Gerard Alessandrini (Creator, Writer & Director) is a Special Tony Award winner for Excellence in the Theatre. He created, wrote, and directed all 25 editions of Forbidden Broadway in NYC, Los Angeles, and around the world, and performed in the original 1982 cast. He can be heard on four of the 12 Forbidden Broadway cast albums and on the Disney classics Aladdin and Pocahontas. He has written television specials for Bob Hope, Angela Lansbury, and Carol Burnett. He contributed material to the recent Barbra Streisand album Encore. His other musicals include Madame X (co-written with Robert Hetzel) and an all-sung version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. As the creator of Forbidden Broadway, Alessandrini is, today, the primary parodist of Broadway shows. American Theatre Guild is proud to be presenting his 2016 skewering of Hamilton titled Spamilton, which will play at the Scherr Forum at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza from March 1-6 (See the VC On Stage Calendar for dates and showtimes). We had a chance to catch up with Gerard and ask him about Spamilton and his history of writing parodies of some of Broadway’s most sacred cows. Here is our interview.
VCOS: When you started doing Forbidden Broadway, was there anyone else doing parodies of Broadway shows?
GERARD: Well, let’s see, that’s a good question. No, I don’t think so. At least not publicly. A lot of people were using show tunes and changing the lyrics for comic effect. I think one of the things that Forbidden Broadway did was that I changed the lyrics to specifically on the shows and the stars where they came from. So I think that was unique as far as I was concerned. Parody songs existed since ancient Greece.
VCOS: I’m sure you’re familiar with Allan Sherman.
GERARD: Oh, yes, of course. But I would classify him more as – and this isn’t being derogatory in any way to him – pastiche. He did the parody of “Dance of the Hours” [note: “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”] but it was always about different subjects but they were very funny. And then there was Tom Lehrer, of course, and he was also doing pastiche comedy songs and they were very edgy for their time.
VCOS: Allan Sherman used to do Broadway parodies for private parties because he was afraid of getting sued. He called them his “Goldeneh Moments of Broadway” and would do things like “There’s Nothing Like a Lox” from the musical “South Passaic” or a takeoff on Oklahoma! that he called “Yokohama!” But it never had anything to do with the show other than the title and the melody.
GERARD: It’s sort of amazing that I got away with it. I was very young and we were doing it at a cabaret, and most of our audiences were theater people, including Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and they were the ones that were talking it up. So I got away with the publishing things. But eventually, on and off, we did pay some of the publishers for the rights. But of course, when we would do it at a cabaret or a small theatre, the royalties were very minimal. I remember it was something like nineteen dollars a week to pay Rodgers and Hammerstein. So they didn’t come after me much.
VCOS: Did anyone ever take offense at your parodies?
GERARD: Oh sure. And I even kind of hoped so (laughs). But never to my face. No one ever sued us and I never got any nasty complaints. A lot of the golden age writers were regulars at Forbidden Broadway. They’d come and have a drink, get a little tipsy and they loved to hear songs about themselves. We had Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Carol Channing, you know, all of that. It was a party for them and I think that’s how we got away with it. When we do a tour, we do pay some rights for use of the music. We spoofed Les Mis for a long time and they get a little piece and I guess that makes them happy. But they’ve been very lenient with me. I suppose you’d like to know about Spamilton?
GERARD: I like to think that rather than having Forbidden Broadway having a Hamilton parody in it, that Spamilton is a spoof of Hamilton with a little Forbidden Broadway in it, because I have some of the divas like little bits on Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, and also Stephen Sondheim. So it’s sort of an inside-out version. But it’s mainly a parody about Lin-Manuel; a fantasy on how he made the show and who he is and what he does. We do have an agreement with him to do the show and there are some restrictions but they’ve been very generous with us. He’s come to the show a couple of times. The first time, he tweeted “I laughed my brains out.” I think he knew that other bigwigs like Sondheim and Hal Prince and Andrew Lloyd Webber were fine with it so he had to be fine with it, too.
VCOS: It’s kind of a badge of honor to be parodied by you.
GERARD: You know, he used to come to the show before he was Lin-Manuel-of-Hamilton. He came to see our Rent spoof in the ’90s when he was young. When we spoofed Into the Heights, he came to see it and by that time he was on his way himself and was happy to hang around with the cast. So I think that’s one of the reasons we got away with doing Spamilton.
VCOS: How familiar does one have to be with the show to enjoy it?
GERARD: I don’t think you have to be very familiar with it. I had to be familiar with it to write it and also to know the details about Lin-Manuel and rap music and all the other types of music that they use in the show. But I really think, like in Forbidden Broadway, it’s more like it’s spoofing the hype of Hamilton and I think that anybody in America knows that this show called Hamilton is on Broadway and what it is and what they’ve done to it. So just having an idea that it’s out there and has caused a huge sensation, and that it mixes current-day music with American politics, that’s all you need to know. Like Forbidden Broadway, a lot of it is just funny on its own. Funny is funny, whether it’s someone doing a pratfall or singing a funny line, or doing the choreography, which is very inventive and funny. We call it “corny-ography” sometimes. By the way, the choreography in Spamilton is brilliant. It’s by Gerry McIntyre, who I did many Forbidden Broadways and Forbidden Hollywoods with before. And he certainly knows how to make movement funny. It’s worth seeing just for that.
VCOS: What specific things about Hamilton do you target?
GERARD: As I mentioned earlier, I really was targeting Lin-Manuel because he became such an overnight superstar celebrity with it. So I created this fantasy on what was going through his mind when he decided to write Hamilton. Now, I’m sure it’s totally a fantasy and in no way real, in a very upside down way. We have him consulting Stephen Sondheim, who’s now Ben Franklin, so it’s really about his rise to fame and the trajectory of his ascension into the mainstream. But it also shows how Hamilton changed the point of view of Broadway. All of a sudden, the old type of shows that we’ve been seeing for the past twenty-five or thirty years were not relevant or seemed kind of creaky, and that includes a lot of the big British shows. And a lot of the stars that we were used to going to see over and over again – what do they do now that it’s cool to be in Hamilton? You have to be a different type of actor and sing differently. So it really shows what Lin-Manuel’s ideas did to Broadway, to make it look different.
VCOS: How was it using rap as a new way of singing a delivering recitative?
GERARD: Rap is not my forté. I’m more of a traditionalist. I like Cole Porter and Andrew Lloyd Webber and love to spoof Stephen Sondheim, and those are the types of songs that I’m used to parodying or putting inside out. But rap was a bit of a challenge and I learned a lot. They rhyme in a different way and some of the rhymes are incorrect rhymes, which is not true of Broadway, so I had to learn how to do that. When I was putting it together, I discovered that Lin-Manuel’s show Hamilton and other shows he did are not all specifically rap. In fact, it’s only a portion of the show. He has a very large palette of styles he refers to. He uses things from Broadway itself. I looked at the score from Hamilton and the copyright is shared with Rodgers and Hammerstein. So he’s referencing Broadway shows. The song “What Did I Miss?” which Jefferson sings in Hamilton is like a Hoagy Carmichael song; it’s got sort of a Southern swing to it. As a matter of fact, when we do our parody of it, a song called “What Did You Miss?” my producer-partner John Freedson said to me, “Where did you pick that song up from?” And I said, “It’s from Hamilton.” And he said, “It’s a Jerry Herman song.” And I said, “No, it’s from Hamilton!” So there’s all types of music in Hamilton. Lin-Manuel knew what he was doing. It has a lot of rap in it but there are all kinds of music there, even a little Mozart. There’s a little bit of the Beatles in the King’s song, “You’ll Be Back.” He said that himself in one of his books. It’s sort of like “Penny Lane.” So that was a relief for me, that I didn’t have to make it all rap.
VCOS: I know that in In the Heights, only one character, the main character, Usnavi, raps.
GERARD: That’s true. I never thought of that.
VCOS: Do you have to be careful about using topical humor because it gets quickly dated?
GERARD: Oh, that’s absolutely true. There’s no question. That’s one of the things I learned from years of doing Forbidden Broadway. Not only does it date, but humor changes, especially from decade to decade, and what’s politically correct changes – both ways – some things that you couldn’t do ten years ago you can now and other things that I did years ago I would never say today, not because it’s necessarily bad. I never do anything really bad or insulting, it’s just not funny anymore. And that’s true with Spamilton and I try to update it as it goes along and this version that is coming to California is slightly freshened up and updated.
VCOS: Are you directing this production yourself?
GERARD: I co-direct with Gerry McIntyre, our choreographer, as it should be. This version we have has been out for a while so the last time I was them was in December. The thing I mentioned earlier, since it’s topical humor, you’ve got to sort of be there to piece it together because it has a collage aspect to it. It’s like the writing and directing has to happen at the same time. I know that writers shouldn’t really direct their own material because they sometimes have trouble editing, and I have run up against that, but in this case, since it’s being created as you go along, I like to be there.
VCOS: Tell me about your cast.
GERARD: We have a wonderful, young cast. I love when Spamilton or Forbidden Broadway is done with young people – that’s what I was when I first did it – there’s an energy that they put into it that a more seasoned performer might not put in, so we have a young cast.
VCOS: Do you have to be careful not to make it too over the top or is there no ceiling?
GERARD: No, there is a ceiling, definitely. I believe that as a humorist, one of the most unfunny things is an actor trying to be funny. I think this has been true for a long time. It’s best to play it for real, to play it straight, maaaaybe with a little extra wink. But you want to keep it down and not get too wild or too phony. Then it’s not funny. Nothing is less amusing than that. That’s why a lot of serious actors, when they try comedy and haven’t done it, they try too hard. That’s why I Love Lucy was so funny. The situations were outlandish, but she’s playing it very real. And it’s funny because you believe it, too. And she had to be a good actress to do that. That’s the best type of comedy.
VCOS: When you do a parody, you have an array of potential targets: a show, a song, a performer, or a writer/director. What gets your attention first?
GERARD: I think the tone of the piece I’m parodying. Most successful shows like Hamilton are successful when they have the tone right. If they have that, I can hit the bullseye, so to speak. It’s kind of easy to parody an actor. I do that very successfully but it’s not always what I most enjoy spoofing. I think the song structure is what I look at; how the lyrics are put together, and the tone or the type of the song and how I can turn it inside out. That’s what I look for.
VCOS: Who is the writer that has been the most difficult for you to parody?
GERARD: For me, the really good writers are easy to parody, like Lin-Manuel and Stephen Sondheim because their structure and tone are so exact. Even if it’s not a funny song, you can hear it in the rhythm where the joke will go. The hardest ones to parody are the ones that are not well written and I won’t mention their names. Some shows are just kind of slapped together or are formless or the tone is all over the place. Those are the hardest ones to write. And sometimes that includes a lot of rock/pop type of shows. But I’ve always found – and I don’t say this to brag in any way – that the easiest one to spoof is Stephen Sondheim. He’s serious, he was brilliant, he had a fabulous career and everything he did was interesting and informative and also structured well. After doing that for a while I found out that those are the ones that come out the funniest but usually they’re works of art within themselves. The same thing is true of Lin-Manuel. He knows what he’s doing, everything is very structured and it’s informed by the exactness of the tone. Ultimately, when I get on a roll, I’m able to do it pretty fast.
VCOS: There are performer types that you parody from show to show, such as the belter diva. For example, you had the Ethel Merman belter who became the Patti LuPone belter, who became the Kristin Chenoweth belter. Are there other performer types that you go back to and revisit?
GERARD: Well, Broadway’s great for stars because they run a long time. They have long careers. In the movies, you can be a star and then you’re gone in five years. But they have unique voices. You have Carol Channing, Bernadette Peters, Sutton Foster, all voices that are inimitable but they’re very exciting and unique. And like all sincere theater people, they’re bigger than life. You mentioned Patti LuPone. I was looking through all my scripts and she was, by far, the star that I parodied the most. But they do change from generation to generation and thankfully we have new stars now like Sutton Foster. But we did have Carol Channing and Patti LuPone and before them we had Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. You know, when we bring up the great old “Best of Broadway” Forbidden Broadway numbers and I throw in either Ethel Merman or Mary Martin, I’m not sure anymore if people know them as well as they used to. Which is too bad. But sometimes it’s nice to educate people a little, and have someone come on and introduce themselves and tell them you they are, like Chita Rivera, for example. That’s what I like about the Sondheim/Prince shows and the grander way they informed you and taught you as they went along. In Spamilton you’re getting the inside dish although it informs you by inserting where this thing comes from or that thing comes from.
VCOS: Do you have a favorite part of Spamilton?
GERARD: Oh, yes. My favorite part is very much a part of Hamilton and that’s the song “My Shot,” but only because we pulled it off (laughs). The “My Shot” moment in Hamilton is superb! It’s a double bullseye. The show opens with “Alexander Hamilton,” which is great, and then they go into “My Shot,” in which Hamilton says “I’m not throwing away my shot.” So I had to come up with a parody of that. It’s very layered music and it’s lengthy and Gerry McIntyre put some tremendous choreography to it and it’s a great showcase for the talented actors that we have. So I really enjoy that song.
VCOS: Well, you’ve done a lot to “reflect” and “affect” the artistry of Broadway and keep people within themselves and to learn to laugh at themselves.
GERARD: Thank you!
American Theatre Guild’s production of Spamilton plays at the Janet and Ray Scherr Forum from March 1 -6. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar of Events. For tickets, visit ticketsales.com or call 1-888-729-4718.