking (47th Street Theater), with a spoof prologue equating their satirical revue to Brigadoon, the ancient Scottish town that, according to Lerner & Loewe’s classic musical, only appears once a century.
But unlike Brigadoon, which was striving to preserve its purity from Time’s corruption, Forbidden Broadway vanished because our theatrical times had gotten too corrupt to ridicule. Predicated on the recycling of weary, market-tested “properties” that no one except a tourist looking for a safe investment would ever conceivably want to see again, our overpriced 21st-century Broadway had essentially become Brigadoon’s evil twin, trapped in the sterility of its own greed, lack of imagination, and obliviousness to the real world.
Alessandrini & Co., who had been pointing this out for decades with increasing fury, didn’t need an enchanted escape, just a cooling-off period. If, in their rage at what Broadway has become, they had started to aim their arrows past the stars, who make the most easily noticeable targets, to strike instead at the producers and theater owners who actually make Broadway’s most heinous decisions, they would have produced a show that mainly interested economists with a snide sense of humor. Offering very little of the celebrity-bashing fun that makes larger audiences buy tickets, such a result would have fulfilled George S. Kaufman’s definition of satire—”closes on Saturday night.”
Wisely, Forbidden Broadway‘s creators chose the more popular alternative. Having curbed their righteous rage—for at heart Alessandrini and George are idealists who loathe Broadway’s loss of its former glory—they spend most of the new show, as always, taking superbly aimed potshots at the noticeable offenders onstage (Matthew Broderick, Audra McDonald, Once‘s Steve Kazee, Bernadette Peters), reserving only a few sidewise stabs for those who really cause Broadway’s griefs.
Even so, those glancing stabs can cut. Among the show’s caricatures: director Diane Paulus, ripping out and crumpling pages of Porgy and Bess‘s score with egomaniacal zest; Julie Taymor and Bono shouting “Sue Me!” at each other (the use of the Frank Loesser song itself a telling swipe), while a tiny puppet Spider-Man crashes to the floor; Trey Parker and Matt Stone reveling smarmily in the loot they’ve made ridiculing religion (the show’s use of bleeps in their song is far wittier than the profanities in their actual Book of Mormon lyrics).
Mary Poppins turns up to describe the stage musical centered on her as “practically putrid in every way,” boiling the result down, to one of Poppins‘s best-known tunes, as “Stupid-careless-fictional-nonsensical-verboseness.” “They’re swindling you,” she warbles, summarizing the artistic intentions of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh: “Feed the ‘burbs/That’s what they say/Tepid, vapid musicals pay.” A cartoony Stephen Sondheim drops by, to rail against new British renderings of his works, like last summer’s Into the Woods, “Agony/New revivals so dark/Always cheap and so slow/And with budgets so low/They use trees from the Park.” And a brash caricature of Sutton Foster (“my face is stone/I’m always affable”) sums up Broadway’s current condition, to the title song from the just-closed Anything Goes: “What’s fun today/Doesn’t run today . . ./What works today/Is for jerks today . . ./Everything blows.”
Its cast’s ability to supply lightning comic mimicry has always had a principal share in Forbidden Broadway‘s success, as well as bolstering its central satiric point: Here are four more of the inventive comedic talents that our tarnished Broadway hasn’t put to good use. The current quartet—Natalie Charlé Ellis, Jenny Lee Stern, Scott Richard Foster, and Marcus Stevens—ranks among the best groups that George and Alessandrini, who co-directed, have ever assembled. Their merry alacrity as they romp through multiple impersonations, switching gender and ethnicity every few minutes, is a constant marvel. Stern, a diminutive imp, nearly filches the show several times, but her colleagues seize too many good moments for her ownership to be more than fleeting.