There is a legendary anecdote, perhaps apocryphal but probably not, that after a performance of “The Addams Family” on Broadway, Elaine Stritch visited Nathan Lane backstage and told the star, “They’re not paying you enough.”
That goes double for the musical “Gutenberg!,” which opened Thursday at the James Earl Jones Theatre. It manages to waste the talent of not one but two very talented performers.
Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells bring a great Oscar-and-Felix chemistry to the stage. They also work tirelessly and exert their considerable charm, but in the end, they’re asking us to be entertained by a two-hander staging of an absolutely dreadful musical. Yes, the songs and the book for this parody of a musical within a musical that is “Gutenberg!” are witless and relentlessly repetitive, which is to be expected from the team of Scott Brown and Anthony King, who gave us one of the worst Broadway musicals of this century, “Beetlejuice.” That show now has a companion piece in the Netherland.
Nathan Lane signed on to “The Addams Family” when the show was in development. Gad and Rannells don’t have that excuse. “Gutenberg!” opened Off Broadway in 2006, so what is now being put on Broadway is technically a revival, although Brown and King have clearly updated the material. Today, “Gutenberg!” is best known for launching the career of director Alex Timbers, whose usual inventiveness — lots of big special effects are delivered with little more than a string of dental floss — runs out of steam (lots of steam on stage) even before Gad and Rannells do.
Is there a more unlikely subject for a stage musical than the life of the man who invented the printing press in the 15th century? That’s part of the joke, but unsurprisingly, the joke never lands. The story of Johannes Gutenberg remains resistant to song and dance.
Rannells makes a fetching wench who stomps grapes (Gutenberg started as a winemaker) and Gad is divine as both an evil monk and an antisemitic little girl. But after being introduced, none of the many characters gain comic ground, nor do they add to a story that is simply incomprehensible. The story is meant to be ridiculous, which is quite another thing.
Somewhat more successful than the narrative of the musical within this musical are the alter-ego characters of Bud and Doug that Gad and Rannells play, respectively. Bud and Doug are the untalented songwriters who have gone into deep debt to stage this awful show, supposedly for one night only. During one of their talks to the audience, Bud and Doug mention another idea they had for a musical, but rejected. It involves ripping off the plots of every novel written by Stephen King. Now, that might be a musical worth sitting through. “Gutenberg!” is not.
Downright funny is the ad lib moment in the preview performance I attended where a latecomer, trying very awkwardly to get to her seat in the middle of Row C, inspired a long riff about theater etiquette from Gad and Rannells. If the woman wasn’t a plant, she should be. It was one of the few memorable moments in “Gutenberg!”
In the end, the big joke of this show is Broadway itself, and those theatergoers who loved “Spamalot” and “Something Rotten!” will probably go for “Gutenberg!,” which is those two shows on a budget — until Scott Pask’s junk-shop set kind of explodes at the end.
The one thing Brown and King don’t try to copy/emulate/ridicule is the trend toward shorter and shorter shows on Broadway. It’s not unusual for current plays there to last only 90 minutes (see “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding”). If ever there was a musical that should clock in at well under 90 minutes, it is “Gutenberg!,” which somehow manages to run slightly over two hours with intermission.