Beyond Parody: This Complacent Send-Up of Musicals Reveals Just How Dire Most of Them Are
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1
Palsson's Supper Club in New York first played host to this five-person musical revue, a send-up of Broadway musicals, in 1982. It has, rather incredibly, been playing in various formats and versions in theatre districts in the United States ever since. It is as if modern musical theatre requires an inoculation against itself, administered in small quantities--the skits' average length can be only a couple of minutes--for the good of its health. That two of the original targets, Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, are still being skewered in this version in London nearly 30 years on shows how unchanging and enduring the contemporary Broadway musical is--and for Broadway read also the West End and almost any other English-speaking capital in the world.
The formulaic western musical is a huge, unmoving target. It would be hard to miss it entirely, and in this visit to London, Forbidden Broadway doesn't. Actresses who trade off their early triumphs as the lead in Annie get done over first. Nextup Cameron Mackintosh, the Napoleon of Broadway, is ridiculed for the overpriced merchandise he sells in his foyers; it costs [pounds sterling]100 to see the show and another [pounds sterling]100 to get out. Ticket prices get their own song, in which Oliver and the Artful Dodger try to pickpocket enough cash to pay to see their own show. Billy Elliot is written off as The Full Monty crossed with Peter Pan; the rumour is propagated that the director Stephen Daldry keeps all his juvenile leads in a dungeon. Elton John, inexplicably, gets caught up in this rather off joke. Some of the targets seem a little obvious: Webber, of course, but also his ex-wife Sarah Brightman and Liza Minnelli, taught by her mother to sing only one note. Kevin Spacey's name is tossed into a Hairspray number, "You Can't Stop the Camp". How wicked.
Modern staging conventions get special mentions. The King and I is sent up for being staged in the Royal Albert Hall, with the Siamese monarch and Anna using megaphones to communicate. Back projection is accused of eroding theatrical illusion. Avenue Q and The Lion King are grouped under a single attack on musicals that rely on animal puppetry. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, all about a flying prop, is a "pretty shitty bang bang". Best of these is a very funny physical send-up of the overused revolve in Les Miserables.
The performers are incredibly slick, professional and tuneful, and run through countless costume changes. …