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. Next up Cameron Mackintosh, the Napoleon of Broadway, is ridiculed for the overpriced merchandise he sells in his foyers: it costs £100 to see the show and another £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 Misérables.
The performers are incredibly slick, professional and tuneful, and run through countless costume changes. The evening I went Alasdair Harvey was off because his wife was having a baby (you evidently don’t have to be gay to work on this show) but his replacement, Christopher Ragland, was excellent. This is a night of what they call loving parodies, and they clearly loved doing it. But here, of course, lies the problem.
What might be mistaken early on as a jealous attack from the chorus line on the blandness of the big musicals, soon becomes a perverse but sincere tribute to it. The programme tells us that writer Gerard Alessandarini wrote Forbidden Broadway in order to find an agent, and we must assume he did, for none would be much offended on behalf of their clients. Many of his targets – Webber, Sondheim, Hal Prince, Bernadette Peters – came and applauded. But the real evidence that this is an inside job is that two of the ruder numbers in this outing are aimed at shows that have transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End. We hear that A Little Night Music has difficulty filling its stalls and the coup de grâce, a final sing-song, is a joke (admittedly one I did not get) against La Cage aux Folles.
The audience loved this show, either because they love musicals, have worked in musicals, or, I guess, personally know the performers. For those of us who treat the witlessness of the modern musical with a little less equanimity, Forbidden Broadway is entirely inadequate as an analysis of what has gone wrong. After all, if modern musicals were generally as clever as Cole Porter’s – or even as The Producers or Spamalot – there would be nothing worth parodying. A more self-referential night out you could not imagine. The only outside event to pierce the bubble of the musical stage is not Barack Obama but Susan Boyle, and at no point is the show harnessed to parody something beyond itself, something political or otherwise topical. Forbidden Broadway not only flatters its audience by assuming it has seen all the shows parodied; it flatters the shows themselves.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times