In the past three years, I swear I've heard hushed but urgent, melancholy voices in the theater -- whisperings, hissings and mutterings that all went something like this: "Can you honestly believe this show?" "Is it possible these people are serious?" Whatever the incredulous exclamation, the voices always end with a question so desperate it sounds like a plea.
"Where is 'Forbidden Broadway' when we really, really need it?"
Well, anguished voices in my head, we have news.
"Forbidden Broadway," Off-Broadway's essential antidote to the follies and felonies of the commercial theater, is back. The satirical theater institution that Gerard Alessandrini forged from deep love and a dark heart in 1982, begins previews Tuesday for a new show, "Alive and Kicking," and opens Sept. 6 for four months at the 47th Street Theatre, 304 W. 47th St.
It has been more than three years since Alessandrini announced that he didn't want to keep churning out editions of this cabaret staple forever. Who could blame him? After 27 years, the master who created, wrote and directed 21 mostly fabulous, award-winning lampoons wanted to move on to other projects. At the time, he said something purposefully vague about "the changing of the artistic climate on Broadway."
What he meant by that, he told me last week, is that endlessly long-running musicals and increasingly corporate packaging aimed at theme-park longevity have slowed the pipeline for spoof-worthy original material. "How much can you keep saying about 'Lion King,' 'Jersey Boys' and 'Phantom?,' " he asks and answers at the same time. "It became almost impossible to do a new edition every year. There have been more important plays than musicals lately -- and, though we used to mix in some plays through the years, they are harder to parody and not as many people have seen them."
I've always marveled at the virtuoso balancing act between outsider accessibility and insider exclusives. Alessandrini somehow manages to broaden the appeal of his vast expertise without losing the edge, mixing his love for old-time show business with an indisputable -- almost always amusing -- mean streak.
Here was a scruffy, snotty, extravagantly creative revue that put straight pins into sacred show-biz monsters from the inside out. Alessandrini knows this stuff cold, adores it and, somehow managed to make it understandable to people who know it a little and probably love it less.
Editions of the show -- including a "Forbidden Hollywood" created during Broadway's particularly fallow 1994-95 season -- have had surprising global appeal. There is one now in the Philippines, which Alessandrini says is a "big hit with Lea Salonga in it." He appreciates that, though we think of Broadway as our local obsession, "it is really kind of subliminally everywhere. Everybody kind of understands what Broadway is. Everybody loves Broadway."
Despite our fears and reports in the press, Alessandrini always considered this a break and not a farewell. "I always meant this to be a hiatus. I was surprised that some articles said it was dead," added Alessandrini, who used the time to do a few off-Off-Broadway musicals and to finish a terrific book, "Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain." "Now I'll be doing editions less frequently, but more wholeheartedly."
From the start, the form, with its intentionally homemade feel, has been constant. Four remarkably gifted quick-change virtuosos (where does he find them?) and a multi-tasking pianist (David Caldwell since 2004) take on the big tunas (Disney, Liza) and current darlings with lots of irreverence, a tacky curtain made of cheap silver-foil strings and at least as many ridiculously perfect wigs.
Targets tend to include the beloved hambones (Mandy Patinkin singing "Somewhat Overindulgent" instead of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"), the left-behinds (Patti LuPone exhorting, "Don't cry for me, Barbra Streisand/the truth is, I never liked you"), mannerisms ("Hey, Bob Fosse! Spend a little time on the book!") -- more or less in equal parts cruel to be kind and cruel to be fun.
My favorites remain the medleys, especially "More Miserable," in which Jean Valjean comments on the banal nonsense as he sings it and actors can't follow the plot but keep spinning on the turntable.
Understandably, Alessandrini isn't saying much about his new targets, uh, subjects. Just maybe, if the "Les Miserables" movie becomes a hot topic, we could revisit the spinning turntable. But think about the fresh meat, uh, material from the past three years -- for starters, "Spider-Man," "The Book of Mormon," "Porgy and Bess," "Once," "Evita" and the ripe Judy Garland bio, "End of the Rainbow."
No edition is complete without a few greatest hits. "I might dust off 'Wicked,' 'Lion King' and 'Jersey Boys,' " Alessandrini said. "And of course, 'Annie' is back again this season. Can't retire her."
The last revue, "Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab," concluded with a typically smart but atypically big-hearted and touching tribute to Stephen Sondheim called "Putting Up Revivals." Alessandrini says that the master seemed "proud and embarrassed at the same time. I can't scan and rhyme like him, but I love it that he comes and laughs."
The new show is being called a 30th anniversary, despite those missed years. And were they ever missed.