‘Forbidden Broadway’ creator Gerard Alessandrini on his musical spoofs, including ‘Spamilton’
(Michael McAndrews/Hartford Magazine)
“How about some ‘Maggie Flynn’?” Gerard Alessandrini asks as he hands me the pristine album cover of the long-forgotten, ill-fated 1968 musical starring Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy.
We are in the album room of the split-level, mid-century home he shares with his husband, Glenn Bassett, overlooking Mill Pond in Essex. The extra room for his collection of thousands of original cast albums was a major selling point and contains every musical you’ve ever — and never — heard of.
It’s an unexpectedly bucolic and serene place for a man whose life has been devoted to celebrating — and satirizing — the razzle-dazzle of Broadway. For more than 30 years, Alessandrini has created more than a dozen Manhattan revues that have run under the banner “Forbidden Broadway.” In 2006 he even received a special Tony Award for his parodies of Broadway’s best — and sometimes worst — efforts.
But of all the shows, nothing has struck such a chord as “Spamilton!” — his musical spoof of how Lin-Manual Miranda has revolutionized Broadway with his mega-hit “Hamilton.” As soon as “Spamilton” opened in 2016 it, too, became a must-see show, attracting crowds that included longtime “Forbidden Broadway” fan Stephen Sondheim and even “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and the show’s creative team.
Alessandrini, 65, has always been a musical fan at heart, growing up in Needham, Mass., just outside Boston during the waning days of the out-of-town, pre-Broadway tryout circuit.
After graduating from the Boston Conservatory of Music in the late ‘70s, Alessandrini headed to New York to make his mark as an actor-singer but, like many, he turned to temp jobs to survive. One in 1981 was at the front desk of a cafe at Lincoln Center, where he would write parodies of show tunes on the back of paper placemats.
“One of the first lyrics I wrote was, ‘I wonder what the king is drinking tonight,’ because from across the plaza Richard Burton was starring in a ‘Camelot’ revival, and we were working the night they had to bring down the curtain down on him because he couldn’t go on with the show.”
But the beginnings of “Forbidden Broadway” were almost swept away by a wayward wind.
“One night, I was seating somebody inside and a wind came and blew away the 20 pages of lyric sheets I had at my outdoor station. The next day my manager came to me and said, ‘Gerard, they found these papers floating in the Lincoln Center fountain last night and we thought they’ve got to be yours.’ I said, ‘Thanks, Bob. That’s my show.’ ”
His first “Forbidden Broadway” show opened in 1982, and it received a big boost when Rex Reed raved abut the show in his newspaper column.
“We would come to do the show and there would be 10 limos parked in front of the Triad Theatre,” Alessandrini recalls. Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Prince Rainier, Paul Simon, Christopher Reeve, Carol Channing and George Burns were early fans of the show, often laughing at parodies of themselves.
And his reaction to having his idols’ applause?
“We were young, and you don’t know how really wonderful that it is as it’s happening. You think that’s just what happens in your life.”
He says when the creators of the shows turned out — such as John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”) and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (“Fiddler on the Roof”) — he worried that they might sue. “But we ended up getting a lot of the music rights because Sondheim said it was OK. He understood that parody was healthy.”
In the revues, “Grand Hotel” became “Grim Hotel.” Ann Miller singing “I‘m Still Here” from “Follies” became “I’m Still Weird.” Bernadette Peters’ vocal challenges in a show became her spoofing counterpart singing “See Me on a Monday.” “Company”’s “Being Alive” became “Being LuPone” when that diva starred in the revival. Mandy Patinkin became a regular target. One had him singing to the “Mary Poppins” tune, “Super-Frantic-Hyper-Active-Self-Indulgent-Mandy.”
“But some years — mostly in the ‘80s — were hard when Broadway wasn’t doing so well and there wasn’t much to parody,” he says. For one show, the revue’s announcer said: “‘Forbidden Broadway’ salutes the hits of the season,’ and the lights would come up and there would be nothing on stage — and then the lights would be lowered.”
The British Invasion of mega-hits offered a new wave of satirical opportunities, and with the arrival of Disney 20 years ago and a booming Broadway that followed, there has been a wealth of material to keep each new edition of the shows fresh. After the last “Forbidden Broadway” revue in 2014, Alessandrini took a break but the arrival of “Hamilton” the following year drew him back.
“This was the biggest hit show that’s come to Broadway since I’ve been in New York, and I would feel unfulfilled if I didn’t finish the job.”
But “Hamilton” required more work than he’s ever put in a parody. “To turn a song inside out I have to practically memorize it and know exactly what the author was doing and where they were coming from. For ‘Hamilton’ there was a lot of material and a lot of research I had to do on Hamilton and the rap artists Miranda was referencing. It’s hard work but it’s fun hard work — but it’s hard work.”
Alessandrini often turns a show’s point of view upside down but in “Hamilton”’s case Miranda had already done that by making Aaron Burr such a prominent character. So he decided to make it all about Miranda and the phenomenon of the show itself. One of the musical’s most famous song was transformed into “(I Wanna Be in) The Film When It Happens.”
Alessandrini also managed to slip in bits from his go-to tropes, including “Gypsy,” “Chicago” and ‘Sweeney Todd,” and personalities, like Audra McDonald, Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli. Even Sondheim makes an appearance as a kind of Broadway Yoda.
“When Miranda came to see the show I was a little nervous,” says Alessandrini, “because I don’t know him that well, just as an acquaintance, so I wasn’t sure how he would take it about being the subject of the show.”
[Related] Frozen: Climbing the ice is an exhilarating winter adventure »
The answer: He loved it, spent time with the cast after the show and gave him and the cast tickets to see “Hamilton.”
From his Essex home where his Manhattan pals often escape — and take advantage of the piano in the living room that he doesn’t play — Alessandrini is now planning a new edition of “Forbidden Broadway” in the fall — but he hasn’t started writing it yet. “For these things, it’s like painting a fresco. You have to paint really fast before the plaster dries.”
Gerard Alessandrini is the creator, writer and director of the “Hamilton” parody “Spamilton,” a huge hit that is coming to Playhouse on Park. Alessandrini and his husband, Glenn Bassett, an actor and theater production manager, live in Essex.
Gerard Alessandrini is the creator, writer and director of the “Hamilton” parody “Spamilton,” a huge hit that is coming to Playhouse on Park. Alessandrini and his husband, Glenn Bassett, an actor and theater production manager, live in Essex. (Michael McAndrews/Hartford Magazine)
But he’s excited about the new wave of shows: the dark “Oklahoma!” The journey to hell in “Hadestown.” And the self-aware, self-referential “Beetlejuice.” “That show is very meta-musical, very ‘Forbidden Broadway.’ Sondheim and I were once talking about some musical and he said, ’It’s a very ‘meta-musical.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘Gerard, don’t you know? You invented it.’”
Click through to this link to see the original article and more photos of Allessandrini’s beautiful Ivoryton home as published in courant.com.