Book Reviews

Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain
By Gerard Alessandrini with Michael Portantiere

Book Review by Sarah Boslaugh

Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar CurtainIt's not always easy being a Broadway fan. You shell out $100+ for a ticket and expect in return a quality production of a worthwhile work of theatre. But over the years you learn that, just as the road to Hell is said to be paved with good intentions, the road to disappointment is often paved with what seemed at the time to be realistic expectations.

But until recently there was always one consolation: the more pretentious the script, the more clueless the casting, the more absurd the sets, the better the material provided for Gerard Alessandrini's long-running satirical revue Forbidden Broadway. For 25 years this was the show you could always count on to put those big-ticket, small-brained productions in their place.

Sadly, the long run of Forbidden Broadway is over, at least temporarily. But you can remember how much fun the show was or become acquainted with it for the first time with Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain, written by Alessandrini with theatre journalist Michael Portantiere. It's a large format volume (11 x 8.5 inches) that gives you an overview of the history of Forbidden Broadway in its many incarnations along with hundreds of photographs (including 32 pages in color) and a generous selection of lyrics from the various editions of the show.

The genesis of Forbidden Broadway is the stuff of legend or a Mickey and Judy movie. A stage-struck young man moves to New York and works as a maitre d' at Lincoln Center while waiting for that big break. He studies musical theatre at the New School and attends Lehman Engel's BMI workshop but also writes parody lyrics in his spare time. They're so popular among his friends that he works up a club act which is so successful that he decides to expand it to a four-person review. And it runs for years, becomes a must-see for Broadway insiders (including the casts of the shows it parodies) and wins a Tony Award.

If you're a fan of the show you probably know that basic outline already, but Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain fills in the details with lots of anecdotes from people who know the inside story and are more than willing to share. The book is arranged chronologically and alternates between Alessandrini's history of the show and guest essays by some of the people who worked on it, including Brad Oscar, Dee Hoty, and Bryan Batt. It's a celebration of the show, so don't come looking for criticism and analysis: this is a book of happy memories.

For someone who has most of the cast recordings but never saw the show (blame it on my Midwestern location), the production and publicity photographs included in Behind the Mylar Curtain are a revelation. On the recordings, the writing and performances are professional from the start, but here you can read about the show's rise from humble beginnings through the evolution of the costumes from "let's put on a show with what we can find in our closets" to professionally designed costumes by Alvin Colt (who also designed the original productions of Guys and Dolls, On the Town and Li'l Abner among others). Thankfully, even the professionally designed costumes retain a charming tackiness and the photographs communicate more clearly than any text just how in-your-face Forbidden Broadway could be.

Equally valuable is Alessandrini's analysis of what kind of shows make the best material for parody. He's a counterpuncher who watched for Broadway to make the first move, and the rise of the self-aware meta-musical is one factor which led to Forbidden Broadway's demise. So what, in his experience, makes a good target? Big personalities (Mandy Patinkin, Barbra Streisand) and popular, long-running shows (if no one's seen the original they probably won't laugh at the parody), particularly those which take themselves just a bit too seriously. Hummable tunes help (if the original is utterly forgettable, who will recognize the parody?) and current events (Richard Burton's drinking problem during the 1981 run of Camelot, the Jonathan Pryce casting controversy in Miss Saigon) have provided material for many a satirical lyric.

A side-benefit to Behind the Mylar Curtain is that you can revisit 25 years of Broadway history through the eyes of someone who went to nearly every show and was always looking for fresh material. For instance, Alessandrini describes the origins of a sketch in which Sister Aloysius from Doubt gives Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? an intervention for alcoholism. The two plays were running across the street from each other in 2005 and the leading actresses (Cherry Jones and Kathleen Turner) were considered front-runners for the Best Actress Tony that year. Jones suggested the idea, which Howard Kissel passed on to Alessandrini who worked it into the 2005-2006 version of Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit as a one-act play written by Cherry Jones, Phill George, Gerard Alessandrini, John Patrick Shanley and Edward Albee.

Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain offers a lot to anyone interested in Broadway theatre. Even if you've seen the show many times you'll probably learn something new from reading it and in any case the photographs are a hoot. If (like me) you have some acquaintance with the show, this book will help fill in the gaps in your knowledge and save you embarrassment at theatre parties. It's a little tougher going for someone brand new to the Forbidden Broadway phenomenon (and talk about bad timing if you're just getting interested now!). The historical sections are written very clearly but the photograph captions could be more informative (they tell you the cast members, but not necessarily the character or show being parodied) and it's annoying that the tunes for the parody lyrics are not identified. Sometimes you can guess, sometimes not. But if you're a real Broadway baby you'll take it on as self-study project and get up to speed in no time.

Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar CurtainForbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain
By Gerard Alessandrini with Michael Portantiere
New York: Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2009
288 pp
Hardcover $24.99
ISBN: 978-1557837431