The latest iteration of Forbidden Broadway, Gerard Alessandrini’s stalwart spoof of musical theatre, is mugging its way across the stage at The Triad Theatre on 72nd Street. Revised more than twenty times, Alessandrini’s current edition, The Next Generation, parodies shows like Moulin Rouge, Hadestown, and Oklahoma!. Some of the jokes hit the nail right on the head, but for the most part, you get the impression that he doesn’t really see much point in a lot of Broadway shows. Once an extremely popular love letter to the absurdity of musicals and the people who love them, the prior editions of Forbidden Broadway were good natured and tongue-in-cheek. Now, the jokes are often harsh and Alessandrini condemns the state of the Broadway stage several times. If there’s so much hatred for what’s onstage, what’s the point of lampooning it? Who exactly is this new version of Forbidden Broadway for?
I listened to a lot of the Forbidden Broadway albums when I was in high school. The songs lovingly poked at Mandy Pantinkin’s indulgent singing, tourists who buy too much stuff at souvenir shops, and the exaggerated drama and high wailing of the British pop-rock musicals of the ‘80s. It was all in good fun and never passed judgment.
This edition begins with a tourist family who charges into the theatre and wonders what shows they should see to the tune of “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line. It’s mostly just a list of show titles until a waitress comes in and sings:
WHY DON’T YOU GO TO WAITRESS
ALTHOUGH IT’S FLAWED
THE WORST PIES ON BROADWAY
SINCE SWEENEY TODD
A WAITRESS BALLET
THAT SENDS YOU INTO SUGAR SHOCK
BY SARA BAREILLES
THE QUEEN OF POP SHLOCK!
It was here that I realized something was off. The entire premise of Waitress is that Jenna makes good pies, they’re nothing like Mrs. Lovett’s in Sweeney Todd. There’s also no ballet in the show. This entire verse is constructed so Alessandrini can say that he doesn’t like Waitress and call Sara Bareilles a bad songwriter. What’s the joke?
It gets meaner, though. In “Evan Has-Been”, Alessandrini takes aim at Andrew Barth Feldman, the teenage star of Dear Evan Hansen. The song is a parody of “Waving Through a Window” and ends with the Feldman character singing, “I haven’t worked since I left the cast / And now I’m Evan Has-Been / A Has-Been, A Has-Been / And my future is past!” Saying this seventeen-year-old actor will never work again isn’t funny. It’s amusing when, earlier in the song, the character talks about emoting to thin air because the tourists aren’t paying attention. It’s even funny when the song makes fun of the nervous tics actors employ in their characterizations of Evan Hansen. It goes a step too far, though, in saying that this is the end of the line for Feldman. Alessandrini has no idea what will become of Feldman in the future and it is only cruel to assume the worst.
There’s a sequence in the show’s second half where, for some reason, Alessandrini feels the need to make fun of Billy Porter’s red carpet looks. Porter often mixes traditionally feminine pieces with traditionally male pieces as an expression of the fluidity of gender identity. Alessandrini calls this “cross-dress[ing]” – reductive, and a misclassification – and says that, because our society is so inclusive now, everyone “can dress up / In their Mama’s clothes!” But that’s not what Porter is doing. This is not a gay boy raiding his mom’s closet, this is a grown man working with top fashion designers to methodically tear down the red carpet gender binary. On the surface, this number doesn’t condemn Porter’s fashions, but the sheer fact that Alessandrini would write, “OMG! It’s Billy Porter in a dress” shows that it is not here to celebrate his bucking of ingrained gender constraints. It’s also very clear to me that the show, and most of the audience around me, are laughing at him, like the audience at Tootsie laughs at Santino Fontana. It’s a dude in a dress, isn’t that funny – which is entirely against the point of Porter’s fashion activism.
These are just three examples of the bitterness that surges beneath the show almost the whole time. None of this is to fault the very talented five-person cast, though. Chris Collins-Pisano and Jenny Lee Stern, in particular, are charming in a parody of the FX TV series Fosse/Verdon, one of the few sequences that manages to take what the material offers and make comedy from it. Collins-Pisano and Stern also shine in a parody of Damon Daunno and Mary Testa in the “Woke-lahoma!” section. Here, Alessandrini earns laughs from the pitch-black smokehouse scene, Patrick Vaill’s hotness, and the trial-by-Testa monologue at the end of Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!. This works because he’s taking what’s actually in the show and lovingly ribbing it, instead of merely dismissing the work as “bad” or “pretentious” as he does elsewhere. There’s nothing funny about a thumbs down – that’s all there is to say about it.
Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation made me wonder what Alessandrini actually likes. Listening to the recordings of previous incarnations, it’s clear that he truly loved Broadway musicals and since he had that affection, he could then make fun of them like the way we tease our siblings. There was nothing malicious about it before, but now it feels like he’s flipping off 44th Street and I wonder what the point is. I love musical theatre even as I recognize that it’s ridiculous. I should be Forbidden Broadway’s target audience, as I felt I was in the past. The Next Generation feels like it is for someone who hates musicals and that person is not me.