NEW YORK -- When the PG last interviewed Marcus Stevens, in May, it was as a writer: his musical, "Yo, Vikings!" was opening at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, where he'd already had several shows produced since graduating from Point Park University in 2003. But he'd also spent a lot of time performing, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, including long runs in versions of "Forever Plaid" at the CLO Cabaret.
Well, which is he, writer or performer? The significance of this question has risen, now that he's getting lots of attention performing off-Broadway in the latest version of "Forbidden Broadway: Alive & Kicking!"
So when Mr. Stevens recently settled into a coffee shop on Ninth Avenue near the 47th Street Theatre where he does eight shows a week, some of them in front of the very Broadway luminaries he lampoons on stage, I started off with the hardest question of all: Can we claim him as a Pittsburgher?
To take it from the beginning, he grew up at the wrong end of the state, in Swarthmore, and he took theater classes at the Upper Darby Summer Stage, right in the heart of Philadelphia's Main Line, where he goes back each summer to work. "Tina Fey went there," he says. Along with others from that youth theater program, including Meghan Heimbecker and David Droxler, he headed west to college at Point Park.
"I followed them there," he says. "Then I stayed, because I could get [theater] work." It added up to some 10 years in Pittsburgh. Doesn't choosing a professional home count for more than the accident of birth?
To settle the issue, I asked the key question: Eagles or Steelers? Steelers all the way, he said. But that didn't settle it, because even his dad, an undisputed Philadelphian, is a Steelers fan. And in the tiebreaker, it turns out he roots for the Phillies, not Pirates.
So we have to share him. And now there's a third claimant, because he's moved to New York, where just about everyone goes to do theater. He lives in Queens, in Astoria -- "Actoria," they call it, after all the theater hopefuls there.
"It's like Pittsburgh," he says, "sort of like the South Side, with more history, with Greeks and Italians and young transplants."
And Mr. Stevens' connection to New York has firmed up with his performing breakthrough in "Forbidden Broadway." But it came only after one of those protracted theatrical cliffhangers.
His connection with the show goes back to performing in two versions of it at the CLO Cabaret in 2006-07, one of them a "greatest hits" compilation, taking aim at the eternal monuments -- "Cats," "Phantom" and Carol Channing. He also did "Forbidden Broadway" in Philadelphia, playing the opposite combination of roles from those he played at the CLO. And he was always a fan of the ever-changing New York production.
That New York version ran steadily in 18 incarnations from 1982 to 2009. But it had lain fallow for three years, stifled, according to its creator, Gerard Alessandrini, by the long runs that had taken over Broadway. Then in early 2012, he decided Broadway was again generating enough new musicals to be worthy of intelligent parody.
So Mr. Stevens took the unusual step, for someone with so many acting credits, of going to an open casting call. Fortunately, Bill Selby, who'd directed him in the show in Pittsburgh, was part of the casting team.
He survived and went on to one callback audition after another for months. The evening before yet another, they'd send a list of 10 people to impersonate on the fly. "Can you do Norbert Leo Butz?" they'd ask, and he thanks YouTube for helping his research. "After that, you feel you can do everything," he says.
Finally, he was told he hadn't made the final cut, but they might want him to understudy and needed to see him for one more audition. That day the way they talked to him seemed to change.
The call that he had actually made the cast of four came on a day in June when he was back at Upper Darby, casting a "Hairspray" he was committed to direct. They happily let him go (his director sister took over "Hairspray") and off he went.
Then the real work began, because Mr. Alessandrini does much of his writing after he has his cast and knows what they can do best. They opened in July for lengthy previews, while 10 or 12 numbers were cut and everything reworked. The "Newsies" number changed completely. "If it doesn't get laughs, it's out." A number may be funny to insiders, but does it play to the infrequent theatergoer?
For the performers, Mr. Stevens discovered, "you have to be able to be as good or better than the people you're spoofing." As it turned out, he jokes, "I do all the Jews and the monkeys" -- maybe a half-dozen of the first and two of the second. In one Pittsburgh moment, he played Fox Chapel's Christian Borle as Black Stache (the young Captain Hook) in a "Peter and the Starcatcher" parody, until that number was cut.
Sometimes the targets are sitting there to watch, as when Stephen Sondheim watched Mr. Stevens play Sondheim, while Mr. Stevens watched him watching. "It was a surreal, meta experience."
Fortunately, Mr. Sondheim loved it. Other appreciative celebs have included Carol Burnett ("sitting fifth row on the aisle, unmistakably Carol Burnett"), Buck Henry, Norman Lear. "I was completely in awe of Jim Dale." The whole cast of "Once" showed up to enjoy their long parody.
A rave review in the New York Times, Sept. 6, made sure that it isn't just celebs who are showing up. Now, Mr. Alessandrini is already putting in new material, and every performance is different anyway, since there are improv sections.
Still, no theater job (well, maybe "Phantom") goes on forever. "I'm lucky," Mr. Stevens says. "I've never had a serving job or worked retail." His "day job" for when he's not in a show (every actor has one) is teaching and coaching. The day after we talked he was making a quick trip back home (OK, Philly) to coach a half-dozen kids on their college auditions.
Mainly, though, he continues to work on writing projects new and old. He admits to an "artistic need" to perform and write. They even dovetail. If he's in a show, he can write during the day.
Senior theater critic Chris Rawson is at 412-263-1944. First Published December 5, 2012 5:00 AM