GUTENBERG! THE MUSICAL!? Nope.
Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, whose Broadway breakthrough starring roles were in “The Book of Mormon '' are real performers and bankable ones at that, which can be the only explanation why a 2006 Off-Broadway show called “Gutenberg! The Musical” has been financed for a Broadway run. In this two-hander (with a skimpy, three piece band on stage and one brief cameo role), Gad plays Bud and Rannells plays Doug, two schlemiels from New Jersey, who are writing a musical comedy about Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press.
Why a musical about Johan Gutenberg? It’s a question that bedevils the production. If any bibliophiles were thinking the musical would be a comedic take on the discovery of movable print - akin to what “Something Rotten” did with the development of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” - , they are mistaken. Here, Gutenberg is a wine presser in a small, fictional German town, who wants to solve illiteracy. Gutenberg’s nemesis is a monk who wants to keep the masses illiterate so he can control what the Bible means. (Indeed, before books, Biblical iconography that decorated cathedral interiors informed an illiterate person’s view of the world, but I digress.)
The format of the two-act show is Bud and Doug’s performance of their labor of love as a backers’ audition. To play all of the three dozen or so characters, they don baseball caps labeled with each character’s name. One of the characters is Dead Baby, which gives you some idea of the low-brow nature of this comedy. The love interest is called Helvetica; either Bud or Dug quips parenthetically “her name is a font” which is one of the wittiest one-liners writers Scott Brown and Anthony King, who went on to write the musical stage version of “Beetlejuice”, offer.
It’s not as if the creators aren’t sophisticated. Early in the show, one of the producer wannabees, in postulating what backers think audiences want, notes “If your new musical isn’t already a movie or a book or a fairy tale told from the lady’s point-of-view, people will not sell their cars to see it.” A more apt description of the current Broadway season would be harder to find.
Such insights are scarce, however. The hats on/hats off routine tires quickly. The songs, of no discernible melody or music genre, mush one to another. Brown and King developed the show two decades ago, as a 45-minute one act with the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Group; conceptually the senselessness of it all might have passed as irreverent, zany humor like Monty Python or Second City. The “nothing is sacred” humor breezes through topics like suicide and a recurring theme of anti–Semitism, The Gutenberg story gets lost. Nothing amounts to a coherent skit either.
The show's problem is that its concept contradicts its actual execution. Bud and Doug's book is supposed to be nonsensical, their lyrics bad and their reading amateurish. The book doesn't accommodate satire, and the professional staging of it all makes it all seem overblown.
The expedient approach is for Gad and Rannells to milk the material as much as they can. And they do. The accomplished director Alex Timbers (“Here Lies Love”, “Moulin Rouge” and “David Bryne’s American Utopia”), who helmed the original Off-Broadway production, knows that's the only act that fits the material. Gad and Rannells appear to be enjoying themselves immensely - mugging, cajoling, winking at the audience - the whole while. Sometimes, especially with Rannells, it borders on cringe-worthy, but the audience - largely white, thirtysomethings - ate it up.