Gerard Alessandrini On … Forbidden Broadway Secrets

Gerard Alessandrini conceived, wrote, co-directed and originally starred in the cult satirical revue show Forbidden Broadway, which premiered in 1982 in New York, where it just finished its record-breaking 27-year run earlier this year. In the show, Broadway’s biggest hits and flops – amongst them many West End transfers – as well as its brightest stars are irreverently panned, poked, lampooned and lambasted, while set to the tunes of a medley of favourite showstoppers. In 1997, Alessandrini received the Drama League Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre, and in 2006, the show itself won a special Tony Award. After limited runs in 1989 and 1999, Forbidden Broadway is now back in London in a specially updated version, which starts previews this week at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Forbidden Broadway started life at Palsson’s Supper Club on New York’s Upper West Side in January 1982 as a simple cabaret act. I originally had the idea because I wanted to showcase my talents and “find an agent”. I was always interested in the theatre, in particular musicals since I was a kid. I had been writing musical parodies of Broadway shows since I was young so took the opportunity to assemble some of them into a nightclub act. Little did I know, that cabaret act would eventually become Broadway’s longest running musical comedy revue! Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that our success would span over 27 years!

It’s hard to say why Forbidden Broadway has become such a phenomenon. I think it’s no one thing that has made the show such a success. In a city which is saturated with so much theatre, this is refreshing, honest and hilarious, and it hits right back at any production which dares to take itself too seriously! Parody is the sincerest form of flattery, and that has been proven by the numerous stars who have stopped by to see ‘themselves’ over the years, including Stephen Sondheim, Cameron Mackintosh, Kathleen Turner, Patti Lupone and Bernadette Peters. It’s such a huge honour to have such distinguished audience members!

Because of the nature of Broadway, and in particular in recent years with productions not enjoying the same longevity they did when I first started out, the show has a great supply of fresh material to work with. I think Forbidden Broadway has proved that it can reinvent itself and be consistently funny; we always have something new to say. It’s a show you can see time and time again because we’re always adding new material. For example, the rehearsal process in London has been fantastically creative. I’m writing new material every morning then we’re rehearsing it in the afternoon, we keep what works and bin what doesn’t! It’s also an ongoing process so, if during the run the audience aren’t appreciating something, we can re-write.

London is a great place for Forbidden Broadway and being in a new city has given the show a great injection of life. The audiences here really know and love their theatre and they also have a great sense of humour! You don’t need to be a theatre-lover to enjoy the show, there’s something for everyone, but a sense of humour helps! The London seasons over the years have been successful, but maybe because they have been for a limited run, they haven’t been able to take root in the same way as Forbidden Broadway in New York. This new version has plenty of material from both Broadway and London shows so we’re confident that audiences here will absolutely love it.

There are lots of elements that make this production of Forbidden Broadway different. The theatre space is wonderful – versatile and intimate, and the Chocolate Factory obviously has a great reputation for musicals itself (as well as comedians over the years), so hopefully we’re starting with an appreciative audience! We are very fortunate to have such talent in our amazing London cast: Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Alasdair Harvey and Steven Kynman.

Being in any show night after night is hard work, but Forbidden Broadway is extremely challenging because of the amount of costume changes, and the variety of songs and singing styles – the cast have to be incredibly versatile. Added to that, every cast brings something new and exciting to the show. The material we are using is a great mixture of some classic and some brand new songs – some of which have been inspired by visiting current West End fare, so nobody should feel safe! One of the best things about watching the show in the evenings is seeing the audience reactions. You can tell when the cast are in from a production that’s being parodied – the cheers and laughter are that much louder!

My personal highlights over the years have been numerous. The show has a very special connection with Les Miserables. As we’ve both been running so long, they’ve provided us with a lot of great material, and the numbers we have created based on the show have been some of my favourites. I also love spoofing Sondheim, and of the new material we have written I think my favourite is from Billy Elliot. However, one of the biggest highlights for the show over its 27 years was having a special Tony Award presented by Angela Lansbury in 2006 – a very special moment.

I’m not sure what the future holds for Forbidden Broadway – as long as there is demand, I’ll keep writing! We’ve got the run here at the Menier until September. I’ve also written a book, Behind the Mylar Curtain, which is a loving and candid look at the whole history of the show, a must-have for Forbidden Broadway and theatre fans. Hopefully, we’ll be bringing Forbidden Broadway back to New York, maybe in a few seasons when there is a new crop of shows on Broadway, and the time is right for the next incarnation!

Forbidden Broadway opens on 2 July 2009 (previews from 25 June) at the Menier Chocolate Factory, where it’s booking until 13 September 2009.