Written in the Fall of 2013 for STC’s big Holiday show, and one of our first musicals, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. An attempt to strike a balance between vaudevillian anecdotage and a formal analysis. There are way too many good stories about the famously complicated production history of Forum to fit into a 1,000-word program note. Sondheim’s own, immensely insightful chapter on it in “Finishing the Hat” also leaves some material on the cutting-room floor. As a consequence, this is the “director’s cut,” which I hope to complete with footnotes on some of the stories behind the history. –DL
It’s the spring of 1962, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is in trouble. It had taken the talented trio of Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim four years and a seemingly endless series of drafts to put the musical together. The show had also gone through a dizzying number of changes in producers, directors and stars before settling on Harold Prince, George Abbott and Zero Mostel.(1) Most frustratingly, there was no finale. Instead, Pseudolus and Hysterium cross downstage and engage the audience in a coy attempt at suspense:
PSEUDOLUS. Come back tomorrow night and see Hysterium win his freedom—
HYSTERIUM. Oh Pseudolus!
PSEUDOLUS. Or die in attempt!
As fate would have it, the proper ending would be found through changing the beginning. Forum’s original opening number, “Invocation,” started in a suitably classical tone:
Gods of the theatre smile on us,
Those who look down on actors,
And I’m sorry to say who doesn’t?
Bless our show and smile on us.
But George Abbott didn’t like it. He didn’t think it was “hummable.” So “Invocation” was revoked, although Sondheim and Shevelove would use it later as the opening number of their 1972 adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs (2). For the first of the show’s out-of-town tryouts, in late March, 1962, at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Sondheim came up with a song called “Love is in the Air.” This song is charming, sweet and, if you pay attention, appears as underscore at the beginning of Act Two. It also appears, for some reason, in Mike Nichols’ film The Birdcage, when Robin Williams and Christine Baranski suddenly burst out into song. In New Haven, however, the number (and the show) didn’t work. Nobody could figure out why. As Larry Gelbart said, “Audiences laughed at the show but they didn’t like it.”
In April of 1962, Forum moved to the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. Again, the show was a flop. Richard Coe, the theatre critic for the Washington Post, suggested the unthinkable, closing the show three weeks before it reached New York. George Abbott, who had a reputation as “the show doctor,” was stuck. He was used to coming in at the last minute to fix Broadway shows before opening, but how was he supposed to punch up his own show? “I don’t know what we should do,” he said, “I think we should call George Abbott!”
Forum had started as a labor of love, an attempt to return laughs, farce and “low comedy” to the increasingly anodyne Broadway stage.(3) As Shevelove said of New York in the early 1960s, presumably in reference to musicals of the Oscar Hammerstein variety: “There were plenty of touching, even tragic, lovers, plenty of dream ballets, and plenty of important truths, stated and restated, but no fun.”
Updating the ancient Roman comedy and bringing it to Broadway had long been one of Shevelove’s dreams. In 1938, while an undergraduate at Brown, he had written the lyrics for Plautus Potpourri: A Roman Holiday, an irreverent adaptation of Plautus’ Mostellaria which, like Forum, included songs in between the action. In 1942, while getting his Master’s at Yale and serving as the head of the Yale Dramat, Shevelove mounted another Plautine musical called When in Rome, based on two more of of Plautus’ plays: Miles Gloriosus and Pseudolus.
In 1958, however, 20 years after Shevelove’s first attempt at adapting Plautus, the third time would prove to be the charm. Teaming with Larry Gelbart, a joke writer for Sid Caesar’s Caesar’s Hour, and Stephen Sondheim, a brilliant young songwriter fresh off the success of writing lyrics for West Side Story, Gelbart & Co. methodically pieced together a plot combining the best of all of Plautus’ plays. The result, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, features a veritable who’s who of ancient Roman comedy: ingenious house slave Pseudolus young lovers Hero and Philia, unhappily married couple Senex and Domina, lecherous pimp Marcus Lycus and his cast of courtesans and eunuchs, Erronius, “the oldest man living in Rome,” and, of course, Miles Gloriosus, the ultimate braggart warrior. The script also calls for a Mostellaria, a haunted house which is revealed to be nothing of the sort.
Above all else, Forum is a masterpiece of farcical plotting. As Gelbart would later write, pointing to the play’s incredibly wrought structure: “Add or subtract one character and his or her absence or altered presence affects the behavior of every other character in the piece.” Sondheim concurred, calling Forum the “tightest, most satisfyingly plotted and gracefully written farce I’ve ever encountered.” With Forum, Shevelove, Gelbart and Sondheim achieved the seemingly impossible: a musical comedy that obeyed the classical criteria laid out by Aristotle. In 1972, while directing a revival of the play starring Phil Silvers, Shevelove noted the utter academic seriousness of the project, easily mistaken for low-brow silliness: “We preserved the classic unities of time, place, and action. We had no anachronisms or sly references to today. We used Plautus’ characters, but we had to invent a plot (the original plots are negligible) to accommodate the characters we wanted to use.”
The overall effect is of a one-stop crash course in Plautine dramaturgy – the drama of mistaken identities, inimitable stock characters, and farcical reversals that would come to define comedy through Shakespeare, Molière, and Shaw, all the way up to the modern situation comedy. As Sondheim says, “Everybody thinks that it was whipped up over a weekend because it plays so easily. The plotting is intricate, the dialogue is never anachronistic, and there are only two or three jokes—the rest is comic situation. It’s almost like a senior thesis on two thousand years of comedy.”
* * *
Sondheim speaks the truth—for the most part. One very important thing was whipped up in a weekend. Back in 1962 in Washington, Forum was in trouble. As a last, desperate measure, the team called in Jerome Robbins, who had turned the play down in 1958 in order to direct Gypsy (taking Sondheim with him). The problem, Robbins said, was the opening number. It didn’t set up the show. Sondheim replied that he had already written a new opening number, “Love is in the Air.” That song may be charming and hummable, Robbins replied, but it wasn’t funny. After a weekend spent at his piano, inspiration struck. Sondheim emerged from his Washington hotel with a new song and an immortal classic: “Comedy Tonight.” The rest is history.(4)