Broadway Belongs to Me
I’ve seen Forbidden Broadway three times and I’ve always admired it. I may be a lyricist but I am not the gal you call if you want a punny, delightful, rhyme-bursting parody lyric. No, I am the Salieri to Gerard Alessandrini’s Amadeus. I love Forbidden Broadway as only one can who fully understands how it’s made and still can’t hack it.
Last week, Brian Lowdermilk (the composer I write with) and I went to see one of our oldest friends Marcus Stevens in the latest Alessandrini opus Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging at the Davenport Theater before it closed on Sunday.
I met Brian and Marcus when we were all still in middle school and they were cast as Arty and Jay respectively in my dad’s community theater production of Lost in Yonkers at the Players Club of Swarthmore. Adorable, right? In high school, Marcus and Brian were the first people I personally knew who wrote musicals. If it weren’t for them – both of them – it would never have occurred to me to write for the theater.
Back when Brian and I were trucking along as mediocre performers, Marcus (along with Tony nominee Josh Young) was one of the stars of our theater group. Seeing Marcus then, you knew you were seeing the beginning of something special. It’s incredibly gratifying as an adult to discover that what you thought was the best when you were 15 turns out to be the actual literal best. For instance, Marcus always had a spot-on Mandy Patinkin impression. Now it’s not just my nerdy gang of high school pals who know that. All of New York City knows that.
You may or may not know that I’m a sucker for having a rug pulled out from under me in a theater. I remember reading the preface to David Ives’s All in the Timing wherein he recounts a memory of his high school English teacher standing on his head in order to get 30 kids at a Catholic all-boys school to hear – really hear – Emily Dickinson for the first time. For me, that is one of the clearest definitions of theater: standing on your head to get the distracted masses to pay attention while you try to say something profound. And by that standard, Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging triumphs. I’m so glad I didn’t read a single review before seeing the show. I’m so glad I wasn’t ready for the gut punch they had waiting for me.
I sat ready to watch Marcus’s Mandy (#MarcusLovesMandy is a hashtag campaign, worth exploring by the way), ready to laugh my way through the verbal somersaults and cartwheels and the literal sight gags. When Marcus realized we were we were seated in the second row, close enough to shake his hand, he gave us a little shout out. He pointed right at us during a crackling lyrically-acrobatic sendup of Jason Robert Brown when the song referenced the generation of writers who have been influenced by JRB’s writing (guilty as charged).
I felt the catharsis after a tepid Broadway season of laughing about a revival of a revival (Cabaret) in a room full of frustrated theater-lovers. There is a deep lament about the state of Broadway that courses through the veins of Forbidden Broadway but like many satirical ventures, the show falters by its own standard. There’s no room in the 99-seat house to poke fun at only original new musical of the season (If / Then) or even the Tony-award-winning adaptation A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, despite their continued commercial success. Forbidden Broadway traffics in exactly what it critiques most derisively: what is most commercial and known.
Then it happened. It was the end of the night. Marcus walked out on stage wearing a suit and horn-rimmed spectacles and carrying a briefcase with the Chase Bank logo on it. To the tune of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from Cabaret, he sang a cappella:
THE NEON ON BROADWAY
IS VIBRANT AND BRIGHT,
THE SPECTACLE STUNNING TO SEE.
IT TAKES CORPORATIONS TO DO IT RIGHT,
AND BROADWAY BELONGS TO ME.
MY JOB AS THE CORPORATE FUNDRAISING HEAD
IS FUNDING ART SAFE AS CAN BE.
AND GROUNDBREAKING THEATER IS FIN’LLY DEAD.
AND BROADWAY BELONGS TO ME.
I felt a sharp intake of breath. Brian’s hand reached for my arm. We stiffened. I was surprised when my eyes welled with tears. The lyric was perfect – clean and clear. The delivery was sober. Like all good theater, I had a momentary flash of thinking that this was written for me alone to hear. Maybe it sort of was.
I’m a realist, but in that moment, some tiny sliver of idealism deep inside me cried out. I understand that it takes a lot of money to make a Broadway show. I understand that the vast majority of the shows that get produced are backed by major film studios and corporations. It isn’t like any of this is new. Bye Bye Birdie was in danger of never opening out of town before Columbia Records put up the final bucks. They saved a budding producer’s ass and the childhood dreams of three thirty-somethings who had written countless drafts, but did it mean Broadway belonged to Columbia Records?
When we started NewMusicalTheatre.com, it was because we were afraid someone else would get there first. Not another writer but a corporation. We described our site as “a dynamic community where fans and actors can directly connect and impact the writers of tomorrow’s next big hits.” That’s true. It can and it does. But I’m coming to realize hits aren’t necessarily going to Broadway. Joe Iconis’s “Broadway, Here I Come” found its way not to Broadway but to an imaginary Broadway on network TV. The sad twist of the lyric being about suicide only makes the layers of irony even more palpable.
So, say Gerard Alessandrini was talking to me. And say I’m listening. I am. I’m not on Broadway now and most days I’d say I don’t care because Broadway looks different from up close and I make a living as a writer, which is more than most can say. But in that 99-seat theater, I think I discovered that I was kidding myself just a little bit. I think I discovered I do care.
Back in high school, I remember hearing the best of what Marcus and Brian were writing when they were teenagers. I was just a fan so it felt far away and romantic. I remember thinking that they could make it – that someday their work would be on Broadway – that it was that good. And that it was that easy.
Boy oh boy, does it look different from up close. Now all of my friends (Marcus and Brian included) are that good. Now we brace as each one dives into the out-of-town trenches and tries to come back home without losing some of that ineffable idealism but we’re all that good and we’re all friends, and as it turns out, I do still care. A little sliver of me can’t yet let that target go. So, Gerard Alessandrini, I answer your call to arms.
I will continue to write the theater I want to see. And Broadway belongs to me.