Oh, the irony. Theatre producer David Babani’s first West End show was a New York revue called Forbidden Broadway, a parody of the great American and the great British musical. The show was packed with mickey-taking turns that took the rise out of the theatrical establishment.
A decade later Babani has once again joined forces with his American counterpart John Freedson — who joined the show in 1985 as a performer and has since served as its producer — to stage an updated London version of Forbidden Broadway. Targets this time include productions such as La Cage aux Folles, and Sunday in the Park With George. And the irony is that these are Babani’s own productions. Once the up-and-coming producer with his nose pressed to the theatre establishment’s window, Babani is now part of the very theatrical establishment lampooned by Forbidden Broadway.
Forbidden was born in New York when unemployed performer Gerard Alessandrini had the bright idea of drumming up some work by writing a show for himself. For material he looked to Broadway’s biggest hits and rewrote many of the songs as loving but cutting parodies. The cabaret opened at the Palsson’s Supper Club in 1982, beginning a record-breaking run of last of 27 years which only ended in March. Over that period, the satire, which was constantly updated to take account of new hit shows, became a full-time job for Alessandrini and picked up a bunch of awards.
“It was my first West End show,” remembers Babani. “Yours too,” he says to his co-producer Freedson.
The pair last collaborated on the satire when it arrived in 1999 at the West End’s Albery Theatre. Back then Babani was carving a career as a producer mainly on the fringe. He had yet to discover the Southwark venue now known as the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is hosting Forbidden Broadway’s return to London and is where Babani and Freedson are sitting on sofas, talking about why it is that musical theatre attracts so many Jews.
“I have a theory that I’ll venture,” says Babani. “I think it might have something to do with the fact that as Jewish people, and especially in the golden age of musicals in America, we were sort of outcasts and wanted to be accepted. And one of the resulting mechanisms is to be entertaining and funny.”
“That’s how it started early on,” counters Freedson, “but then it led to an art form that was written by Jews for Jews. If you were Jewish, your parents had all the cast albums from the shows.”
The discussion is pertinent not least because so much of the material in Forbidden Broadway was originally written by Jews, although creator, writer and co-director Alessandrini comes from Italian stock. The shows having the proverbial taken out of them include La Cage aux Folles (written by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman); A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George (Stephen Sondheim); Little Shop of Horrors (Alan Menken) to name but three, all created by Jews but also all staged at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
You do not, says Freedson, have to have seen all the shows — there’s Les Miserables, Hairspray and Wicked in the there too — to understand the jokes. “It’s accessible to everyone. Gerard writes the gags so that even his 97-year-old mother can understand them,” he says. And you do not have to be an insider to get a joke about Andrew Lloyd Webber or the other theatrical figures, such as Cameron Mackintosh, or even that genius of musical theatre whose compositions are behind so much of the Chocolate Factory’s success, Stephen Sondheim.
But to get the most out of this show you probably do have to have fallen in love with musical theatre — something that happened for the 50-year-old New Yorker Freedson and 31-year-old Londoner Babani both at the tender age of 13.
“I think everyone in theatre has this moment where they realise that that’s where they need to be,” says Freedson,
“And mine was in Reading, Pennsylvania in a production of Mame. It was the big, New York production which felt like Broadway, and I was on the stage and I could hear the music and feel the audience and I thought: ‘Oh, it’s here’. That was what it was for me. I was 13. It was like my second barmitzvah. Only more people came.”
Babani has his own version of the epiphany. “Unlike John, I was never a performer. As a kid I was very lucky. I got taken to the theatre a lot. But I was seeing very family-oriented shows like Cats and Joseph. The moment for me was when, also at the age of 13, I took myself to a production of Sweeney Todd. It blew me away. Theatre could suddenly be for grown ups, dark and funny and rude and scary, and it was just thrilling.
“I must have seen that production seven times. It made me realise that musical theatre could be more than just Andrew Lloyd Webber.”
“Thank god,” says Freedson of one of the figures who is made fun of in Forbidden Broadway.
“And there was me trying to be diplomatic,” says Babani.
But along with the Cameron Mackintoshs and Lloyd Webbers of this world, is it not time that Forbidden Broadway also made fun of a producer who these days is an increasing influence on Broadway and achieves more West End transfers than any other?
“Noooo,” protests Babani. “Do my shows, but don’t do me.”
But Forbidden is doing Mackintosh. “Mackintosh publicises himself,” says Babani defensively.
“Maybe when David becomes a judge on a TV show like Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh, we’ll include him,” says Freedson. But there is something in his tone that suggests he could warm to the idea of a version of Forbidden Broadway satirising Babani. Now, that would be ironic.