Monday, November 12, 2007

Sondheim: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

After already making his mark in musical theatre history with the lyrics to "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," 31 year old Stephen Sondheim was finally given the chance to write his music as well as lyrics. The show was the 1962 Broadway musical farce "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Based on the comedy of Roman dramatist Seneca, "Forum" is perhaps the funniest musical comedy in the pantheon of musical comedies. The wild farce, about a clownish slave (Pseudolus, originally played by Zero Mostel) who schemes to free himself by enabling his young master to marry the (already betrothed) virginal courtesan of his dreams, is an uproarious, door-slamming, tightly constructed potpourri of classical farce, catchy music and borscht belt humor. Unlike most of Sondheim's shows, the success of Forum is primarily attributable to it's book writers: Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H, the televison show, fame). Sondheim's music is, formally speaking, unessential to the plot of "Forum," as most of the songs allow for character development and comic flights of fancy, not story. Plot motion is left to the delicately constructed book. Still Sondheim's score is a total delight; the music is bouncy, romantic and unencumbered by pretension. His lyrics deepen the comedy of the goings-on and, in one brilliant instance, give the show it's comic highlight.
The lovers duet in Act I is a charming song called "Lovely" in which the virginal courtesan explains to her would-be suitor that her only asset is her beauty. Who cares that "isn't it a shame/ I can neither sew nor cook/nor read or write my name." Near the shows climax, through elaborate plot machinations, the slave Hysterium has been convinced by Pseudolus to don drag and stand in for the young virgin (don't ask!). Convinced he looks like a fool, Hysterium threatens to withdraw from the plot. To reassure him, Pseudolus serenades the nervous slave with his own reprise of "Lovely." Hysterium buys it hook, line and sinker; the number ends in a hilarious duet between both men intoning Hysterium's "loveliness." Here is Sondheim using a musical reprise to make a dramatic (in the structural sense) moment come alive. A new song would not have been nearly as effective in the moment, and, in retrospect, the original version was a mere set-up to the delicious punch line (almost an hour and a half later in the evening.) Though "Forum" is hardly the best example of Sondheim's musical legacy (the music is rarely sung outside the show) it nevertheless allowed a score by Sondheim to enter the musical theatre canon. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" has become one of the greatest gems in the history of musical comedy and premiered at the zenith of the genres golden age, near the same time as shows like "Hello, Dolly!", "Bye Bye Birdie", and "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
Forum won a slew of Tony's at the 1963 Awards including Best Book, Best Actor, and Best Musical. Unbelievably, Sondheim was not even nominated for his delightful score. To add insult to injury no winner that night, not even Sondheim's greatest artistic collaborator Hal Prince (the shows producer) mentioned Sondheim in their acceptance speeches. I am sure that's a wound that never quite heals.

The show has been successfully revived twice on Broadway, each time garnering a Tony for it's star (Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane respectively). It is consistently revived in stock and amateur theatre and was even filmed (somewhat unsuccessfully) by Richard Lester in the 60's. As a example of well-constructed, mid-century musical comedy "A Funny Thing Happend on the Way to the Forum" has few peers. Below is Zero Mostel hamming his way through the famous opening number "Comedy Tonight!"

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