Gutenberg! The Musical (Downstage at New Rep at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through October 26) is the polar opposite of The Producers, the Mel Brooks vehicle in which two con men set out to produce a Broadway musical so egregious it’s bound to fail, whereby they’ll be able pocket the investors’ money. Bud and Doug, the two guileless geeks behind Gutenberg’s musical within a musical (its Springtime for Gutenberg, if you will), are as proud as punch of their musical about the 15th-century inventor of the printing press. They truly believe it’s great, and they could not be more thrilled to be presenting it to us, a gang of potential producers at a backers’ audition. Armed with little more than a formidable stack of hats, the collaborators play some 30 parts and render their show’s entire pastiche of a score, which ranges from overwrought ballads to sinister slink to boogie-woogie. They even provide confidential insights into their masterpiece’s inner workings and construction. They, it turns out, are much funnier than their stinker of a musical.
The brainchild of one-time roommates Scott Brown and Anthony King, Gutenberg! The Musical began as a one-act goof at Manhattan’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, made appearances at the 2005 and 2006 New York Musical Theatre Festivals, and opened Off Broadway in a two-act version in 2006. It still feels like an attenuated Saturday Night Live skit and has precious little to do with Gutenberg. Bud and Doug claim to have Googled him, coming up with so little that they felt justified in making his story up. Thus their hero is not a goldsmith from Mainz but a winemaker whose German home town is the fictional Schlimmer, a bastion of illiteracy where silliness is oftener on the menu than wit. But in Bud and Doug themselves, Brown and King have created a manic monument to the self-delusion of talentless artists everywhere.
As enthusiastically and ingenuously embodied by paradoxically excellent singers Austin Ku and Brendan McNab under Stephen Nachamie’s direction, the two collaborators appear before a table loaded up with Jim-Bob-style baseball hats, each bearing the amateurishly scrawled name of a character (from Gutenberg to Beef Fat Trimmer), that they will switch, stack, and otherwise manipulate with abandon. Then, accompanied by musical director Todd C. Gordon as a rehearsal pianist named Charles, the pair put on a two-hour show that Brown and King likely conceived in a drug-fueled half-hour, regularly interrupting its melodious melodramatics to talk about themselves or wax knowledgeable about the art form.
Meanwhile, in Schlimmer, the town folk suffer the tragedy of not being able to read. Gutenberg, the unrequited-love object of a grape-stomping wench named Helvetica, has a Eureka moment in which he thinks up a new use for his wine press. But an evil and sadistic redneck monk sets out to thwart our hero, so as not to lose his powerful position as middleman between the masses and the Good Book. Helvetica winds up locked in a tower, and Mr. G gets burned at the stake as part of a climactic folk festival. None of this ever happened or even makes sense. But Bud and Doug throw their big hearts, tiny brains, committed larynxes, and other body parts into it with as much reverence as if it were not Gutenberg! The Musical but the Gutenberg Bible.