By Kelli Frost
From Insights, 1995
From the opening number (“Comedy Tonight”) theatre-goers will know what to expect from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: “pantaloons and tunics! Courtesans and eunuchs! Funerals and chases! Baritones and basses! Panderers! Philanderers! Cupidity! Timidity! Mistakes! Fakes! Rhymes! Mimes! Tumblers! Grumblers! Fumblers! Bumblers! No royal curse, no Trojan horse, and a happy ending, of course!” (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum [New York City: Applause, 1991], 23 24). And this is just a sampling of the lyrical gymnastics provided by the genius of Stephen Sondheim who wrote the lyrics and music.
Everyone knows Sondheim as the foremost living composer/lyricist of American musical theatre. He studied music composition and lyricism literally at the knees of his neighbor, Oscar Hammerstein, III (of Rodgers and Hammerstein). He began his professional career in the fifties, providing lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. Since 1957, Sondheim has written music and/or lyrics for nearly two dozen Broadway musicals, with the help of producer/director Harold Prince. Yet, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was the first Broadway blockbuster Sondheim enjoyed as both composer and lyricist, followed by a string of hits during the next three decades that included Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and his current hit, Passion.
Nearly everyone also recognizes the name Larry Gelbart as writer of television’s M*A*S*H, but not necessarily as co-writer of this stage comedy’s book. In the early days of television, Larry Gelbart surrounded himself with such comedic powerhouses as Neil Simon, Phil Silvers, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, and Ernie Kovaks. Gelbart can be credited with writing comedy scripts for radio, television, and film for over thirty years.
But who remembers the third member of this creative triumvirate that created A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? Burt Shevelove collaborated with Gelbart on the libretto for the play back in 1962? Before venturing into such a project with the likes of George Abbott (director) and Hal Prince (producer), Burt Shevelove wrote and directed for the Broadway stage.
So it is safe to say that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is both a forerunner of and follow-up to some amazingly successful entertainment careers. (In fact, who knew in 1966 when casting a young Michael Crawford as Hero that he would one day take Broadway by storm as the Phantom of the Opera.
When A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened on Broadway in May 1962, it was premeditated to offend all. The burlesque qualities inherent in the play were stolen from a variety of sources that included ancient Greek comedy situations, Shakespearean language, stock characters of Italian commedia dell-arte, bawdy antics of Molierè’s comedy, and American vaudeville, providing ample gags, puns, farcical characters, and broad comedic schtick. One of the most entertaining aspects in the play is its cast of characters. Flesh-vendor Marcus Lycus sets out to sell his collection of courtesans, aptly named Tintinnabula, Panacea, the Gemini twins, Vibrata, and Gymnasia. But more comical than the courtesans are their guardian eunuchs.
Gelbart and Shevelove borrowed generously from the plays of Roman comedy writer, Plautus (circa 254 184 B.C.), borrowing openly from two of his plays, Miles Gloriosus and Pseudolus. In both A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the plays of Plautus, Miles Gloriosus is a braggart soldier, while Pseudolus is a saucy servant. The characters, their situations, and the dialogue are as entertaining today as they were 2,000 years ago.
Ancient Roman theatre consisted mainly of comedies, presented in an aggressive style at parties, circuses, and animal and gladiator contests. Unlike the Greek comedies, Roman plays were relatively free of cultural rituals, religious odes, serious politics, or worshipful revelry, and they were most often accompanied by musicians. Adapting Plautus’s farcical comedies to the American musical theatre setting is particularly apt, as nearly two-thirds of Plautus’s witty repartee was originally set to music. Knowing this must have given Stephen Sondheim rich fodder for inspiration.
Typically, all of the action in Roman comedies takes place in the street; so scenes that logically would occur inside are placed out-of-doors. Eavesdropping is common, and many complications hinge on overheard conversations. One hilarious example of this occurs in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum when father and son find they both want the same young virgin, Philia. They sing a duet (“Impossible”) enumerating each others’ romantic weaknesses. Of course, neither can hear the other as they lament in song, “The situation’s fraught, fraughter than I thought, with horrible, impossible possibilities!” (70). But the lyric show-stopper comes early in the show, when four grown men gather in the street to justify, through song, their collective needs for maid service. They assert that “everybody ought to have a maid! . . . Pattering through the attic, Chattering in the cellar, Clattering in the kitchen, Flattering in the bedroom, . . . Jiggling in the living room, Giggling in the dining-room, Wiggling in the other rooms, Puttering all around the house!” (58 60). The choreographic possibilities are limitless, especially since the men seem oblivious to an audience!
Four years after the play’s Broadway success, the film version opened to mixed reviews. The film cast borrowed from the stage’s success, using Zero Mostel as Pseudolus (the slave whose story is being told) and Jack Gilford as Hysterium (Pseudolus’s sidekick). But the film also employed television’s popular comedian Phil Silvers as Marcus Lycus (local vendor of flesh), as well as then-new-comer Michael Crawford as Hero (the young lover). Yet, most poignantly cast was the aging Buster Keaton as the wanderer, Erronius. Keaton, who was known to filmgoers as the enduring star of silent movies, brought the film genuine Vaudevillian manners as a myopic old man searching for his children who were stolen by pirates years ago. Ironically, Keaton died before the film was released, guaranteeing this movie a place in film history archives as Keaton’s last.
However, slapstick and broad comedic acting in film are distinctly different from the physical antics used in live theatre. With no camera lens to zoom in on a particular bit of schtick, the stage actor must rely on his place within the ensemble, taking into consideration comic timing, audience reaction, blocking, and focus--all technical terms for the artist. And this stage business is what sets the director of live theatre apart from the film director: the spontaneity of the live experience must be sought in each performance. A good director will provide the means for that spontaneity to occur over and over.
Theatre-goers can expect great things from the Festival’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, including loads of laughs from a great script and score, an outstanding cast (which is set to include Festival founder Fred C. Adams as Pseudolus), recognizable music with witty lyrics, eye-pleasing sets and lighting designs typical of the Festival, and top-notch direction that is sure to include the puns, gags, lechery, and raucousness for which the play has come to be known. You can expect “nothing that’s formal, Nothing that’s normal,” (20) but “stunning surprises” and “cunning disguises” (23). This show has “something for everybawdy—comedy tonight!” (23).