Broadway Review: GUTENBERG! THE MUSICAL! (James Earl Jones Theatre)

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by Paulanne Simmons on October 19, 2023

in Theater-New York


Those who saw Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells in The Book of Mormon have been looking forward eagerly to their return as a team in Gutenberg! The Musical! They will not be disappointed. Scott Brown and Anthony King’s Gutenberg!, nimbly directed by Alex Timbers, is a blast from beginning to end.

The show opens with Bud (Gad) and Doug (Rannells) informing the audience they are all at a backers’ audition of a new show, a fictional presentation of the life of Johannes Gutenberg. Although, as the show tells us, there is scant evidence of the actual life of the famous inventor, we do know he was the well-educated son of a wealthy Mainz merchant. However, in Doug and Bud’s version, Gutenberg is a wine maker in a fictional German town called Schlimmer.

It is the pressing of grapes that leads Gutenberg to the invention of the printing press. It is the tragedy of illiteracy (a child dies because a jar of jellybeans is mistaken for medicine) that gives Gutenberg his passion.

The story is told entirely by Bud (music and lyrics) and Doug (book and lyrics) with the help of trucker caps, sometimes strings of caps, which represent the various characters in the play-within-a-play. These characters include Helvetica, Gutenberg’s grape-stomper and love-interest, and an evil monk determined to derail Gutenberg’s invention. There’s also an anti-Semitic flower girl, because, as Bud and Doug tell us, all musicals should have a deeper social meaning.

But it soon becomes obvious that what Brown and King created is really a parody of the creative process involved in writing a musical. Thus Bud and Doug tell us when we have heard a “charm song,” “I want song” or “eleven o’clock number,” all of them staples of musical theater.

The score is a mishmash of just about every composing style you can imagine. It is enthusiastically sung by Bud and Doug, backed by The Middlesex Six, also available for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Bud and Doug also make deliberate pleas to any producers who might be in the audience. Because we all know how much it costs to put on a musical.

Brown and King have a lot of fun with the people who create musical theater, as well. Bud and Doug are co-workers at a nursing home. They have already written several unproduced musicals. They have exhausted all their money renting the James Earl Jones Theatre for the reading. Bud confesses he is a forty-something virgin. Doug reveals he is a forty-something gay man who harbors guilt over his mother’s death, which he believes is the result of his never becoming a doctor.

Gad and Rannells work together with the ease and expertise of Abbott and Costello, with Rannells as (sort of) the straight man to Gad’s zany uncensored comic. Rannells struts (when he’s not moving his hips in an almost pornographic ecstasy), while Gad stumbles and wobbles across the stage.

Gutenberg! The Musical! will not leave you with any revelations on the meaning of life or the secret to solving the many problems we face at home and abroad. But you will walk out of the James Earl Jones with a smile on your face and joy in your heart.

photos of Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad by Matthew Murphy

Gutenberg! The Musical!
James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 West 48th Street
opened October 12, 2023
ends on January 28, 2024
run time: 2 hours, with one 15 minute intermission
for tickets visit Gutenberg!

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