‘Merrily We Stole A Song’ Gives Sondheim the Forbidden Broadway Treatment

"You can’t cheat with Sondheim,” says Gerard Alessandrini of the song spoofs in 'Forbidden Sondheim: Merrily We Stole a Song.' “I try to make the rhymes correct—and still be funny."

Sondheim himself (pictured on backdrop) observes Jenny Lee Stern, Dayna Jarae Dantzler, Chris Collins Pisano, and Michael West (from left) in Forbidden Sondheim: Merrily We Stole A Song. Glenn Bassett

Gerard Alessandrini—who’s been tying tin cans to Broadway for 41 years, creating a sort of Tin Can Alley of song spoofs called Forbidden Broadway—began his latest opus two years ago, the same late-November weekend Stephen Sondheim passed. 

“Lin-Manuel Miranda or somebody of importance,” Alessandrini tells Observer, “wrote a short obit that said, ‘Sondheim had a good sense of humor, and his ego was strong enough to go see his numbers done in Forbidden Broadway.’ It’s true. He’d come once, sometimes twice, a year.”

That was the moment Alessandrini’s Forbidden Sondheim: Merrily We Stole a Song started taking shape.

You’ll currently find it at the Green Fig Cabaret Theater, with only a few performances before Nov. 27. Scouts are out hunting for a permanent cabaret stop.

Two years ago, that obit observation set Alessandrini to thinking. “I realized that we had a show there. Since we started, we’ve done at least 50 Sondheim numbers, so there is plenty for us to pick from,” he explains. “Of course, we didn’t want to do it right after he died, but that’s when we started working on it.” 

Gerard Alessandrini attends the 2017 Drama Desk Nominees Reception at Marriott Marquis Times Square on May 10, 2017 in New York City. Noam Galai/WireImage

Those existing Sondheim spoofs were just a base for Merrily We Stole a Song. The Assassins number, where John Hinkley and Squeaky Fromme sing ‘Unworthy of Your Love’ to each other, was from 20 years ago,” Alessandrini says. “‘Send in the Crowds’ and ‘Bankable Stars’ were done in 1983, but we’ve not done them since, so who remembers them? Everything else is new.” 

As usual, Alessandrini (a notorious perfectionist) continues to rewrite or to create new numbers and skits after his shows have opened. He’s presently at work on spoofing the latest—and, alas, last—Sondheim show: Here We Are, the recently-opened musical which director Joe Mantello, playwright David Ives, and Sondheim adapted from two Luis Bunuel movies (1972’s Oscar-winning The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and 1962’s The Exterminating Angel) about people who are invited to a dinner they discover they can’t leave. “The show is very well done but still spoofable,” Alessandrini. “I was amazed that the songs in the first act were so funny. There were some laugh-out-loud lines. I was just disappointed that there were no real songs in the second act. It kinda broke my heart.”

Transforming Sondheim songs is not easy. “You can’t cheat with Sondheim,” Alessandrini insists. “If I’m spoofing Neil Diamond or a rock show, they cheat so I can cheat. With Sondheim, I try to make the rhymes correct—and still be funny. Once, when he was watching one of my spoofs, he noticed I was trying very hard to get the scanning right, and he said, ‘Oh, Gerard, don’t worry so much about getting the scanning right. Only I can do that. You just be funny.’”

Sondheim appreciated Alessandrini’s spoofs—the signed picture he sent Alessandrini bears the inscription: “Thank you for the kind and gentle treatment . . . so far.” But, in person, Sondheim told him, “The meaner, the funnier.”

Alessandrini has carefully corralled a dream team of mean—four in all, believe it or not. “I must say, I’ve never had a more cooperative set of people,” he trills. “They rehearse anytime we want. They’re just so gang-busters. I think it’s because of Sondheim. They just love the idea.”

Jenny Lee Stern as Barbra Streisand and Michael West as Stephen Sondheim in Forbidden Sondheim: Merrily We Stole A Song. Maryann Lopinto

Michael West, who has racked up five editions of Forbidden Broadway (or more than 2500 performances), serves as a surrogate Sondheim throughout the show, occasionally breaking  into Jonathan Groff or Harvey Fierstein if the need arrives. “I’m not really doing a show about  Stephen Sondheim the person—I’m doing a show about what he wrote,” Alessandrini clarifies.

Directing his own stuff, Alessandrini is skillful at getting his players to exaggerate or at least approximate the mannerisms and affectations of the stars they’re playing. Notice the snarl of a smile Jenny Lee Stern gives Patti LuPone, getting through “Ladies Who Lunch” in Company.  

Chris Collins-Pisano, who’s still remembered for the “Woklahoma” number he did in Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation, has a field day here, emulating a high-energy Daniel Radcliffe (currently on Broadway in Merrily We Roll Along.)

The one new member of the company is Dayna Jarae Dantzler, who scores spoofing Patina Miller as “The Last Diva” drafted into playing the witch in Into the Woods. Alessandrini is full of praise for her: “She’s fresh and funny, very much a Forbidden Broadway girl. She has a great soprano voice but can belt if you want. I love working with her. She’s game for anything.”

In addition to this quirky quartet, there is a special guest star—veteran comedian Christine Pedi, who has been a Forbidden Broadway recruit since 1991. In this edition, she takes on—for the first time—a formidable trio of Broadway grand dames: Merman, Stritch and Lansbury. 

Lansbury here, decked in an unruly red wig, is Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett, hustling “The Worst Shows From London” (rather than the worst meat pies). It’s the number Alessandrini found hardest to write, but he considers it his favorite because “that really is my point of view.”

Forbidden Sondheim eventually breaks down into some Forbidden Broadway scattershooting in which Sondheim reacts to the current Broadway crop: Sweetie Todd and Some Like It Not.

Waving the baton over all of this is faithful Fred Barton, who has been doing it since Forbidden Broadway made its debut January 15, 1982. Rex Reed discovered it a block and a half from his home at Palsson’s Supper Club (later called Steve McGraw’s and now called The Triad Theater).

Reed’s unabashed rave in the New York Daily News resulted in a run of 2,332 performances and pretty much set Alessandrini up with a cottage industry for life. Since then, he’s turned out a half-dozen Forbidden Broadways and continued until the pandemic put a stop to everything in 2020. Then, he hopped on another satiric steed and gave Spamilton a ride around the globe.

Alessandrini’s parody-and-thrust has been amply rewarded over the years with things like a Tony, an Obie, an Outer Critics Circle Award, two Lortel Awards and four Drama Desk Awards.

Forbidden Sondheim marks Alessandrini‘s return to New York audiences. It exits from the Green Fig on Nov. 27, the day he turns 70. Plans are afoot for a jubilant birthday after-party.

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‘Merrily We Stole A Song’ Gives Sondheim the Forbidden Broadway Treatment