Brad Ellis relishes the times when things go slightly askew during performances of "Forbidden Hollywood," the riotous Tinseltown musical spoof currently at the Coronet Theatre.
That's when the lanky 34-year-old pianist gets to improvise. As the revue's one-man "orchestra," Ellis loves to "make up an overture" to cover up miscues and bloopers.
Ellis, who also is the show's music director, particularly enjoyed a recent snafu involving a Whoopi Goldberg sketch.
"It's really a small thing," says the enthusiastic Ellis. "I doubt people knew something was wrong, but when Whoopi Goldberg [played by Gerry McIntyre] is holding up her Whoopi Oscar--it has little Whoopi hair like she does--the Whoopi hair gets completely tangled [in his wig], so it's totally stuck. He's singing [to the tune of "My Guy"], 'Nothing you say can tear me away from Oscar'--which is true. We are getting through the number, and I see he is just going to yank it off. . . ."
And as the wig snag evolves, "it fits in a place where I can put into the music a little bing!" he says, hitting a key on his piano, "when he yanks it off."
Ellis has a bird's-eye view of the audience from his stage-left vantage point at the Coronet. But so far, he reports, none of the stars satirized in the show, including Liza Minnelli, Rosie Perez, Warren Beatty and Ann-Margret, have attended a performance. "We think Travolta is going to come," Ellis says, "especially since what we are doing [a "Pulp Fiction" spoof titled "Make 'em Bleed"] is funny, but not in the least nasty. We've had a lot of TV stars come. A lot of theater stars."
The Boston native teamed up with "Forbidden Hollywood" creator Gerard Allesandrini nearly 11 years ago. The two met in Boston when Ellis was playing piano for friends auditioning for the Boston company of Allesandrini's long-running "Forbidden Broadway" revue. For several years, Ellis was music director and pianist for "Forbidden Broadway" in New York; he also appeared last year in the production at the Tiffany Theatre.
"While I was playing these auditions, Gerard was listening to me," Ellis recalls. "He said, 'Can you sing?' At that time, the pianist sang in the show."
Ellis originally did have his own number, "I'm Sick of Playing Their Songs," in "Forbidden Broadway." But as the show evolved, the song was eliminated. "I still sang in the show backup, or I had a line in the opening number up until we did it at the Tiffany. But we phased that out."
When he did sing in the show, Ellis craved the same kind of attention that actors received. But then he realized, "I'm not an actor. I'm a musician. More than that, I'm a backbone kind of a musician. If we were all acrobats, I'd be the big fat guy at the bottom they are all standing on, which is not an ignoble profession."
Gradually, Ellis' slight jealousy evaporated. "Musicians often express a great deal of appreciation for what I do," he says. "If the same kind of appreciation was coming from the general audience, I wouldn't be doing my job that well. That would mean I would kind of be usurping some of the territory necessary for the lyricist and for the actor. I take pride in my craft a lot. I actually get an awful lot more attention being up here, even in the sidelight, than most conductors in the pit usually get. I am proud of that aspect."
"Forbidden Hollywood" producer John Freedson has known Ellis for 13 years. "I used to write children's musicals, and he used to orchestrate them," he says. "He was just a monster pianist."
Freedson also admires Ellis' orchestration. "He loves the harmonization of music," Freedson explains. "He's able to make the piano sound like a big-band orchestra. A lot of times, people are surprised that this is a one-person orchestra. He gets so much more sound out of the piano than people are accustomed to hearing in a show that is only accompanied by piano. If you listen to it, you hear the woodwinds section and the brass section. His left hand is doing the bass and the drums. He is hearing it in his head as an orchestrated piece."
An accomplished conductor and composer, Ellis wrote the music for the Off Broadway musical revue "The Truth About Ruth" and the operas "Jekyll in Chamber" and "Have Thy Will."
Ellis says he truly loves his "Forbidden" gig. "I get to have a lot to do creatively. With Gerard, there isn't that much opportunity to compose stuff, but when it comes to connecting things and putting them together . . . I think I do more like what Nelson Riddle did as a film scorer--when he took a Duke Ellington score then turned it into a film score. The connective music is all original in some way, or it's some kind of treatment of the original musical."
As a youngster, Ellis dreamed of being "not just a piano player, but a pianist ." "There's a distinction. People in the theater are piano players. But when it comes to sheer technique and being able to make clouds of sounds, I used to have dreams that I could do that. Then I would wake up and discover it wasn't true. Now it is."
* "Forbidden Hollywood" at the Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood. Tuesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 5 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m. Through July 16 . (310) 657-7377.