Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Send in the Clowning

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Send in the Clowning

Article excerpt

Forbidden Broadway, now 25, has zinged Sondheim over the years

Ever find yourself listening to Sweeney Todd and singing "Swing your razor low"? Or maybe you've just started into a chorus of "Into the words, the metaphors, the synonyms, the perfect scans ..." If so, you must be a fan of Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway, the off-Broadway revue that lovingly skewers the Great White Way, "where the white is gray," a show that celebrated its 25th anniversary in October 2007.

With the opening of the most recent edition, Forbidden Broadway: Rude Awakening, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg decreed Oct. 2, 2007, to be "Forbidden Broadway Day." Tony Award-winner Chita Rivera was on hand that night to read the proclamation and unveil a street sign renaming Manhattan's West 47th Street as "Forbidden Broadway."

These accolades join a host of other awards amassed during the show's quarter-century run - a Tony honor, plus Obie, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League and Lucille Lortel awards. Pretty impressive for a show put together in 1982 when Alessandrini was pursuing a career in singing in New York, using parody lyrics he'd written for fun, a hobby dating back to his childhood in Boston.

During a recent chat at Alessandrini's Upper West Side apartment, where his Tony honor sits proudly on top of an upright piano, he said his first efforts at parody began "as entertainment for my friends in grammar school. Frequently they were about celebrities - one of my first favorite targets was Burton and Taylor. It was fun to take movie stars and write about them."

After musical theatre became his passion, Alessandrini began writing parodies of songs he'd heard in Boston. (He relocated to New York City in the 1970s.) The performer-writer credits his family with his felicity for parody. "You could put the greatest thing in front of them - Maria Callas in Tosca, for instance - and they'd find something funny or bad about it."

In 1982, to create a personal performance opportunity and become "more focused," Alessandrini says, "I thought I should take these parody lyrics that I have about Broadway musicals and put them together into a nightclub act. ... It caught on like a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland show, and we took it from there."

"From there" for Alessandrini and Forbidden Broadway has included moves from the Upper West Side to the theatre district (five theatres in all). In addition, the show has served as a launching pad for many performers, including Jason Alexander, Barbara Walsh, Dee Hoty and Daniel Reichard.

Over the years, Alessandrini estimates he's written 1,500 to 2,000 parodies, a volume he downplays, calling them "parody songs. It's not like Cole Porter or something. They're derivatives, so they're half-written ... the music's written, and I love to steal as many rhymes as I possibly can. That's half the fun of it." Of that number. Alessandrini estimates that he's written 15 or so parodies of Sondheim material, many of which can be found on the show's numerous cast recordings. (See sidebar.)

In addition to those that have been recorded, Alessandrini points to a recent parody of Sweeney that joked about John Doyle's revival (with a song titled "Squeaky Todd"). "That was a good one," Alessandrini says. "It was like the Company parody where the cast is playing the instruments ... we couldn't have them both in the show." One of his favorite Sondheim parodies is from 1985, using "Comedy Tonight" and "Send in the Clowns."

To create his zinging spoofs. Alessandrini begins by seeing shows that are opening. "I rarely ever think 'How am I going to parody this?'" Occasionally a parody comes to mind while he's watching a show. "I remember it occurring to me right away at Into the Woods [which became "Into the Words"]. But usually I'm just enjoying - or not enjoying - the show as a paying customer."

After taking in the production, Alessandrini's process begins. …

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