Genesis: “I wonder what the King is drinking tonight?”
Like so many other young hopefuls, I came to New York to be an actor on Broadway, but I could never get an audition. I remember that they wouldn’t even see me for Merrily We Roll Along, though I was exactly the right age. As it happened, Forbidden Broadway premiered around the same time as Merrily, and I ultimately used a parody of their artwork — the three silhouettes on the roof — for our show. But I’m getting ahead of my story ...
Since I wasn’t being seen for anything, I channeled my energy into writing. The first theatre parody lyric I wrote was a spoof of Richard Burton in Camelot. He was doing the show at the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center in 1981, and I was working as a waiter and a maitre d’ at Avery Fisher Hall across the plaza. As soon as the run started, I would hear people gossiping about Burton: “He went up on his lines tonight.” “He looked unsteady onstage.”
My friend Peter Brash was also a waiter at Avery Fisher. He told me that he was chosen to be Burton’s personal waiter at the opening night party for Camelot. The producers gave Peter specific instructions not to serve him alcohol, but Burton took him aside that night and said, in that voice of his: “My wife really loves white wine, so I want you to keep her glass full at all times.”
About two nights later, they brought the curtain down on Burton in the middle of his first number, “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?,” reportedly because he had some kind of bad reaction to medication. The next morning, the New York Post headline -- in red! -- was “It’s Curtains for Burton.” I thought, “How embarrassing and funny at the same time.” So I took that song and wrote a parody lyric:
I WONDER WHAT THE KING IS DRINKING TONIGHT?
WHAT MERRIMENT ARE HIS GAUNTLETS CLINKING TONIGHT?
THE CANDLES IN HIS EYES HAVE NEVER BURNED AS BRIGHT.
I WONDER WHAT THE KING IS SLURPING TONIGHT?
At the time, I was trying to write real musicals; I was in Lehman Engel’s BMI workshop. When I showed the Burton lyric to friends, they all thought it was hilarious, so I was encouraged to write parodies of other shows and performers.
My takeoff on “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” came about after I saw Patti LuPone sing the song on the Grammys. She was literally weeping while she was singing; I was watching with some friends, and I jokingly said, “She’s not crying because she’s into the drama of the song, it’s because Barbra Streisand bought the film rights for Evita.” Everybody laughed, and that spurred me on to write a parody lyric:
DON’T CRY FOR ME, BARBRA STREISAND;
THE TRUTH IS, I NEVER LIKED YOU.
YOU’LL DO THE MOVIE, BUT WHAT A BUMMER
WHEN YOU SING EVA LIKE DONNA SUMMER.
Then I wrote a Lauren Bacall/Woman of the Year lyric, inspired by her performance on the Tonys. Again, I was watching with friends. When Bacall sang, “I’m one of the girls who’s one of the boys,” somebody — I think it was Peter Brash — said, “I think she’s one of the girls who’s really a boy.” That was all I needed to get me going.
While I was working at Lincoln Center as a maitre d’, I had lots of time to jot down lyrics. I would be at the host stand, and sometimes it would get very busy, but mostly I’d stand there for hours with nothing to do. So I’d write parody lyrics on these big paper placemats. I wrote out the Burton, Bacall, and Patti LuPone in Evita spoofs. On my breaks, I would call friends and sing the lyrics into their phone machines. (People had phone machines in those days.)
During the summer, the host stand was moved outside to the plaza, near the fountain. One day, the wind blew my whole set of lyrics off the stand, and I thought they were gone forever. But my manager, Bob Arnold, came up to me the next day, grinning from ear to ear. He was holding a bunch of crinkled papers, and he said, “Somebody found these floating in the fountain last night. I read them and I thought they must be yours.” The papers had gotten wet, of course, and the ink had run a bit, but you could still read the lyrics. Thank heaven Bob rescued them and had a good sense of humor, or there might never have been a Forbidden Broadway.
At the time, I was also studying musical theatre at The New School with Aaron Frankel, who has been a great mentor and friend to me. All of us would bring in songs from book musicals we were working on and present them to the class. There would usually be some time left at the end of each session when we would entertain each other, so I thought, “Let me see how they like these parody lyrics.” Everybody loved them, and Aaron said, “You should put those songs into an act and do it at a nightclub somewhere.”
I took his advice to heart, but I didn’t want to perform the songs alone, since many of them were about Broadway divas and I really wasn’t into drag. So I enlisted the help of a talented singer-actress-comic genius I knew. She was as unique as her name, Nora Mae Lyng, and I had always wanted to write a show for her.
I had already come up with the Forbidden Broadway concept; I kept the lyrics in a folder that had that title on the cover, along with my own cheesy, hand-drawn version of what the logo art would look like. It featured a grinning and winking Amadeus hovering over a 42nd Street chorine, plus the face of Richard Burton, a Timbuktu chorus boy, and Mrs. Lovett grabbing the crotch of Sweeney Todd. It was a mess, but the point of view was all there. (To this day, whenever I do a new edition or show, I sketch out the poster art first. That helps me set the tone.)
Another friend of mine who was also wonderfully supportive and encouraging at the time was Pete Blue, whom I had met in Aaron’s workshop. Pete and I tried writing a few songs together, and we joined the BMI workshop as a team. During his off hours from his job as conductor and pianist for the original Broadway production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Pete was generous enough to help me put together Forbidden Broadway as a club act.
By the summer of 1981, Nora, Pete, and I were ready to go. The first presentation of Forbidden Broadway was in June 1981, in Peter Brash’s living room. Nora and I sang about fifteen songs, with Pete at the piano. We used “costumes” from our closets, evening wear and hats. The audience consisted of Peter; his partner, Jim Lynnes; my friend Laura Henry; and Nora’s husband, George Kmeck. They were rolling on the floor with laughter, and I thought, “Maybe this really is a good idea for a show.”
Someone at Peter’s said, “You know, they have open mike at Palsson’s tonight.” So we picked ourselves up, walked over to Palsson’s in our evening wear, and asked if we could do our material. One of the men in Aaron’s New School workshop was there that night, and he knew Sella Palsson, the owner, pretty well. He told her, “You should let them get up and do these songs. They’re very funny.”
Nora, Pete, and I performed for about forty minutes, and it went so well that the Palsson’s people asked if we’d like to be booked there for a full evening or two that summer. I thought it was a great idea, but I couldn’t agree to do it when they wanted because I was set to do summer stock. So they booked us for two nights in November, and I went off to play Curly in Oklahoma! at Keene Summer Theatre.
Laura Linney played “fall-down girl” in that production; I think she was about fourteen and I was twenty-three. At the time, I was also working furiously on a musical version of Scaramouche, and I kept telling Laura about this great new show I had. When we met again years later, after she had become a film and theatre star, she told me: “I remember how you said you were writing a show that was going to be a big hit when you got back to New York. The next thing I knew, I was reading about Forbidden Broadway. That was so encouraging to me as a young artist.” And I said, “Well, great, but that wasn’t the show I meant.”
In the fall, we got ready to do Forbidden Broadway at Palsson’s. They had cabaret shows in the upstairs room, performed on a tiny stage in front of a Mylar curtain that seemed oddly appropriate for our “glamorous but trashy” take on contemporary Broadway. I was still working as a waiter and host at the Avery Fisher Hall restaurant; that’s how I first met people like Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green, and Beverly Sills, but I wasn’t talking to them about music, theatre, or the arts. My conversations with these luminaries never went far beyond “Dear boy, could you get me a few more of those delicious buffalo chicken wings?”
I was concerned that my singing and acting career was stuck in neutral. Perhaps I was even angry. But nothing feeds comedy like a little anger, and I was ready to blow off some steam. One day, I was bitching to Peter Brash, who had gotten a job as a gofer for the soap opera The Doctors. (He’s now an Emmy Award–winning soap writer.) Peter said, “Don’t you have a show at Palsson’s next week? Is anybody coming? I’d better help you print up some flyers and programs.” (Don’t tell anyone at NBC, but we used one of their copy machines to do just that.)
Then Pete Blue came to me and said, “I can’t play the show at Palsson’s because I have to play Whorehouse.” I naively thought, “Well, we’ll just get another pianist.” I approached a friend of mine at BMI, but we didn’t have any of the music written out, and he couldn’t handle it. I thought, “Oh, my God! I have a show in thirty-six hours and no pianist. But I can’t think about that now; I’ll think about it tomorrow.”
The next morning, I called Nora and asked her, “Do you know any pianists? At this point, anyone will do.” She said, “Yeah, I know a great one: Fred Barton.” We brought the lyrics to Fred, with no music at all. He looked at the lyrics, and he knew the melodies and arrangements of the songs so well that he played everything perfectly from memory. Instant chemistry!
So Nora and Fred and I did the show at Palsson’s for two nights — and, to this day, I have no idea where the audience came from. I had invited a few people, Nora’s husband was there, Fred had asked a few friends. As I said, we had printed up some flyers, but I had forgotten to give most of them out. Still, the room was completely packed for both performances. Even Hugh Fordin from DRG Records was there. Word had somehow gotten out that the material was fun and Nora’s performance was something special.
For two nights only, we did the entire eighty-eight-minute show ourselves, with no act break. In order to give Nora and myself a breather, I had handed Fred a parody that bemoaned all the imitation Sondheim writers I was meeting in the workshops at BMI and The New School. It was called “Too Many Sondheims.”
I remember that the show was a little much for Nora and me to handle on our own. By the time we had eviscerated Amadeus, Evita, My Fair Lady,Timbuktu(!), Merrily We Roll Along, 42nd Street, The King And I, and Woman of the Year, we were exhausted. We started missing cues because we couldn’t make the costume changes without help; we dripped with sweat through the entire show, and we could hardly keep a straight face. But the audience ate it up.
The success of these two performances was such that Palsson’s offered to book us for a run. Someone suggested we add two other performers and turn the show into a full-fledged revue. I liked the idea, because I had written a number of other parodies that required at least four actors. It would also take a lot of the performing pressure off Nora and me. So it was on to Palsson’s Cabaret Theatre. That’s “Theatre” with a capital T — and that stands for “Trouble!”
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