curtain call

Andrew Rannells stretches his pants & his acting chops in this new Broadway musical

Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells in "Gutenberg! The Musical!"
Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells in “Gutenberg! The Musical!” Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Rundown

Gutenberg! The Musical! is a metatheatrical romp in which the writers of a musical put on a low-budget presentation of their show—an under-researched piece of historical fiction (emphasis on the fiction)—about Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press. The show stars Andrew Rannells (Girls, The Prom, Boys in the Band) as book writer Doug and Josh Gad (the voice of Olaf in Frozen, live-action Beauty and the Beast) as composer Bud.

The pair reunites for the first time since rising to fame, side by side, in the original Broadway company of The Book of Mormon. Real-life writers Scott Brown and Anthony Kind and director Alex Timbers, who collaborated on Beetlejuice, join forces once again for this musical romp.

No Tea, No Shade

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad in "Gutenberg! The Musical!"
Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad in “Gutenberg! The Musical!” Photo by Matthew Murphy

Doug and Bud — with no budget for costumes, sets, a full orchestra, or even a cast — have rented a Broadway theater for one night to convince producers to invest. The pair plays all the roles and signals the rapid-fire switches with neon yellow hats emblazoned with character names. The gag delivers a nearly endless payoff, hilarious every time, and a feat of physical comedy for the two actors. (Not to mention the logistical coordination of the hats’ perfectly stacked order.)

Reminiscent of a vaudeville duo, Rannells and Gad’s long-time friendship is evident, a chemistry that translates to their characters’ schticky fun. They speak directly to the audience between scenes to explain how musicals work, giving the audience cheesy lectures on everything from “I Want” and charm songs to musical motifs and the importance of exploring an “important” theme (even if it has little bearing on the plot). Rannells shines a bit more, and his characterizations feel fresher; like his role in The Book of Mormon, Gad comes across as the sidekick, and some of his voice work feels a bit recycled. 

Despite landing a ridiculous number of laughs from both clever jokes and foolish ones (much like Something Rotten!), the musical drags. Though meant to mirror the length and structure of a musical, Gutenberg! need not run 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission. This show should fly by, but instead, at times, feels fatiguing. The piece could be more successful in a swift single act, clocking in under 90 minutes.

Let’s Have a Moment

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad in "Gutenberg! The Musical!"
Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad in “Gutenberg! The Musical!” Photo by Matthew Murphy

I feel compelled to write at length about Andrew Rannells’ chinos — special thanks to costume designer Emily Rebholz. Rannells, clad in an argyle sweater vest and simple pants, initially appears to be in a bland, run-of-the-mill outfit. However, to quote Spring Awakening (another historical piece set in Germany), he looks “so nasty in those khakis.” Rannells gives a very physical performance, and his chinos allow him room to squat, high kick and even do a split. Most importantly, though, they hug in all the right places and are, dare I say, exceptionally flattering, particularly during his sexy dance with a wine press.  

The Final Word

Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells
Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells. Photo by Mandee Johnson

Other than an extended joke about a randomly anti-semitic character, Gutenberg! doesn’t purport to be about much. The show within a show is partially a fable about literacy and also a dream about writing a Broadway show, heightened with an adorable finale and touching scenic gesture by designer Scott Pask. Each performance also includes a surprise appearance by a celebrity producer — Ashley Park (Emily in Paris, Mean Girls) at the performance I attended — who agrees to finance the show.

While Guttenberg! doesn’t deliver much depth, maybe a night of dreams and laughter is all we need these days.

Guttenberg! The Musical! plays on Broadway at the James Earl Jones Theatre through January 28, 2024.

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