Gutenberg! The Musical is the type of bare-bones production that I expected from New York theatre at this time, with no audience or stage or costumes. Filmed at Open Jar Studios as a benefit for Broadway Cares, Gutenberg! offers a look at what we can expect from post-pandemic Broadway, for better or for worse.
The two person cast consists of Alex Prakken and Bobby Conte Thornton, who play Bud and Doug, aspiring musical writers doing an investor’s reading of their new work, Gutenberg! The Musical. The play chronicles Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. It many artistic liberties with the story, molding it into the stock structure of a Broadway musical, adding a love interest, fabricated villain, and many historically inaccurate plot devices.
Gutenberg!, which was first developed at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in 2003 by Anthony King and Scott Brown (both best known for Beetlejuice), strives to be a musical comedy on the same level as The Producers, but falls tragically short. Before viewing Gutenberg! I assumed that it was going to be a parody on historically-based musicals, which could have been a successful concept if King and Brown had stuck with it.
However, instead of committing to a solid premise, their choices ricocheted for an hour and thirteen minutes. The format of an “investor’s reading” gave them the space to be more direct in what they were trying to say, since Bud and Doug step out of the show to give commentary after each scene and musical number. The commentary they give is often on the verge of saying something worthwhile, but instead simply gives commentary on how formulaic commercial theatre is, never going beyond stating the obvious.
I have to acknowledge that the script is riddled with casual antisemitism, which comes in the form of the village flower girl. She is played by Prakken standing on his knees and speaking in a high-pitched voice, occasionally coming onstage to exclaim “I hate Jews.” In their introduction, Bud and Doug announce that the “social issue” Gutenberg! will tackle is the Holocaust, since it’s set in Germany – five-hundred years earlier. What King and Brown fail to grasp is that while there have been successful comedies about World War II, none of them make light of the Holocaust or antisemitism. If they wanted to mock the way that musicals try and fail to make social commentary, there are plenty of less sensitive issues to choose from. Though the hate speech is exclusive to the flower girl herself, her hatred is passed off as a personality quirk and is never condemned or challenged, nor is she seen as a bad person. She is supposed to be cute, but there is nothing cute about her character.
Gutenberg! was the first piece of New York theatre that I had seen in over a year, so maybe my expectations were high, but I wanted to feel hope for the future of the industry. Instead, Gutenberg! left me feeling concerned. Particularly since the show was filmed at Open Jar, a place that did so much good last year when the government wouldn’t help, and was a benefit for Broadway Cares, I expected something with a brain, or at least a heart.
Commercial theatre, particularly musicals, have become so manufactured recently. We have had entire seasons in recent years where every musical has been a cash grab based on existing intellectual property. Gutenberg! validated my concern that it will only get worse once Broadway returns. I understand wanting some escapism after this year, but when did escapist and shallow become synonymous? I’m sure that some great work has been written over the past year. I just hope that those works are eventually given a voice instead of shows like this.
Words by Sam Sims.
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