Forbidden Broadway

Fred Barton and Ethel Merman, February, 1982

"So what did you actually do on FORBIDDEN BROADWAY,” they ask me. Well, for starters, I wrote the following liner notes for the original 1984 recording: 

Fall, 1981: Broadway unsuspectingly enjoys a renewed prosperity, as accepting theatregoers indulge such oddities as the operatic expertise of Linda Ronstadt and the irony of a non-musical about Mozart. 

Enter Gerard Alessandrini, veteran leading man of stock and repertory theatre, who turns his childhood genius for song parody against the invincibly inaccessible Broadway, a fortress forbidden to Gerard and the vast majority of his fellow performers.  Enter Nora Mae Lyng, a consummate musical comedy leading lady, impatiently awaiting the opportunity to show the current Broadway crop a thing or two about style, magnetism and sheer brilliance.

Together, Gerard and Nora vented their frustrations with his song parodies, entertaining their friends at parties and in local piano bars.  In one such establishment, Palsson's Upstairs Supper Club, Gerard and Nora offered a more comprehensive evening of Broadway parody.  

Enter Fred Barton, pianistic whiz-kid, whose frustrations as a would-be Broadway conductor and orchestrator could transform him into an explosive one-man orchestra.

Inspired by the enthusiastic reception, Gerard expanded the repertoire to encompass the entire Broadway scene, accommodating the talents of two other similarly frustrated friends.

Enter Chloe Webb, an entirely original comedienne eager to pit her warm, insightful zaniness against the ancient Broadway institutions perennially touting their wares.

Enter Bill Carmichael, the classic, rich-voiced, handsome tenor, serenely protesting the trendy invasion of Broadway by rock singers and television blonds.

FORBIDDEN BROADWAY began regular performances in December, 1981 for the usual cabaret audience:  friends and a few random adventurers. The friends consisted largely of fellow out-of-work performers, for whom the show served as a hilarious incarnation of their Broadway ambitions and frustrations. Word-of-mouth spread quickly to the current Broadway gypsies, who flocked to the show in secret to laugh at their own shows sent up, deflated, and skewered. Within days, the entire Broadway community buzzed, scandalized and fascinated by the effrontery and daring of this tiny, budgetless group of unknowns who presumed to challenge Broadway's multi-million dollar illusion of excellence.

In a wretched January snowstorm, Rex Reed trudged over to Palsson's to observe the phenomenon. His rave review was the final touch. FORBIDDEN BROADWAY became the toast of the town, a miraculous success unprecedented in show business history and unlikely to be repeated.  The sudden onslaught of the enthusiastic public filled the tiny supper club months in advance for years to come.  Celebrities from all fields clamored to see it, particularly the very stars, writers, directors, and producers impersonated in the show.  Critics across the country hailed it not only for satirical accuracy and skillful execution, but for single-handedly reviving the long-dormant musical revue format.

Fred Barton, 1984

FORBIDDEN BROADWAY walked into my apartment one winter night in 1981, in the form of Nora Mae Lyng and her friend Gerard Alessandrini. A unique chemical reaction between us all turned a scrapbook full of Gerard’s lyrics into an international phenomenon.

Nora Mae Lyng was the show's secret weapon.  She had a precise technique and philosophy of performing musical theatre parody, one that I tried to capture equally precisely in the musical settings.  We gave the show its authority – the authenticity of the real Broadway. 

Nora Mae Lyng would draw herself up, completely still, with all the inherent grandeur of the star in question, and by the time she so much as raised a mutely furious eyebrow, the place went wild.  Rather than playing the parody, she simulated the original with surgical accuracy, while Gerard's lyrics provided the audience with a magical X-ray ability to hear what the diva was actually thinking behind the mask.  

At the piano a foot and a half away, for 1500 performances, I simulated the original Broadway orchestrations.  We were conspirators, creating the illusion of the real thing; it was like building a bogus Louvre every night, letting the audience find the mustache drawn on the Mona Lisa.

The other secret weapon of the show was its theme – a passionate love of Broadway vented through the frustration of being denied it. Gerard and Nora actually waited on the tables before the show, before erupting into a public quarrel, with audience members routinely rising to mediate.  As I hit a chord on the piano, Gerard and Nora looked at the empty stage, and ruefully sang a song in which they swore off ever becoming Broadway stars – revealing how much they wanted to.

The entire show was really the ultimate form of parody: self-parody, of our own eloquent protest at being forbidden Broadway. This quality surprised our first celebrity guest, Harold Prince, who came annoyed that our poster made fun of his recent flop, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.  He left entranced with FORBIDDEN BROADWAY and the heart we wore on our blood-soaked sleeves.

Fred Barton

George Burns, Carol Channing, Nora Mae Lyng, Bill Carmichael, Wendee Winters, Fred Barton, Gerard Alessandrini, Mary Martin

FORBIDDEN BROADWAY ORIGINAL CAST, 1982: Gerard Alessandrini, Nora Mae Lyng, Bill Carmichael, Chloe Webb, Fred Barton