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Spoofing “Hamilton,” Saluting Comden

Christine Pedi and David Noh. | DAVID NOH

Christine Pedi and David Noh. | DAVID NOH

BY DAVID NOH | The multi-talented Christine Pedi is a genuine New York treasure, delighting us for years now with her hilarious impressions of all our favorite Broadway divas — boobalicious, crusty-voiced Bernadette, pear-toned if a tad wobbly Julie Andrews, a Sherman tank of a Stritch and, of course, an endlessly manic Liza.

A new chapter has opened up for her with “Spamilton,” by master satirist Gerard “Forbidden Broadway” Alessandrini, which marks Pedi’s debut as a producer. I caught this breathlessly paced, uproariously funny romp at The Triad on April 21, and shook with laughter at its breezy send-up of a certain juggernaut of a show, spectacularly performed by a troupe of incredibly versatile talents. I adored the luscious looking and sounding future star Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, who easily tossed off the only female role’s incredibly challenging and varied tessitura, intricate choreography, and impressions — ranging from Beyoncé to Janet Jackson to JLo to Audra McDonald. My admiration increased infinitely when Pedi told me that this was her very first performance in the show, as a replacement.

“I’m learning all the things I never knew I never knew, to quote a song lyric,” Pedi told me after the show, in which she had also made an hilarious guest appearance, channeling Peters and Minnelli in the form of Sondheim’s raunchy beggarwoman, pleading for “Hamilton” tickets.

Christine Pedi, Off-Broadway’s newest producer, set for Feinstein’s/ 54 Below show May 3

“I was at Broadway.com last year and said to [producer] Jordan Roth, ‘Who in their right mind wants to be a producer?,’” she recalled. “‘A very short list of people get rich being a producer. You’ve truly got to a cockeyed optimist. And then I became one.’ But he said, ‘You’re a rare breed because you’ve been a performer, a member of the press, and now you’re a producer.’”

For the last 15 years, Pedi has hosted a Sirius Radio show on Broadway, Monday through Friday, 9-3 p.m., and on Saturday, with Seth Rudetsky, “The Dueling Divas.”

“So I’m very aware of press releases, etc. My primary concern is always with the actors, working in that tiny confined space at The Triad, doing this locomotive of a show. When I did ‘Forbidden Broadway’ there originally in 1996, the theater used to own the restaurant downstairs, but now they don’t, so part of the dressing room has been turned into a dishwashing station… dignity, always dignity, to quote Comden and Green! [Laughs.]”

The show, which will be moving to the 47th Street Theatre in June, originally opened last summer, on a workshop basis, three times a week.

“Gerard wanted to see what he had and he had something on day one. It has not changed, really, although it’s been tweaked. The bones were essentially there and as it went on, they extended it and decided to open it officially. It got great reviews and has all the spirit of ‘Forbidden Broadway.’ ‘Hamilton,’ itself, is so multi-layered, about history, ambition, love, and New York, that Gerard couldn’t have picked a better show to create a new chapter in his life as a satirist.”

Indeed, “Hamilton,” not “Rent” or “The Book of Mormon,” was one show that, for me, truly lived up to the hype. I had a single press ticket for a performance downtown at The Public during a wicked snowstorm and was prepared to grouse as soon as I took my seat. Ten minutes into it, I was utterly entranced, as was Pedi.

“Me, too! I took Andrea McArdle to see it and at intermission, she said, ‘This is usually not my kind of show. I’m a traditional loud, fast, and funny girl but, boy oh boy, is this amazing!’ We were beside ourselves with love for the show. She’s actually quite shy and didn’t want to go backstage, but I knew [Lin-Manuel Miranda] would love to meet her.

“He couldn’t have been lovelier with this show. He came and loved it and then brought his family.

“I was at the recording session for ‘What the World Needs Now is Love’ [the all-star Broadway charitable effort for last year’s Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting], and Lin was there. We were in rehearsal already for ‘Spamilton,’ but I couldn’t tell him about it. I said, ‘Gerard told me that many months ago, you told him you had an idea for a number he could do but you never told him what it was.’ He said, ‘Well, I think there should be a number about how everybody’s sobbing at the end of the show — naming who dies — sobbing and sobbing.’ He smiled, sheepishly: ‘I know “Forbidden Broadway” is going to eviscerate us.’

“Little did he know that at that moment, Gerard was creating ‘Spamilton.’ I told him what Lin’s idea was, and I always know what Gerard’s thinking, when the wheels are turning. He said, ‘Could it be this song?’ And that one he turned into ‘Cry,’ and when he saw it, Lin said that was exactly what should have been done with that number.”

I told Pedi that this show must be rather liberating for Alessandrini, an escape from having to make fun of so many already brain-dead shows, season after season — what can one say about non-events like “Amélie” or “Bronx Tale?”

“Absolutely! He’s thrilled because this show has a bit of a story arc, whereas, with ‘Forbidden,’ you go through 13 weeks of previews before you get the perfect running order of songs. He would pull one out because it wasn’t working, and then the whole show would fall apart because you couldn’t get an actor in a certain costume in time. The whole structure had to be rethought. He did that for over 30 years, and it’s very stressful. I’m so glad you noticed that, David, because it has been very liberating for him.”

Among Alessandrini’s chief fans is none other than Stephen Sondheim, “who has been a consistent supporter of Gerard’s work. He came to see this early on. Martin Charnin was weeping tears of joy, because he loves the form. It’s more important than ever now to be able to laugh at ourselves at this particular juncture in the evolution of our country.”

“Spamilton” productions have been planned in every city where “Hamilton,” is scheduled to run, like Chicago where it opened, and Los Angeles in November, which will kick off the national tour.

“The show is like a locomotive, and I was stunned by how time-consuming the audition process was for it. Our performers have to have a solid musical theater voice, also pop — even operatic — and be able to lock the audience in with their gaze. It’s also fully choreographed, so we have got to have triple threats.”

Pedi will be celebrating another legendary wordsmith when she brings her Betty Comden show to Feinstein’s/ 54 Below on May 3, the centennial of Comden’s birth.

“I adored her and got to know her in her later life. I would visit her and sing for her, as she was really homebound by the end. They’d bring her out and she’d lie on her chaise longue, and we’d sing and sing. I’d bring Michael Levine and Matthew Ward, who would play for me. She and [her partner] Adolph Green came to see this show I’m doing many years ago, and then he passed away.

“I did it again, especially for Betty, and instead of a car service, I had my parents pick her up and bring her downtown to Mama Rose’s. When they got out to help her up the stairs, my first high school musical director was walking in. My Dad yelled, ‘Hey, Joe! Help me carry Betty!’ [Laughs.] His jaw dropped! Cy Coleman came, and Joe Franklin, Steve Ross, and Maria Friedman, too.

“I admired her above and beyond her ability as a lyricist because she was a woman in a man’s world and she made it look easy. She had class and style, and was on a very short list of women in her field to this day, writing book and lyrics, prolific for six decades. When I did my first cabaret show, I knew I’d have to do a lot of ‘Forbidden Broadway’ impressions, but then when I knew I had to move it forward I chose Comden and Green material because they wrote wonderful parts for women, full of character, personality, and energy. I got wonderful reviews, and not a single person asked, ‘Why didn’t you do impressions?,’ because they felt like they had already gotten characters, a wide variety of women’s voices. These were not wimpy leading ladies and I maintain that, at the point where another lady would sing the blues or a torch song, their leading ladies always put a spin on the negative, making it a positive, whether it was ‘It’s a Perfect Relationship,’ ‘100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man,’ or even ‘If.’ She takes ownership of the situation, and I love that!”

I was lucky enough to meet the always warm and gracious Comden a few times — at the Laurence Olivier Lincoln Center tribute where she was sitting with Green and Celeste Holm, and at her very last Christmas party, where I was just about the only non-famous New Yorker there. She was quite frail at the time and spent the night sequestered in her bedroom, watching a football game, while a solicitous Wendy Wasserstein guided people in, a few at a time, to say hello. I was able to tell her that, even above her dazz-ling musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Band Wagon,” I loved her “It’s Always Fair Weather,” with its bittersweet look at life and how it changes people and friendships. “Really?” she asked, pleased but surprised. “It was not a success!”

Pedi got to spend her final birthday party with her. “Her lawyer was there, and Pia Lindström. We had cake and ice cream. I’m doing my show on May 3, which was her birthday. I’m so lucky to have been alive when she and Adolph were on this planet together. As people, they were the spirit of New York, with the style and accents, and having them in my audience I knew instinctively that they were on my side. It was a privilege and an honor to know them, and if I live long enough, maybe kids will ask me questions about them. I just wish I wrote more things down.”


SPAMILTON | The Triad, 158 W. 72nd St. | Through May 28: Tue.-Sun. at 7 p.m.; Sat. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.; then transfer to the 47th Street Theatre | $69-$98.90 at spamilton.com/new-york

CHRISTINE PEDI SINGS COMDEN & GREEN | Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St. | May 3, 7 p.m. | $30-$65 at 54below.com; $5 premium at the door & $25 food & drink minimum

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