If it seems like “The Phantom of the Opera” has been running forever, consider this: “Forbidden Broadway” predates it by six years.
The perennial revue, which uses song parodies to satirize current musicals, has survived long enough to become an institution. That label will be cemented on Oct. 6 with the bow of “Forbidden Broadway: Rude Awakening,” the show’s 25th anniversary incarnation.
Yet despite regular appearances in New York, regional and international tours, and a list of alums that includes Jason Alexander and Dee Hoty, it still operates like a scrappy upstart.
Even though recent installations have appeared at its current home, Off Broadway’s 47th Street Theater, the newer editions blatantly recall the quick-and-dirty show that played cramped cabarets in 1982. Sure, the costumes are fancier, but as creator, writer and co-director Gerard Alessandrini says, “We’re still essentially using four people, one piano and a Mylar curtain.”
The low-fi production values have aesthetic reasons — like making audiences feel they’re at a theater insider’s party — as well as financial ones. “Rude Awakening” has a shoestring budget of around $100,000, which covers fresh costumes, advertising and choreography in the show that will combine classic numbers with a host of new material.
“That’s a lot of money for us,” Alessandrini says. “Every time we do a new edition, we’re risking the life of the show.”
So far, of course, the risks have paid off. The stream of Gotham and touring gigs, plus sales of original cast recordings, have helped “Forbidden Broadway” generate a steady revenue for its team of roughly 20 producers, creatives and support staff. “We haven’t made a killing, but we’ve made a living,” Alessandrini notes.
He adds that box office expectations are also kept reasonable, and that “Rude Awakening,” currently in an open-ended engagement, can run comfortably at 65%-75% capacity. (The theater has 199 seats, and top ticket price is $65.)
Don’t assume, though, that the audience will consist of just chorus kids and obsessive tuner fans. Alessandrini says tourists routinely fill the seats, noting, “People don’t think ‘Forbidden Broadway’ is for the un-theater savvy, but it is. It makes you feel like an insider, but it’s pretty self-explanatory. If you’ve seen the ads (for Broadway shows), you can get a lot of what’s happening.”
But the tourist crowd means the parodies must carefully balance broad humor with in-jokes, which is just one of the difficulties of keeping the show fresh.
Another is the fact that today’s hilarious joke may be irrelevant in six months or even six weeks, when a show could close or a role could get re-cast. Therefore, tweaks and edits appear almost every week, such as the recent addition of a John Travolta gag to the “Hairspray” number.
In another nod to the early days, Alessandrini is still the only writer, and when multiple incarnations of “Forbidden Broadway” are playing throughout the world, he can be cranking out material almost constantly.
Some might wonder if it’s possible to write so much for so long and still be sharp-witted, but Alessandrini is hesitant to bring on another scribe. “I could do that, but I think one of the things that makes ‘Forbidden Broadway’ work is the consistency of my point of view,” he says.
To keep himself engaged, he sometimes folds obscure references into his material, such as a “Tarzan” spoof that riffed on the Cole Porter song “Please Don’t Monkey With Broadway.”
It’s easier for him to keep his work varied, he continues, when Broadway itself is interesting. The current show, for instance, can goof on everything from the rock-tinged “Spring Awakening” to the more traditional sounds of “Mary Poppins.”
Of course, with every genre he sends up, Alessandrini places yet another demand on his four-person cast, who are required to be staggeringly versatile. “They can’t just get up there and make faces. They have to be able to sing like Patti LuPone and then turn around and do ‘Rent,’ ” he says.
No wonder “Forbidden Broadway” has launched so many of its grads to bigger careers. Along with Alexander and Hoty, the show’s phalanx of consistently working alums includes Daniel Reichard (“Jersey Boys”) and Barbara Walsh (last season’s “Company” revival).
Industry types also embrace the show. In his acceptance speech for a 2006 Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theater, Alessandrini mentioned he had received kind words from Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince, not to mention a pair of suspenders from Carol Channing.
Producer Kevin McCollum (“In the Heights,” “The Drowsy Chaperone”) suggests “Forbidden Broadway” does more than make jokes. He says, “Ed Sullivan used to have Broadway people on his show all the time. This fills that niche. Broadway is only helped by continuing to celebrate the personalities of the theater.”
When it strays from legit-focused topics, Alessandrini’s style has met with less success. “Forbidden Hollywood,” a mid-’90s effort that featured songs about films like “Forrest Gump” and “Pulp Fiction,” got a lukewarm critical reception when it played cities including Los Angeles, Toronto as well as New York.And 2005’s “Forbidden Vegas,” which sent up Sin City, did middling box office. “I think the people in Vegas would rather have seen ‘Forbidden Broadway,’ ” Alessandrini says.
Upcoming side projects will be closely aligned with the flagship show. An in-development book, potentially published this year, will chronicle “Forbidden’s” history and include some of Alessandrini’s most popular parody lyrics. He says he also wants to create an official DVD version of the show that can highlight favorite numbers.
Meanwhile, there’s the imminent arrival of musicals that could inspire new parodies. Maybe the spring will bring us “Forbidden Broadway: $400 Cheaper Than Young Frankenstein.”