When Gutenberg! The Musical! debuted Off Broadway 17 years ago, critics wondered whether it was ready for Broadway. Perhaps they should have asked whether Broadway was ready for Gutenberg!
All these years later, the answer to both is yes. Not only has the musical been fine-tuned and shined-up, but a Shucked-era Broadway is clearly in the mood for some absurdly silly good fun.
The wait has worked out for the best in other ways, as well: The Broadway production opening tonight at the James Earl Jones Theatre has the great fortune of starring Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, the two very funny and strong-voiced actors who finally decided to once again share a stage 12 years after they first did so in The Book of Mormon.
Written by Scott Brown and Anthony King, the duo who wrote the book for Beetlejuice The Musical, and directed by the very busy Alex Timbers (Here Lies Love, Just For Us, Moulin Rouge! The Musical and, yes, Beetlejuice, to name just a sampling) Gutenberg! is a gleefully self-aware theater parody that’s smart enough to tickle the aficionados and flat-out funny enough to bring in outsiders. Few in either group will long remember the pastiche score, but even fewer will get through the show’s impeccably performed tunes without smiling.
The show-within-a-show premise – just one of the many theatrical tropes that Gutenberg! references, from the exclamation point title on down – has two very optimistic stage amateurs named Bud (Gad) and Doug (Rannells) staging the musical they’ve written for an assembled audience of potential backers. Nursing home workers by day, the pals have spent every last dime they’ve earned (or inherited) on a single-night’s theater rental and some measly DIY props. (Only a curmudgeon would begrudge the duo Jeff Croiter’s gorgeous lighting design, or Scott Pask’s top-notch set, a backstage loaded with what at first glimpse seems like so much accumulated detritus; all of it will be put to good use eventually).
The musical that Bud and Doug have concocted is, as the title makes clear, a bio-musical about Johann Gutenberg, famed printing press inventor and Bible maker. With little more than the cursory spoils of a Google search and high spirits, the buddies have pieced together the outlines of a life – and made up the rest. History, certainly, wouldn’t support a Gutenberg assistant and sorta-girlfriend named Helvetica.
Set in the never-existed Medieval German burg of Schlimmer, the Bud-and-Doug-penned musical follows the impossibly cheery Johann G. as he sets out to improve the grimy, ignorant lives of the bedraggled townsfolk. If only they could read, he reasons, people wouldn’t be mistaking clearly marked jars of jelly beans for the pills that could save their sick babies.
With imaginations considerably larger than their bank accounts, Bud and Doug – hence Gad and Rannells – portray a village-worth of characters, from the inventor and his lovestruck assistant to a hateful little flower girl, various laborers, drunks and a requisite villain (a Satan-worshipping monk named Monk who conspires to thwart Gutenberg’s democratic approach to literacy). Who needs costume changes when you have a slew of trucker hats labeled with character names?
Certainly not Bud/Doug/Gad/Rannells, who also distinguish the various townsfolk with a multitude of accents, not a single one historically accurate. This is a 14th Century German town ringing with voices more Cockney and Cajun than Teutonic.
In the long journey from the original Off Broadway production (and, before that, an even more bare-bones Upright Citizens Brigade one-act), Gutenberg! has maintained its enthusiasm and go-for-broke (for Bud and Doug, literally) hustle, even as its musical accompaniment expanded from a single piano player to a three-piece combo (T.O. Sterrett did the excellent orchestrations). All the while, the show’s spirit and humor have retained their best-pals sweetness and their ostensibly clueless irreverence. Close attention pays off in spotting jokes of recent vintage, like winking references to Back To The Future: The Musical, Aladdin: The Musical, and the pretend-pop stars of Six.
(Another noticeable alteration: the word “Holocaust,” used in the original production as a jokey signifier of Bud and Doug’s strained attempt to “tackle at least one serious issue,” has been replaced by the less specific “antisemitism,” as embodied by the hateful little flower girl. Given recent world events, even obviously right-minded jokes might not land with the same effect as they did even a week ago.)
Musically, Brown and King are nothing if not Broadway-literate: Gutenberg! is stuffed with convention parodies like mission-stating ballads, rock-ish finales and a requisite “charm song,” the latter explained by Bud and Doug as the irrelevant number – this one about biscuits – written specifically to attract a famous performer who wants to drop by for a quick attention-getting turn. “For instance,” says Bud, “we are hoping that one day the role of YOUNG MONK will be played by Mister Timothée Chalamet.”
Let’s hope not. Nothing against Timothée, but Gad and Rannells don’t need the help. With Gutenberg! The Musical!, the reunited Book of Mormon stars cement their challenge to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as Broadway’s leading comedy duo. Print up a hat for that.
Title: Gutenberg! The Musical!
Venue: Broadway’s James Earl Jones Theatre
Director: Alex Timbers
Book, Music & Lyrics: Scott Brown and Anthony King
Cast: Josh Gad, Andrew Rannells
Running time: 2 hrs (with intermission)
Carol Dennis is an entertainment aficionado with an eye for all things pop culture. She dives into the glitz and glamour of the entertainment industry, from movie premieres to music festivals. Carol’s passion for storytelling extends beyond her reporting, as she’s an aspiring screenwriter in her free time.