Forbidden Broadway, the creation of Gerard Alessandrini that originally ran for 2,332 performances in New York, has a simple enough concept. Four singers and a pianist deliver songs from the shows that through various rewrites take the mickey out of the musicals, performers, composers and producers we all know and (for the most part!) love. Given the relatively limited resources required to stage the piece, it is not surprising that it also has a rich history of touring, and now it appears at the Menier Chocolate Factory for the first time since 2009.
Forbidden Broadway, which began in 1982, has always developed with the times with new numbers being created to reflect the latest shows and revivals (in this instance The Book of Mormon, Matilda, Once, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Jersey Boys, Miss Saigon and The Pajama Game). That hardly any songs that appeared five years ago are reprised is a testament to just how much has happened in musical theatre over that time, as well as to the show's ability to remain fresh and innovative.
The hilarious rewrites to classic songs either reflect on the shows themselves, or introduce ‘character studies’ of key performers, composers and producers. Although there are microphones and a few sound effects, the evening is ultimately about four singers and a pianist (in this instance musical director Joel Fram) performing live before our very eyes. The current quartet consisting of Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis prove to be immensely talented singers (and they need to be to pull off songs that parody Liza Minnelli’s voice) as well as hilarious performers. For example, although the new words to a number of songs from Les Misérables totally alter their meaning, the laughs derive from seeing each executed with the depth of emotion required by the original version.
The show feels slicker and sharper than in 2009. Then there were too many assertions that all of the parodies were meant in good humour, as if that wasn’t obvious. It felt like everyone involved with the piece really was worried about upsetting Cameron Mackintosh and never working again, but this time around there is no such paranoia.
Although the overall target is Broadway and, by extension, the West End, this embraces a wide range of areas, and so the nature of the satire also varies. For example, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh are ripped off with glitzy, overblown numbers as befits their own style. With Stephen Sondheim, on the other hand, it his intellectual (or incomprehensible!) lyrics that come under the spotlight in a very clever rewrite of ‘Into the Woods’. Another number with amazing lyrics sees Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original Broadway and film versions of West Side Story respectively, sing ‘America’ in a scratching, catty battle for supremacy.
The show could perhaps benefit from a change to the running order. Brilliant though the character portrayals of Liza Minnelli, Idina Menzel and Angela Lansbury are, they all come a little too closely together in the second half. Similarly, although the role played by corporations in the Broadway story merits attention (and the satire here is probably the most biting of the evening), the last main number of the evening might be better served by exploring something onstage rather than off it. This is, however, a show in which the order could, and perhaps will, be altered over the run.
For a slick, intelligent and, above all, hilarious night out, Forbidden Broadway will surely take some beating, and nor is it necessary to have seen any of the shows it rips off in order to enjoy it. You may miss out on some of the in-jokes, but the lyrics and performances are clever enough to ensure they can be enjoyed as highly entertaining numbers, packed with 'laugh-out-loud' moments, in their own right.
Until 16 August at the Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, SE1 1RU with start times of 15.30 and 20.00. Tickets (£25-39.50): 020 7378 1713 or visit the Menier Chocolate Factory website.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket from Arthur Leone PR.