Marcus Stevens, Mia Gentile, and Scott Richard Foster in a scene from Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging!.
Marcus Stevens, Mia Gentile, and Scott Richard Foster in a scene from Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging!
(© Carol Rosegg)

We have gossip and Richard Burton to thank for the modern-day parody musical.

In 1980, when the legendary actor was starring in a revival of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot at Lincoln Center's New York State Theatre, the production caught the attention of Gerard Alessandrini, a young waiter-actor. It wasn't because the show was good, but rather because word had gotten around that Burton would routinely show up onstage drunk. This bit of theater gossip quickly turned into inspiration for the aspiring performer.

Alessandrini realized Burton's predilections were ripe for parody and took a number from Camelot — "I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight" — and changed the lyrics, retitling the song "I Wonder What the King Is Drinking Tonight." It was the first song he would write for the cabaret act that would eventually become his long-running off-Broadway parody musical hit Forbidden Broadway.

"There wasn't a lot of real parody around then," says Alessandrini, who wrote and created 20 editions of Forbidden Broadway from 1982 to 2014. Alessandrini came up with a formula for his songs, which has remained the same through the decades: Take an existing number and change the lyrics to spoof a particular performer, a show, or ongoing theatrical trend.

And he had a good run until July 2014, when the last edition of Forbidden Broadway closed in New York. "Broadway was running out of fresh ideas at that time," Alessandrini says. His concept of using "the material from the real shows to hang the real shows" started feeling passé in an era of quick-to-close stage adaptations of films and jukebox musicals.

Just as Alessandrini was closing the curtain on his series, a new class of writers were starting to find their muses in the popular culture trends of their childhoods, mining the worlds of film and television. In these parody musicals, you will find Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo singing in Game of Thrones: The Rock Musical — An Unauthorized Parody and Ross and Rachel's on-again-off-again romance playing out nightly in Friends! The Musical Parody. Even Alessandrini himself is back with a parody musical that spoofs perhaps the biggest pop culture trend of the last several years: Hamilton.

The McSmiths Will Be There For You

Alan Trinca, Lisa Graye, Patricia Sabulis,  Seth Blum, Katie Johantgen, and Landon Zwick star in Friends! The Musical Parody.
Alan Trinca, Lisa Graye, Patricia Sabulis, Seth Blum, Katie Johantgen, and Landon Zwick star in Friends! The Musical Parody.
(© Russ Rowland)

Bob McSmith and Tobly McSmith were tripping on mushrooms watching Saved by the Bell when a light bulb went off: "We were revisiting our youth, kind of making fun of it," says Tobly McSmith (the pair of McSmiths are not related or married to each other). And "that's what all our shows aim to do: Take a show that we grew up with, make fun of what we find messed up, and celebrate what we love about it."

"When you re-watch these shows as an adult, it becomes much harder to suspend your disbelief," adds Bob. They try to deal with serious issues, but they do it in such a backwards way." And that makes it ripe for parody. Saved by the Bell led to Bayside! The Musical! and eventually a stable of exclamation-point-laden shows including Full House! The Musical!, Showgirls! The Musical!, and the new Friends! The Musical, which premieres this month at St. Luke's Theatre.

In their work, the McSmiths aim to please everyone from fans to casual viewers, with special attention paid to audience members who've never seen the source material. "That's what great parodies do," says Bob. " I want to make the people who have never seen an episode of Friends come in and understand the characters immediately."

Winter Is Coming…to the Jerry Orbach Theater

Ryan Pifher, Mandie Hittleman, and Ace Marrero star in Game of Thrones: The Rock Musical — A Unauthorized Parody, directed by Steven Christopher Parker, at the Jerry Orbach Theater.
Ryan Pifher, Mandie Hittleman, and Ace Marrero star in Game of Thrones: The Rock Musical — A Unauthorized Parody, directed by Steven Christopher Parker, at the Jerry Orbach Theater.
(© Kacey Spivey)

Australian musical-theater producer and director Steven Brandon makes his New York writing debut this month with Game of Thrones: The Rock Musical — An Unauthorized Parody. Written with Steven Christopher Parker, the show riffs on the first George R.R. Martin book in the Game of Thrones series, which lines up with the first season of the television series. "This is the Ned Stark story," Brandon says, "with Daenerys and Khal Drogo, when Sansa wanted to marry Joffrey, and everyone hated Jon Snow. We're going way back to the beginning."

The title is a little gangly, but it's also protective. "HBO wanted us to make sure people know it's an unauthorized parody," Brandon says with a laugh. "We are not affiliated in any way with HBO."

Beyond the title, it's the four factors of the legal doctrine known as Fair Use that allow them to produce their show, provided the material has a "transformative" quality. In the eyes of the law, a parody will "transform" the original material by holding it up to ridicule. Hence, tap-dancing wolves and a grand finale titled "Heads Will Roll." "We're not using direct lines from the script," Brandon adds. "We're changing it enough that it's different, but follows the same story."

When Unauthorized Gets Authorized (and When It Doesn't)

There are other protections as well. Kate Pazakis, the artistic director of the Los Angeles-based Rockwell Table & Stage, and creator of its Unauthorized Musical Parody Of series, has crafted (or commissioned) musicals inspired by Hocus Pocus, Bridesmaids, and Home Alone.

"I always email the movie studios," she says. "I have good relationships with most of them at this point. We send them the script. And we have a lot of writers of the films come watch. They laugh because it's a love letter, and we poke fun in a loving way."

Similarly, Alessandrini has "tried to keep a good rapport over the years with the music publishers and original authors." Before Spamilton, which is now running at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, agreements were drawn up between the Hamilton spoof and author Lin-Manuel Miranda that allowed the show to use his material.

Some writers are supportive: "I laughed my brains out," Miranda tweeted after seeing Spamilton. But not everyone is welcoming. When the McSmiths created a double-edged parody of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Cats, titled Katdashians! Break the Musical!, Andrew Lloyd Webber threatened them with legal action, alleging that the show contained tunes taken directly from his long-running hit. Rather than go to court, the McSmiths quickly replaced the music with original material.

Flying Into the Future

Despite the small legal snafu, the McSmiths will keep doing what they love. "This is our voice and what we really love to do," says Tobly. "And that's why we keep doing it."

But can this parody trend continue to prosper? Pazakis suggests the "astounding craze" of nostalgic television reboots and series continuations are a factor in the genre's success, combined with audiences that "just want something different" out of their theatergoing experiences.

But it's also how the transformative part of parodies are becoming our strongest link to the cultural conversation. "When people need to voice an opinion about something that's going on culturally," says Tobly, "this is a good way to do it."