‘Forbidden Broadway’ vet Selby sings praises of Cosmopolitan Cabaret’s game-for-anything cast
William Selby remembers well when he first heard about a little cabaret show that was generating buzz among New York theater fans.
“I was a full-time actor at the time, and I had a roommate who was a waiter at this place – Palsson’s (Supper Club) on West 72nd Street,” Selby said. “He came home one night raving about something called ‘Forbidden Broadway’ and did a number for me.
“I fell off the bed laughing – I knew I loved it right then and there.”
Selby wasn’t the only one who embraced Gerard Alessandrini’s concept of a satiric revue that both celebrated and skewered musical theater.
Since its opening 30 years ago this month, “Forbidden Broadway” played almost continuously in New York (after more than 9,000 performances and 20 editions) before closing in 2009. Additionally, Alessandrini’s parodies of both popular and pompous Broadway tuners have spawned a worldwide cult fueled by a continuously updated score and countless tours and special engagements.
One such production, directed by Selby, opens in Sacramento Jan. 27 for an eight-week run at California Musical Theatre’s Cosmopolitan Cabaret.
Selby joined his first “Forbidden Broadway” cast in 1985 when he was selected for a Washington, D.C., production.
Just as he imagined, Selby found it was love at first spoof.
Beyond the joy of performing twisted versions of the Great White Way’s greatest hits to wildly appreciative audiences, Selby said he became a part of something more permanent than a Playbill listing.
“One of the nice benefits of being part of ‘Forbidden Broadway’ is that it’s a family,” he said. “I’ve made some of the truest friends I’ve had.”
“I’ve always come back to it because I love it,” Selby continued.
After 15 years of playing dozens of theater legends in their best and worst roles from San Diego to Singapore, Alessandrini and producer John Freedson suggested Selby join the team’s directorial staff.
“By that time, you know what works,” said Selby.
Since making his directorial debut in Minneapolis in 2001, he has led shows in New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Long Island, N.Y., and at sea onboard a Regent Seven Seas Cruise Lines voyage.
The production at the Cosmopolitan Cabaret marks his 15th show at the helm.
While he said he keeps “pretty busy” with “Forbidden Broadway,” both as a director and performer, the Emerson College alumnus continues to take acting gigs that are far from his “FB” roles, including playing the prompter opposite Keith Baker in “Barrymore.”
Selby said working on both sides of the “Forbidden Broadway” footlights gives him invaluable insight on what works – and who works – on stage.
He said he was quick to pick the four performers ultimately selected for Sacramento’s production from the L.A.-based auditions.
“I know in the audition if they can do it – it’s a matter of confidence,” Selby said.
Freedom from fear of failing is an important trait shared by successful “Forbidden Broadway” cast members, he continued. Most of those who try out aren’t professional impressionists, “But as we always say, you don’t have to be a great impersonator, just be willing to try.”
Selby gushed about the way his cast (Marc Ginsburg, Jerry Lee, Jessica Reiner-Harris, Melissa WolfKlain) has shed all self-doubts and vanity to take on the diverse numbers (and costumes) demanded of “Forbidden Broadway” performers.
Jerry Lee and Jessica Reiner-Harris have River City roots, and WolfKlain recently spent eight months at the Cosmopolitan Cabaret performing as the soubrette in “A Grand Night for Singing,” and Cindy in “Suds.”
Ginsburg is a Philadelphia native and former New Yorker now living in Los Angeles
“These guys have totally nailed it,” Selby said of the quartet that escorts their audiences through a whirlwind tour of classic and contemporary musicals from “Hello, Dolly!” to “Hairspray,” and from “Man of La Mancha” to “Jersey Boys.” “Even after all of these years, I don’t take the show lightly. They have to perform the numbers as if they’re actually doing the original shows.”
Selby stressed that one does not need to be a fan of said original productions – or musical theater in general – to enjoy a “Forbidden Broadway” revue.
“You don’t even need to be aware of all of the shows,” he said. “The costumes alone are hysterically funny.”
Selby said Alessandrini and his creative team are very conscious that their audiences aren’t all New Yorkers with easy access to the Times Square TKTS booth, and dismiss more-obscure titles from their list of shows ripe for mocking.
One of the things his New York-based team does in tailoring a “Forbidden Broadway” show for a particular city is to look at what tours recently played in that area. (“Mary Poppins,” which recently played at the Sacramento Community Center Theatre under the California Musical Theatre banner, is featured in Sacramento’s “FB” revue.)
But he also said they try not to underestimate audiences as they’ve found audiences in the hinterlands who were crazy for numbers culled from lesser-known shows.
Call “Forbidden Broadway” a parody, a spoof or a mock-musical, but Selby said it’s not an all-out farce.
“You can play it too broadly,” he said, switching gears to offer up an example of a Carol Channing impression gone awry.
“It can be grotesque,” he said. “There’s a level, and you have to keep that level.”
It’s a balancing act his current cast has perfected, he said.
“They’ll give you what you ask for – they’ve found capabilities even they didn’t know they had.”
Selby said all four shine as newly minted mimics.
“Jessica does a tremendous Patti LuPone. Marc’s Mandy Patinkin … well, I was proud of mine, but his is better. … Melissa – her Carol Channing is so funny. … Jerry is a terrific Robert Goulet. These four have very strong voices.”
Along with kudos to his cast, Selby applauded the California Musical Theatre/Cosmopolitan Cabaret creative team, including Executive Producer Richard Lewis, Artistic Director Glenn Casale and
Cosmopolitan Cabaret Associate Producer Marlene Shire-Anderson.
“I’ve decided this is the best team by far that I’ve ever worked with,” said Selby. “They dot every ‘I,’ cross every ‘T.’”
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: “Forbidden Broadway,” a musical revue parodying classic and contemporary musical theater hits from “Man of La Mancha” to “Wicked.”
WHEN: Jan. 27-March 18, 2012 (7 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays)
WHERE: Cosmopolitan Cabaret, 1000 K St., Sacramento
TICKETS: $33-$43; call (916) 557-1999 or go online at www.tickets.com
FOR INFO: www.calmt.com
Editor’s Note: Edits have been made to this article after publication.