Gerard Alessandrini has written and directed all editions of the stage show Forbidden Broadway and Forbidden Hollywood. He received the 2001 Drama Desk Award for Best Musical Revue for Forbidden Broadway 2001: A Spoof Odyssey and the Drama League Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre. The show itself has received numerous awards and nominations over the years. Now on their fourteenth edition, Forbidden Broadway celebrates its 20th anniversary this month with a new name, Forbidden Broadway: 20th Anniversary Celebration.
Gerard was an original cast member of Forbidden Broadway and can be heard on five of the seven cast albums, as well as the soundtracks of Disney’s Aladdin and Pocahontas. His directorial credits include Equity Library Theatre’s revival of Gigi and Maury Yeston’s In the Beginning. His work was seen on television in 1991 when he co-wrote, directed and performed in Masterpiece Tonight, a satirical salute to the 20th anniversary of Masterpiece Theatre and in 1995, when some of his sketches were featured in Carol Burnett’s special Men, Movies and Carol.
During the summer of 2001, Gerard introduced his fledgling “Gongcores” series with a tongue-in-cheek production of the 1962 flop Mr. President. His plan is to present updated spoofs of obscure musicals that failed. You can read more about Mr. President and the series in this earlier interview.
Nancy Rosati: Tell me a little bit about when you grew up.
Gerard Alessandrini: I grew up in Needham, Massachusetts, which is a very nice suburban town of Boston. Fortunately, growing up in Boston, you have access to the Arts that are in the city. As far as Broadway shows went, when I was younger I used to go into Boston and see the out of town tryouts. Follies and A Little Night Music were some of the shows I saw.
NR: Did you get to see Mr. President?
GA: No, I’m not quite that old. But I would have because it did go to Boston. I have some friends who saw it. It was fun to see the shows and how they would change. Sometimes I would go back a week later and see what they changed and tweaked, or later on I would see them in New York and see how the shows had changed.
NR: Were you the class clown, making up song lyrics all the time?
GA: Not particularly. I always liked to make up songs but I won’t say I was the class clown. I was doing parody at an early age and I enjoyed musicals. When I was a teenager I used to perform in shows in high school.
NR: In everything I’ve read about the beginning of Forbidden Broadway, you’re described as an “unemployed actor.” What was your acting career like?
GA: It wasn’t bad really for a young guy. I used to get summer stock work all the time. I did some regional theater and some dinner theater. I did all of the basic starring roles that young baritones can do. I did The Fantasticks and Oklahoma and Carousel. I worked in the Light Opera of Manhattan for a while. Then I thought it would be nice to do a club act and try to get an agent. My thinking was, “If I just do a bunch of Broadway songs, who wants to hear that?” So, I got my friend and decided to do songs from my “Forbidden Broadway” folder which I had been collecting. I thought that would be more interesting to people. And it was ... (laughing) obviously. I was in Forbidden Broadway for the first few years.
NR: When did you come to New York?
GA: Right after college. It was 1980, ‘81 - right around there.
NR: Did you start auditioning for Broadway right away?
GA: Even at that point, it was difficult to get into the auditions for Broadway shows. You’d go to open calls but it was very hard. At that point I was more on the level of doing Off Broadway and regional theater more than anything else, so (laughing) I never quite made it even to the level of Broadway auditions! Then Forbidden Broadway hit.
NR: Tell me how that came about.
GA: At first I did it just as a nightclub act. It was not produced or anything like that. I got some friends together. We were financed as a nightclub act - very simply, with a lot fewer costumes than we do now. We just ran the weekends at Palsson’s Supper Club and eventually it caught on. Different stars and different theater people started to come. We were lucky enough because it was very much like a “Mickey and Judy show” that sort of caught on by itself. We didn’t do any advertising. We had to go back and form a production company and get union contracts. It took months to do and all of that was done after the fact, so it was basically an accident.
NR: You didn’t have permission to do the songs originally?
GA: No. Some of the first fans of the show were people like Comden and Green, Harold Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerry Herman. That was the easy part because they were already bringing their friends to see the show and enjoying it before we were even public knowledge. They just set us up with the publishers and we agreed to pay the publishers a percentage the best we could. The songs change so much that sometimes it’s hard, but that’s what we still do even to this day. We were union actors that were splitting money at the door, and you’re not supposed to do that. There was money coming in, but where did the money go? There was no producer. (laughs) So it took us months to figure that out.
NR: Did you have any idea it was going to become the institution that it became?
GA: Not in the beginning. I thought it was a useful vehicle and there was a point when I was putting it together that I thought, “This could be a real show. This could change as Broadway changes.” I recognized that early on. Then at a point we thought, “It might be a hit show.” It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that this could go on like it has, for twenty years. There just seemed to be no end to the people, and we weren’t advertising, so that was a nice surprise.
NR: Take me through the process of creating a parody. Are you sitting there watching a show and you get an idea?
GA: It really varies. At this point, you know the shows you have to parody in theater. You know what the hits of the season are. It’s not because I like it or want to, it’s because those are the shows. I have to find some sort of angle that makes it the topic of discussion for people. It’s not necessarily my opinion. It’s more the angle of what makes it funny, what people are saying behind its back, did something happen with the star? Some incident usually helps.
For example, with The Full Monty, when it opened up it was a nice hit, a good show. I enjoy it. It’s very well written and performed and directed. It was very pleasant and fun and I thought, “There’s nothing to puncture here because it’s not pretentious.” It’s not pretentious like some of the British “opericals” are. It was a hit. What do you say about it? It didn’t have any trouble out of town. It didn’t have any trouble in town. But now, there’s something to say about it because The Producers overshadowed it so much. The Full Monty didn’t win any awards and in another season it might have won seven or eight. Now we have a number in the show called “The Half Full Monty” where business is half full. Now there’s something to talk about and it’s become funnier. Ergo, you have to find something about the show that people are saying, or something that happened to it. That’s how you get the parody.
Then I look for a song in the show, or a song related to the show, and find some funny way to twist the title. That can take time to get the right angle. “Circle of Mice” from Lion King is a good example. Once we got that we knew what we wanted to do.
NR: Is it easier to parody a hit or a flop?
GA: It’s almost impossible to parody a flop because people don’t see it. Theater people see it but it will mean nothing to the general public, which is a good amount of our audience. You can only parody the hits. There were plenty of funny things to say about Side Show. We tried that but the show closed so the jokes went over people’s heads. It didn’t mean anything to the general public, or even to theater-goers who came from out of town.
NR: Is this a collaborative effort, or does it all come from you? Do you get suggestions from the cast?
GA: In a way you can call it a collaborative effort. I’m writing for a particular cast and sometimes they come up with ideas. I have to write it, but last year, Christine Pedi said, “Can you write me a Judi Dench song? I do a really good Judi Dench.” She came up with some suggestions. I didn’t really use them but I used the idea of writing her a Judi Dench song. It’s collaborative in that sense. Sometimes they’ll come up with ideas for the staging. I have to go home and write the lyrics and the words. Sometimes they’ll come up with a funny line and I’m very appreciative of that. But as far as the lyrics go, I have to do all of that writing at home.
NR: Is it difficult when the cast changes?
GA: It is difficult because the show will be routined for their strengths. Their best number may be the 11 o’clock number, and if a new cast member comes in, and they kind of fit the part, but that’s not their best number, their best number is in act one, then it can change the show. If they stay in the show a while, eventually we will start to alter the order for them. This show [the currently running Forbidden Broadway: 20th Anniversary Celebration] has a different cast than the one that opened 2001: A Spoof Odyssey. It’s a very good cast and equally good as the original 2001: A Spoof Odyssey cast, but we altered the shape of the show for this cast.
NR: How do you find the balance between being funny and being cruel?
GA: You can be as cruel as you want as long as you get a laugh. But if you don’t get a laugh, then you take it out.
NR: I understand that most of the people who’ve been parodied really enjoy it.
NR: Have you ever had anyone who had a problem with it?
GA: No, not really. Not to my face. Once I had a friend who said, “I have a friend. You parodied his show and he was very hurt by it.” But he never said it to me. Most of the stars are OK with it.
NR: What show broke your heart when it closed because you had to drop the skit?
NR: How about Titanic? I loved that one.
GA: Grand Hotel too. Those three. I think our parodies of Titanic and Grand Hotel ran longer than the shows did.
NR: I understand you can now do a whole night of Les Miz parodies?
GA: We add a little more each year. There are probably some you haven’t seen like “Castle in the Air.” Yes, you can almost put it all together now into a little “Mini Les Miz.” We’re thinking of doing that. Mr. President was part of our “Gongcores” series and we’re thinking of doing offshoots of Forbidden Broadway. It’s not that I particularly want to get into political satire, but we want to take some of the older Broadway shows and play with them. It just happened that one was political in nature. I’m not going into political satire.