The Needham native who’s the founding father of ‘Spamilton’
NEW YORK — They say everyone’s a critic, and that may be one of the reasons behind the enduring appeal of Gerard Alessandrini’s unsinkable, incisive musical parody revue “Forbidden Broadway.” “We love to knock down anybody on a pedestal,” he says. And the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Ever since “Forbidden Broadway” premiered in New York in 1982, Alessandrini has been satirizing theater’s biggest hits, spoofing its famous songs and characters, and mocking its self-aggrandizing and idiosyncratic stars (from Liza Minnelli and Bernadette Peters to Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin). There have been more than 25 editions of “Forbidden” over the years. Now Alessandrini’s newest show lampoons Broadway’s biggest target of them all — Lin-Manuel Miranda and his ubiquitous mega-hit “Hamilton.” Alessandrini’s whip-smart sendup of that show, dubbed “Spamilton: An American Parody,” comes to the Calderwood Pavilion Feb. 12 to April 7, presented by the Huntington Theatre Company.
Alessandrini’s sharp critical eye was honed early on. He chuckles at the memory of receiving an honorary Tony Award for Excellence in Theater in 2006, presented by Angela Lansbury, and thanking his family, “who taught me that no matter how brilliant something is, you can always find something in it to criticize.”
The off-the-cuff remark elicited a gale of laughter from the audience. “So it may have been in my upbringing,” Alessandrini says with a chuckle over lunch at the historic actors’ hangout, the Lambs Club, in the heart of the Theatre District. “I think I do have good taste. There’s a bit of a critic in me.”
Indeed, as a kid growing up in Needham in the 1950s and ’60s, Alessandrini and his parents frequently went to see opera, theater, and movies in Boston, and they weren’t shy about voicing their opinions on what was wrong with a particular show. He remembers watching Maria Callas in “Tosca” on public television, and despite her peerless singing and the family’s love for the opera diva, his aunts chirped about how Callas “could have sustained that note more,” how her hair was “a mess” and she wasn’t “walking in those heels right,” and wondering incredulously, “Who designed that costume?”
“I feel there’s always room to criticize and always room for improvement,” he acknowledges. “I guess that’s the positive way of putting it!”
Still, anyone who’s seen “Forbidden Broadway” knows there’s as much an undercurrent of deep affection as there is acerbic commentary and satire. He shares the anecdote of his mother “running up to Carol Channing after Carol came to see a spoof of her in ‘Forbidden Broadway’ and apologizing to her profusely. ‘My son really likes you! Don’t believe what he says in the show!’ ” Alessandrini says with a laugh. “Carol Channing thought it was really funny, and they became fast-friends.”
“Maybe I have that same mixture in my shows, because ‘Forbidden Broadway’ and ‘Spamilton’ are critiques, but I think there’s a love of theater that comes through on my part, too,” Alessandrini says.
Curtis Reynolds, the pianist and music director of the “Spamilton” tour, agrees. “Even though we’re making fun of a lot of things, at the heart of it there’s still a love for the art form, while also showing how ridiculous it can be sometimes,” he says.
Alessandrini admires “Hamilton” because he believes Miranda has truly broken new ground. “I thought: Wow, that’s like what musicals used to be in the ’70s. When I went into Boston to see things like ‘Follies’ and ‘Pacific Overtures,’ they were like nothing else you’d seen before. They were completely startling in their form and how they would musicalize a story. ‘Hamilton’ reminded me of that,” says Alessandrini, who attended Boston University for a year, where he took a modern drama class with legendary theater critic Elliot Norton, before transferring to the Boston Conservatory.
While “Spamilton” follows the musical revue-style approach of “Forbidden Broadway,” Alessandrini insists it’s more of a book musical than his other shows, with something of a story line. At the center of this spoof is the character of “Lin-Manuel Miranda,” with the show chronicling his quest to rescue Broadway from the scourge of money-grabbing jukebox musicals and shows adapted from famous films with low artistic value. Instead, he wants to pioneer a revolution in musical theater.
In the “Spamilton” parody of “My Shot,” the character says that he wants to build a better Broadway and sings, “I am not gonna let Broadway rot! I am not gonna let Broadway rot!/ This is my own revolution, a hip-hop solution, and I’m not throwin’ away my shot.”
Echoing “Hamilton,” Alessandrini gives Miranda an antagonist in the character of “Leslie Odom, Jr.,” who wants Broadway to stick to the rivers and lakes it’s used to. “Why do you presume Broadway’s headin’ to its doom?/ Your nom de plume should be Lin-Manuel De Gloom,” he sings.
The show includes sendups of songs from the Schuyler sisters (through the use of puppets); a parody of the Beatles-style breakup song for King George, this one lamenting how musical theater has gone from mincingly gay to butch with the advent of shows like “Hamilton” (“Straight is back, soon you’ll see, campy musicals went out with ‘Glee’ ”); and a twist on “The Room Where It Happens,” with Barbra Streisand and a parade of movie stars singing how they want to be in the film when it happens. “Spamilton” also takes aim at other Broadway shows and performers.
The audience’s familiarity with the “Hamilton” juggernaut helps. Not only is “Hamilton” Broadway’s highest-grossing show, its cast album became one of only three in the past 50 years to hit the top 10 of the Billboard 200. That made Alessandrini’s job easier, but he insists that you don’t need to know all the ins-and-outs of “Hamilton” to enjoy it. “If you’ve caught some of the hype — and I can’t believe you can be an American and not caught some of the hype — you’re going to understand it,” he says.
Audiences flocked to see “Spamilton” during two extended runs in New York. It also played sit-down engagements in Chicago and London and recently embarked on a national tour. But perhaps the most ringing endorsement came from Miranda, “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail, and music director-orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, who came to see the show and gave it their blessing. “From the back, I could see [Miranda] laughing a lot,” he says.
Still, Alessandrini knows that if you dish out the criticism, you’ve got to be able to take it, too. So he inevitably asked Miranda and Co. for their feedback, and they sent him “a page of constructive, Elliot Norton-type notes” that proved to be helpful. “He didn’t quite understand the thrust of King George’s song. So I rewrote it in order to clarify it, and it was better after I rewrote it.”
“It was tremendous fun to put ‘Spamilton’ together, because I loved ‘Hamilton’ and I loved listening to it and researching it,” he says.
Does that mean he was, ahem, too nice to Broadway’s most sacred cow? “Some people were a little disappointed because they wanted me to criticize it more and be meaner to it,” he says. “But I think I still found plenty of things to mock.”
Spamilton: An American Parody
Created, written, and directed by Gerard Alessandrini. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company: At the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Feb. 12-April 7. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org