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The Playwrights: Shevelove, Gelbart, and Sondheim

 

The three creators of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum have a list of credits that would rival any writing teams of any age or place. In fact, a list of Bert Shevelove’s, Larry Gelbart’s, and Stephen Sondheim’s accomplishments reads like a “Who’s Who and What’s What of Entertainment.”

Bert Shevelove

Bert Shevelove, with Larry Gelbart, created programs for television’s top comedians in the fifties. Their writing for Art Carney, Red Buttons, Bob Hope, Sid Caesar, and others won the Emmy, the Christopher, and the Sylvania awards.

Before A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Shevelove had directed Small Wonder, a small Broadway revue to which he contributed material and in which he performed. He also directed a revival of Kiss Me Kate at the New York City Center in 1956.

After A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he adapted and directed the farce Too Much Johnson in 1964, then abandoned writing for a time to concentrate on directing. Then, in 1974, he returned to adapting the classics with Stephen Sondheim. This madcap Sondheim/Shevelove collaboration, which Shevelove also directed, was an adaptation of Aristophanes’s The Frogs. It featured the Yale swimming team, contained a good deal of water ballet, and was staged in the university’s swimming pool.

Shevelove died in London in 1982, as he was preparing to direct a musical version of The Front Page. He was sixty-six years old.

Larry Gelbart

Before A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Larry Gelbart had, in addition to his television writings, been the author of two films, The Notorious Landlady and Fair Game, and had written the book for the musical The Conquering Hero.

Since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, most of Gelbart’s activity has been in film and television, with the triumphant exception of Sly Fox, his 1976 adaptation of Ben Johnson’s classic Volpone. On the west coast he provided film scripts for Little Me, Sly Fox, Oh God, and Tootsie. He was also the originator, writer, and co-producer of the long-running television series, M*A*S*H.

In December of 1989, Gelbart again had a major triumph on Broadway: City of Angels, with music by Cy Colman and lyrics by David Zipple, earned him a 1990 Tony Award for best book of a musical. In 1993 he adapted Barbarians at the Gate, the history of the takeover of RJR Nabisco for a made-for-television movie starring Jonathan Pryce and James Garner.

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim began his Broadway career as a lyricist. He provided words for Leonard Bernstein’s music in West Side Story and for Jule Styne’s Gypsy. His first Broadway music was written for a straight play, Arthur Laurent’s Invitation to a March in 1960. His first complete Broadway score was for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962. Of course, he wrote the lyrics too, as he was to do throughout his career, joining the somewhat rarefied company of the theatre’s twentieth century composer/lyricists: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Noel Coward, and Frank Loesser.

His plays’ subject matter has ranged from fairy tales to discreet Victorian cannibalism; his settings have roamed from Japan and Sweden to Paris and London to New York and Hollywood. Along the way, he has collected most of the awards that the theatre has to offer, including five Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize shared with James Lapine.

Some of his most popular shows have been Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1986), and Assassins (1990).

He also composed the film scores for Stavisky (1974) and Reds (1981), wrote songs for the motion pictures The Seven Percent Solution (1976) and Dick Tracy (1990), and co-authored the film The Last of Sheila (1973).


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