You might not think "keeping it real" applies to satire-based musical theater, but it means as much there as anywhere else. For William Selby, who's directing the Broadway spoof "Forbidden Broadway," opening tonight at the Cosmo Cabaret, keeping it real is the key to making the show work.
"I don't go for anything overstylized or anything cartoonish," Selby said. "Forbidden Broadway" satirizes some of the biggest Broadway stars and most successful shows by taking familiar songs and adding new lyrics to the songs, creating often-hysterical parodies.
"I tell the actors to believe they are in the actual show and let the words do the work," Selby said. "You hear the music from the actual show and on top of that you hear very clever lyrics most of the time the actors are making fun of themselves."
The original show was created, conceived, written and directed by Gerard Alessandrini. The modest revue opened on Jan. 15, 1982, at Paulson's Supper Club in New York City. Much to everybody's surprise, it ran for 2,332 performances.
It mocks shows such as "The Phantom of the Opera," "Wicked," "Les Misérables," "The Music Man," "Miss Saigon," and "Rent."
It also calls out well-known Broadway personalities such as Julie Andrews, Mel Brooks, Carol Channing, Michael Crawford, Harvey Fierstein, Robert Goulet, Ethel Merman, Liza Minnelli, Rita Moreno and Stephen Sondheim.
"Gerard was a waiter and wanted to be a star on Broadway," Selby said. "He would watch the shows, but his mind would wander and start thinking these different things like 'Gee, that actress is too old to be playing that role,' or 'That guy is forgetting his lines.' "
The original production got a rave review from critic Rex Reed and was an instant hit.
"Everybody started to come. All the stars, all the big names, wanted to see what Gerard was doing to them, and it took off from there."
It gained a life of its own by responding to the changing Broadway season each year.
"Every year there was a new edition, more complicated, bigger group numbers, and it got flashier but it always retained his sense of fun and his take on Broadway. He loves it."
Selby said Alessandrini's affection for Broadway gives the show heart.
"He's not mean. He's not letting his anger out. But he is saying, 'Hey, we ought to be able to laugh at ourselves.' "
And perhaps at other people a little bit, too.
"There are sharp barbs, or what we call 'needles,' " Selby said. "But it's always done with a gentle smile. There's something very appealing about it."
Selby is something of an expert on the show. He started performing in it in 1985 and has directed productions around the country for the past 15 years.
"Gerard said, 'You know where the laughs are, Bill, and I think that's important,' " Selby said.
The director said the yearly changes give the show a continual timeliness and freshness.
"We might take out something that was hot at the time and replace it with something newer. I call it Halloween every evening," Selby said. "I call it an elevated reality, and the real question is: How far do you push the reality? I think just a bit but not a lot."
Selby's current four-person cast includes Jessica Reiner-Harris, Melissa WolfKlain, Marc Ginsburg and Jerry Lee.
Of the work so far, Lee said, "William stresses the first thing to do is find the humanity in it and what makes it real to you."
Selby and Lee agree that while rehearsals are going very well, the fun doesn't truly begin until they have people in front of them.
"When the actors are really hitting it and the audience is going crazy, that's my thing," Selby said.
What: Long-running off-Broadway spoof of shows and stars gets a local production from the California Musical Theatre.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. matinees Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays
Where: Cosmopolitan Cabaret, 1000 K St., Sacramento
Contact: (916) 557-1999, www.calmt.com, tickets.com.