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Broadway Reviews

Gutenberg! The Musical!

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 12, 2023

Gutenberg! The Musical!. Book, music, and lyrics by Scott Brown and Anthony King. Directed by Alex Timbers. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Emily Rebholz. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design M. L. Dogg and Cody Spencer. Hair design by Tommy Kurzman. Vocal Supervisor Liz Caplan. Associate director Ian Unterman. Music director Marco Paguia. Movement by Nancy Renee Braun. Music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations by T. O. Sterrett. Additional arrangements by Scott Brown and Anthony King.
Cast: Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells.
Theater: James Earl Jones Theatre

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad
Photo by Matt Murphy
Silly meets heart-warming affection in Gutenberg! The Musical!, opening tonight at the James Earl Jones Theatre. It stars Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, real-life pals ever since they worked together a decade ago in The Book of Mormon, as a couple of novice and naïve musical theatre writers who hope to make it big on Broadway, "our nation's capital!" as Gad exclaims to an audience that most likely secretly agrees with that description.

The show, bouncily directed by Alex Timbers and which has been around in various incarnations on-and-off since 2003, was written by the team of Scott Brown and Anthony King, who would later go on to write the book for Beetlejuice. For Gutenberg! The Musical!, the pair, who have been collaborating since their teenage years on what Brown refers to as "theatreish things," wrote the music and lyrics as well. Not hard to imagine that at least a core of Brown and King resides in the characters of Bud (Gad) and Doug (Rannells). So silly, yes, but with zero snark and lots of love, which should appeal to the theatre nerd in pretty much anyone who ever imagined themselves writing a smash hit musical. I mean, why bother dreaming if you don't dream big! (Indeed, the word "dream" appears 45 times in the script, in case you are looking for a theme.)

And what big dreams they are for Bud and Doug, a couple of guys from Nutley, New Jersey. By day, nursing home employees, and by night, creators of the show we are about to see, thanks to their being able to scrape up the funds to rent the theatre for one night in the hopes of attracting a producer.

What makes Gutenberg! The Musical! work so well (as indeed it does), aside from beautifully coordinated comic tag team performances by Gad and Rannells, is the total elimination of the fourth wall as Bud and Doug jump back and forth between presenting their creation and excitedly interacting with us and, just as often, with each other.

The musical they have written, (also called Gutenberg! The Musical!) is, as they tell us, a piece of historical fiction ("it's fiction that's true," Bud helpfully explains) based on a quickly Googled short entry they found about the inventor of the printing press. The plot, dialog, and even the songs of the show-within-a-show are basically a wackadoodle and rather less skillfully constructed cousin to an extended Monty Python sketch or a Mel Brooks comedy. It is filled with heroes and villains and lovelorn grape-stomping maidens, with all of the musical comedy tropes the partners were able to toss into the mix. And, because, as Doug notes, "every important musical has to tackle at least one incredibly serious issue," they have decided to include an antisemitic flower girl as one of the minor characters.

Notwithstanding the dubious quality of their show, Bud and Doug go all out as they enthusiastically perform all the parts in the ultra-low budget production, the pair having spent almost every dime on renting the theater and on parking.

Cardboard boxes, hand-made signs, and "every light they would let us rent from Dance Party DJs of Newark dot com" make up the set design, while the many different changes in dramatis personae are indicated by a continuous switching out of baseball caps with the names of the characters imprinted on them. The dynamic duo also use a variety of pseudo-British, pseudo-American, and pseudo-German dialects to enhance their portrayals. It's all cute stuff to be sure, though in and of itself, an evening of just the romp of the performance of Bud and Doug's musical would soon wear out its welcome, like an over-bloated SNL skit.

Yet, while Gutenberg! The Musical! undoubtedly is a piece of fluff, it is delightful fluff nevertheless. What makes it worth the visit is the time we get to spend with Bud and Doug (and Gad and Rannells), not only as they amateurly perform their show, but as they face us directly and talk about their friendship, and about the love and joy and sweat and hopes and pride and fears that are reflected in everything they have done to make this evening happen. As Doug puts it, speaking in the role of Gutenberg, "it's not the success that matters; it's the dream!" We all know that any Broadway show is a crapshoot, but speaking for all the Buds and Dougs among us, wouldn't it be nice if the dream and the success were to converge? So, hey, Mr. Producer!