Is it unsporting to slam a spoof? The many editions of Forbidden Broadway have enjoyed a free pass from reviewers for more than 30 years, regardless of quality and consistency. There’s something talismanic about the franchise; its satire, like that of Lear’s fool, is supposed to be salubrious and thus deserving of special dispensation. But in Lear the fool is smarter than the potentate being teased. In Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging! — newly subtitled in honor of Rocky — not so much.
The formula remains the same: a series of takeoffs on current (or not-so-current) Broadway musicals, in which songs from the shows in question, or relevant to them, are retrofitted with gotcha lyrics by Gerard Alessandrini. Even in this particularly slow-witted edition, these work when they work: Pippin’s circusy overcompensation for its dreadful book is swiftly dispatched in “Damage to Do” as “colored lights / to hide what bites.” The creakiness of Cinderella is lampooned in a rewriting of its big romantic ballad as “Five Decades Ago.”
Of course, you’d have to know Cinderella’s “Ten Minutes Ago” (not to mention the rhyme scheme of Pippin’s “Magic to Do”) to enjoy those references; Forbidden Broadway is a show for aficionados only. As such, the jokes had better be funnier and the criticism more pointed than what you can read ten times a day in a theater chatroom. That’s not so easy when your methodology depends on finding pre-existing song hooks that are amenable to satirical reshaping. Sometimes Alessandrini does find them: “Oh, What a Night” from Jersey Boys — revamped as “Oh, What a Blight” — lends itself well to a diagnosis of Broadway’s jukebox disease: “They don’t need new writers / just the rights.” And the hit song “Let It Go” from Frozen, here called “Let It Blow,” provides an apt if somewhat obvious opportunity for anatomizing the wonderlungs of Idina Menzel: “My nodes never bothered me anyway.”
But in too many cases the existing material simply won’t bend well enough, or long enough, to produce a coherent point. The revival of Les Miz is parodied in an overlong segment — itself mostly lifted from previous editions — that begins bizarrely with Cole Porter’s “C’est Magnifique”: “Go smoke some crack / ’cause guess what just came back?” (Porter at least was a Francophile, and the title scans with Les Misérables, but what’s crack got to do with it?) And though Carrie Underwood was surely awful in the live television broadcast of The Sound of Music, Alessandrini’s reworking of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” as sung by Mother Audra McDonald, doesn’t really make sense:
Climb Mary Martin
Ford Debbie Boone
Find Rebecca Luker
Till you sing on tune.
We expect Forbidden Broadway, with its cheesy props and thrift-shop costumes, to look a bit amateurish; we accept thumbed noses as part of its épater les Broadwasie charm. We know some targets will not be especially fresh. (“Super-frantic-hyperactive-self-indulgent Mandy” — Patinkin that is — hasn’t been on Broadway in more than two years.) We further understand that the four cast members, for all their energy and mimetic skills, will not generally rise to the level of the performers they’re satirizing. (If they did, they’d be in Aladdin, not sending it up.) But it’s harder to tolerate the waywardness of the writing. If takeoffs are by definition opportunistic, they are easily overwhelmed by that opportunism, which in too many of Alessandrini’s sketches leaves the tail wagging the dog. “One quick sex scene and a million songs to sing” fits neatly on the melody of “One Second and a Million Miles” from The Bridges of Madison County, but it’s not even a very accurate description, let alone a criticism. And that Cinderella segment, unable to decide whether to mock the show as too white-bread or too nontraditional, ends up in a very weird place as it ogles leading man Santino Fontana: “But you, you’re Latino / And as far as we know / You could be extremely hung.” (He’s not Latino.)
This is the kind of lyric writing — misaccented and greedy for a joke — that Forbidden Broadway should be pummeling, not practicing. Alas, in the new edition especially, there are too few jabs worth landing. The whine of Fran Drescher and the weirdness of Liza (yes, she’s back too) are small targets; using a Rodgers and Hammerstein or Kander and Ebb classic to mock them takes guts. But unless you’re as disciplined with your craft as those artists were, you’re picking a fight you can’t win.
Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging! is at the Davenport Theatre.