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December 19, 2023
A Musical About A Musical
Gutenberg! The Musical!
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Who was Johannes Gutenberg? We all know him as the inventor of the printing press which enabled more people to learn how to read.In the musical “Gutenberg,” playwrights Doug (Andrew Rannells) and Bud (Josh Gad) have collaborated to write a musical about this influential historical figure. They are good friends who have pooled all their money to present a backers performance. The show is presented without full orchestration, actors and costumes. The playwrights/songwriters perform all the parts in a one-night, all or nothing event, and they are hoping to attract an interested producer for their musical so they can “eat their dreams.”

The play is silly but it’s all about the camaraderie between Doug and Bud; for the audience, it’s about the wonderful relationship between Gad and Rannells who originated the starring roles in the blockbuster hit “The Book of Mormon.”

According to the playwrights, there’s very little known about Gutenberg on Wikipedia, so they created their own story. I did check Wiki and there’s a lot more information available than they indicated but their premise gives them license to get inventive and make up sinister characters, a love interest with a young girl named Helvetica (explaining the mystery of the font) and even a burning at the stake. In the boys’ story, the printing press is destroyed, begging the question- so how did we ever get the printing press? However, the audience at The James Earl Jones theater never really cares about the printing press.

Bud and Doug sometimes break character and share their own lives and inspirations with the audience, making them even more endearing. Rannels is openly gay as is his character and portrays some of the macho roles like Gutenberg while Gad does more characterizations. He has fun as the Evil Monk.

The book, music and lyrics by Scott Brown and Anthony King are as silly as the script. But the beauty of a show like this is that the music is supposed to be pretty bad. Any mistakes become incorporated and any screw-ups add to the humor. The joy is watching the skill and exuberance of the two leading men who look like they are enjoying themselves so the audience does too.

The show reminded me of Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets, which won the Olivier Award in 2000 and the raves of critics when it played in NY. Two actors played 15 parts with quick pacing and minimal costume changes. Like those actors, Gad and Rannells work extremely hard. Their costume changes are reduced to changing hats (literally) and sometimes they wear several piled upon one another. The action could leave one breathless, and, in fact, Doug pulls out an inhaler. He moves so much that he is sweating profusely.

I love their yellow hats and wondered if they planned to sell them in the lobby. We all play many roles in our lives. Imagine if you could change your character by doffing another hat.

Gutenberg isn’t ‘good’ theater in that you don’t learn anything. In fact, the history is totally distorted. There are some theater terms as the two explain to the audience why they made the choices they did. They explain script choices like foreshadowing and motif etc. They introduce certain theatrical devices like the 11th hour song sung by the heroine locked in the Evil Monk’s tower. Bud and Doug are so amateurish but are so endearing that you find yourself rooting for them.

Skillfully directed by Alex Timbers, “Gutenberg” is absurd, so don’t come for the story or expect to learn anything. The fun of the show is watching the interplay of the two fan favorites, Rannels and Gad. They have wonderful chemistry and in the few places where one muffed a line, the other grinned and picked up on it. They have wonderful interactions with the audience as well, some of whom shout out to the actors who smile and never miss a beat. Theater snobs will not love this show but they certainly will appreciate Gad and Rannel’s hard work and talent. Maybe if they imbibed some ‘mead’ or Gutenberg’s wine before the show-they’d appreciate it more.

James Earl Jones Theatre
138 W. 48th St.
New York, NY

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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