The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!),” a parody of classic Broadway songwriters by Joanne Bogart (lyrics) and melodies (Eric Rockwell), opened at Manhattan’s York Theater in December 2003 and still continues to delight Off Broadway theatergoers in its open-ended run at Dodger Stages. The show — enjoying a West Coast premiere at Laguna Playhouse — is notable because it satirizes its subjects (romantic Rodgers & Hammerstein, cerebral Sondheim, hummable Herman, lush Lloyd Webber and cutting-edge Kander & Ebb) with a clear, lacerating eye and still manages to point up their genius at the same time.
Since parodies often utilize exact tunes and layer words on top of them, it takes a while to comfortably accept clever lyrics over new melodies that resemble the originals. Rockwell is gifted enough to write themes that have the proper air, and once the ear settles on his approach, the show zips along.
All five segments present variations of the same story in the particular style of the parodied songwriters, centering on a young girl who owes rent to her bullying landlord and the hero who helps her out. It’s a workable, winning peg for Rockwell and Bogart to hang the various episodes.
Richard Rodgers was a notorious stickler for powerful voices and perfect pitch, and Brent Schindele has the leading-man vocal expertise and comic zaniness to put over “Oh, What Beautiful Corn.” Mary Gordon Murray gives a hilariously flat twang to her “Oklahoma!” Aunt Eller takeoff, and she’s totally on target singing, “Walk on through the wind and trudge through the rain — though your hair’s all blown, and you look insane.” Schindele and June (Alli Mauzey) dance a “run of De Mille” takeoff of Agnes De Mille’s somewhat dated dream ballet, and everyone has a blast with “Clam Dip,” dismembering “A Real Nice Clambake” with, “We drank too much champagne — that was delicious clam dip — and some of us got ptomaine.”
Sondheim’s challenging songs (“Worth persevering — it may not sink in — till a third or fourth hearing”) also have the most “irony, ambiguity, dissonance and angst,” and he’s riotously represented by Jitter (Jeffrey Rockwell), an artist who takes Sweeney Todd revenge on his nonfans with the credo, “I’ll kill them and coat them with papier mache.” “Into the Woods” and “Company” also are skewered, and Mauzey is a kick on “I Have Little Birds.”
The Jerry Herman “Mame”/”Hello Dolly” portion captures his soaring sing-along approach. Herman’s life-is-a-banquet optimism doesn’t lend itself to satire as strongly as other sections, and you can admire Rockwell and Bogart’s wit without breaking into laughter.
Lloyd Webber, by contrast, is fine fodder for spoofing. The moment when the “Phantom” chandelier drops on Mauzey and flings her to the floor is deftly directed by Pamela Hunt, and there’s hyperemotional belting that reveals the music of “Cats” and “Evita” to be comedically overblown as well as theatrically effective. Lloyd Webber is often needled for his operatic sources, and Rockwell scores with one of the segment’s most trenchant lines, “It might sound just a teeny/like something by Puccini.”
Puccini is a long way from the harsh “Chicago”/”Cabaret” Kander & Ebb world. Among the many high points here is “Easy Mark,” in which Murray’s Fraulein Abby walks in the park and sells her “very special merchandise” — her body.
The special merchandise in this production is words, music and Hunt’s choreography. Lighting, costumes and scenic design are simple and functional, and this minimalist treatment occasionally makes the production seem more slender than it is. Happily, the four singer-actors fill the stage with talent and a genuine understanding of the genres they’re parodying.