Saturday, September 13, 2008

Forbidden Broadway Will Say Farewell

In a nice piece in today's Times, Forbidden Broadway creator Gerard Alessandrini explains why he's closing down his (very) long-running franchise, possibly for good. I have to applaud Alessandrini for his decision: I've been a fan of Forbidden Broadway pretty much from the beginning, and it's absolutely clear that these witty revues/reviews of the state of the American musical have peaked.

It's not that Alessandrini has somehow lost his ability to poke fun at an institution he plainly adores; it's that the institution itself has changed so much that the spark, the inspiration, seems to have gone out.

It got me to thinking: what's different about Broadway musicals in 2008, compared to what they were like in 1982, when the first Forbidden Broadway debuted?

The most obvious answer is the personnel. When Alessandrini wrote the first edition of FB, Ethel Merman and Mary Martin were still alive; Yul Brynner and Carol Channing each still had one more record-breaking tour in their futures; Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett were still directing and choreographing shows; and Julie Andrews could still hit all her high notes.

Most of the moments I cherish most from all the years of seeing FB are the ones that involve the stars: Ethel Merman teaching the Phantom of the Opera how to project, Mandy Patinkin being "Somewhat Overindulgent," Liliane Montevecchi babbling incomprehensibly in the Grand Hotel parody, Christine Pedi's immortal "Stritch." And Broadway just isn't cultivating new musical theatre stars to match the glorious ones who no longer regularly inhabit its stages (though I am looking forward to seeing what Alessandrini has to say about Patti LuPone as Mama Rose).

The most consistent target of FB has been the mega-musical: the parodies of Cats, Les Miserables, and The Lion King have become as eagerly anticipated and as long-lasting as the shows themselves. But jukebox musicals and musicals built around old movies--Broadway's current twin scourges--do not seem as able to inspire Alessandrini's rapier-like wit. And although Alessandrini did build a brilliant song skewering Spamalot, trying to parody a self-referential parody is mostly a self-defeating proposition--and that's why shows like Urinetown and The Producers did not yield classic FB sketches.

It's hard to imagine that Cats would feel like the good old days, but in terms of invention and imagination and the level of audience engagement, it seems very much to be so: this year's big-budget musicals--The Little Mermaid, Shrek, and Billy Elliot--are all about selling audiences a brand they already know instead of creating a new one. Alessandrini understands this, I think; and though I'm sorry to see Forbidden Broadway go, I'm glad to anticipate what new concept he will come up with next.

1 comment:

RLewis said...

"what's different about Broadway musicals in 2008, compared to what they were like in 1982, when the first Forbidden Broadway debuted?"

I'll take a shot: hit shows run longer and shows in general take longer to recoup their investment. That makes Branding a more important way to not lose money. People now buy tickets to a Brand, and not to see so-and-so in such-and-such show.

Ya see, name performers are in a show for a year give-or-take, then move on to other projects; but producers need much more time to get their $$$, so they instead bank on a name that will stay with the show no matter what - the Brand. Sadly, it doesn't matter who is giving a masterful performance in Lion King, Mary Poppins, Legally Blond, or even Ave Q - there's still a name that we know - the Brand, and that can go on-and-on-and-on...