It’s possibly the worst idea for a musical that anyone’s ever come up with. That’s the point, of course. Because we’re not talking about Gutenberg! The Musical!, making its Chicago debut at the Royal George Theatre, but “Gutenberg! The Musical!,” the musical-within-a-musical that Gutenberg’s two characters want so desperately to sell us.
Bud and Doug (played here by Breon Bliss and Alex Goodrich, respectively) are wannabe composers with an unwavering belief in their product: a musical about the invention of the printing press. Gutenberg is framed as a backers’ audition, where creators try to persuade potential investors to sign on to a production by performing a bare-bones version of their show, just enough to give you the idea. The audience stands in for the possible producers.
According to real-life creators Scott Brown, 32, and Anthony King, 33, the whole thing began as a prank ten years ago, inspired by some actual bad musicals. The North Carolina natives, friends since junior high, were New York roommates doing the intern circuit: King at Manhattan Theatre Club, Brown at Entertainment Weekly. King’s job duties included attending readings of new musicals and going through the slush pile of unsolicited demo recordings. “So he was exposed to a massive number of, shall we say, experimental musicals,” deadpans Brown, who often attended the readings with his roommate.
“As with any open-submission process, most of them are terrible,” King says. “You kind of develop a sense of, How do these people not know that this is this bad?”
“We decided we’d submit our own terrible musical to his boss, and just
see how far it could get,” recalls Brown. “We were trying to figure out the most intentionally terrible subject for a musical, and the answer turned out to be the invention of the printing press—a grand yet totally unmusicalizable moment in history.”
Brown and King wrote “like, one-and- a-half songs” before giving up, Brown says with a laugh. “We kind of gained respect [for the process]. It’s really hard to write a musical! Even a bad one.”
Gutenberg lay fallow for years until King, who’d begun performing at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (where he’s now artistic director), suggested they revisit it in 2003. The pair fleshed it out into a 45- minute show that ran for almost two years at UCB; for a London run in early 2006, they expanded it to a full-length show that had a six-month stint Off Broadway later that year.
Bud and Doug’s musical revolves around Johann Gutenberg (here a Keanu-esque wine presser), a beautiful wench named Helvetica and an evil monk intent on keeping the public illiterate. It’s goofy and occasionally appalling, as when a flower girl in the opening number sings, “Here’s a posey you can wear on your lapel; I stole it from a Jew. He cried and he fought so I sent him straight to hell, and now it belongs to you.”
From Waiting for Guffman to 30 Rock, there’s been a wave of entertainment in recent years mining absurd humor from faux behind-the- scenes personalities. Brown and King attribute that trend to pop culture’s shift in focus to the business behind the business, where the average entertainment consumer can tell you how much the cast of Friends made per episode. “Everything’s gotten meta. A movie’s quality is less important than what it made [at the box office] opening weekend,” says King. As the author of EW’s Hit List column, Brown actively feeds that interest.
Gutenberg’s humor comes from the so-bad-it’s-good music—part of a clutch of self-mocking musicals to emerge this decade, from The Producers to [title of show]—and from the absurdity of two actors playing every character. (Bud and Doug’s brilliant conceit is to use caps labeled with character names; each might change hats a dozen times in one song.) But it’s the characters behind the characters who ground the show. As Brown describes it, it all goes back to those demo tapes. “What really interested us was, What compels individuals to write something like this? Like, sitting alone by themselves in some crummy apartment in the outer boroughs or anywhere in America—at what point do you say to yourself, I know what I’m gonna do! I’m gonna write a musical!”
It’ll be a while before Brown and King write another musical; they’re working on a half-hour comedy for TBS and some screenplay ideas, which, if successful, could fund a return to the less-lucrative but well-loved genre. “We were almost looking at the musical as a metaphor for a misbegotten endeavor. Which, even though we love musicals, it does function very well that way,” Brown adds, chuckling. “It’s kind of the idea that passion can trump all, including common sense.”