Happy New Year! Hope everyone enjoyed their holidays. I did. I could have used another week of vacay, but it’s all good.
On to 2021….
The one and only time I saw Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum was in college. I tried out for it as part of my Broadway performance class at Sierra, and I hated every minute of the audition because I didn’t want to be in the show. Believe me, I was never so happy to not get a callback in my life. My friend, Nick Smith got in, though, and gloriously played the role of Captain Miles Gloriosus. I wish I had pictures.
So yeah, I’m coming to this thing with almost no memories of Forum’s story except for vague moments of Nick emoting onstage. Will my old reactions warm over? We shall soon see.
The show’s plot in a nutshell is this: Flaky but faithful slave Pseudolous wants his freedom. Hero, the son of Pseudolous’s owners Senex and Dominia, wants Philia, the new arrival at Lycus’s brothel next door. Pseudolous makes a bargain with Hero: If Philia falls in love with Hero, Hero will ask for Pseudolous’s freedom. Just to keep things interesting, Philia has already been purchased by Captain Miles Gloriosus, who’s on his way to collect her. Pseudolous fools Lycus into thinking Philia has the plague and spirits her next door, much to the delight of Hero and Senex. Dominia, Senex’s shrewish wife, is just thrilled to come home and find her husband and her son gaga over Philia, who has trouble remembering names.
As if that wasn’t enough, neighbor Erronius comes home…to the wrong house. He also thinks the oh-so-male Hysterium, one of Senex and Dominia’s other slaves, is a beautiful woman. He does that a lot. And we can’t forget Captain Miles, lover of grand entrances and hero on the field of battle, who may find he’s less brave than he thought. Facing down the formidable Dominia often has that effect.
A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum was the first musical in which Stephen Sondheim wrote both lyrics and music. He was a fledgling writer on Broadway who was inspired by Rodgers and Hammerstein to go into show business, and at that time his credits included writing the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. Forum was his first big hit, kicked off by the superlative “Comedy Tonight!”
Sondheim’s longtime friend, Burt Shevelove, co-wrote Forum‘s book with Larry Gelbart and incorporated classic elements of comedy and farce. Shevelove was a big fan of Italian playwright Plautus, who was basically the Mel Brooks of ancient Rome. Plautus loved putting his characters in compromising positions and was not above lifting a plot or two from other writers, presumably for comical purposes. Shevelove, a famous wit himself, wrote a Plautus-type musical in college called Miles Gloriosus, or, The Braggart Warrior.
Broadway, like Hollywood, was in flux during the late fifties and early sixties, and when Sondheim, Shevelove, and Gelbart tried shopping their idea around to various producers, found that each of them wanted different things. According to Sondheim biographer Meryl Secrest, Jerome Robbins kept changing his mind and changing it back again. Another producer, Joshua Logan wanted Forum to have more naked boys. Hal Prince wouldn’t do it because he didn’t like farce. In the end, Jerome Robbins agreed to produce if Hal Prince would…and then went off to Greece on vacation. Prince’s stage personnel had to be sent to Greece to get Robbins’s OK for scenery and other behind the scenes matters.
As far as casting went, Zero Mostel as Pseudolous was a no-brainer. Phil Silvers was the first choice to play Lycus, but Silvers turned the part down because he wouldn’t be able to wear his glasses onstage. Plus he thought Lycus was too similar to Sergeant Bilko. John Carradine played the part instead.
Forum opened on May 8, 1962 and would run for 964 performances. It impressively won six of the eight Tony Award nominations it garnered, and then it was off to Hollywood, taking Mostel and Gilford along. Phil Silvers said yes to the toga this time and played Lycus, with Buster Keaton as Erronius rounding out the cast. The film premiered on October 16, 1966 and brought in $8.5M at the box office.
The film. Oh, the film. It’s a romp. It was directed by Richard Lester and has some great lines and plays-on-words. I laughed aloud quite a few times. It’s firmly entrenched in the sixties, particularly in Lycus’s brothel, where the women wear lush false eyelashes and teased hair. It may be the only entry in Phil Silvers’ filmography where he doesn’t say, “Gladaseeya” and one of the few times Buster Keaton doesn’t wear a porkpie hat.
It’s also a film some people like complaining about, mostly because about a third of Sondheim’s original score was cut. Zero Mostel also gets pegged as hammy. That doesn’t bug me too much because number-snipping often happens when Broadway shows make it to Hollywood. And I like Zero Mostel as Pseudolous. It’s a perfect role for him, almost better than Tevye was. My complaint is of a more, er, bouncy nature.
On most levels, Richard Lester is a great choice as director for this film. He gets the material. He knows how to do zany and campy. What doesn’t work is, well, Nicholas Roeg’s camerawork. Interior shots aren’t so bad. Those tend to feel a little more open. Exteriors, on the other hand, are so crowded with props that the cameraman was clearly having to dodge around them and sometimes it looks really spazzy. And for some reason many shots, indoors and out, are closeups or inserts, often from the neck up. It feels a little intrusive and claustrophobic. I’m surprised the actors weren’t glaring at the cameraman for invading their personal space.
It’s weird, especially since Lester brought us A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, both of which used odd angles and plenty of motion (this clip is a great example), but the difference with those movies is that cinematographer Gilbert Taylor allowed the scenes to breathe. Forum could have used that kind of elbow room, if only to accomodate larger-than-life Zero Mostel, whose huge sell-its were more at home on a stage than in comparitively subdued film acting.
Still, the film isn’t all bad. It’s very clever and the acting is note-perfect. The ending is awesome. I like that the film makes creative use of traditional Roman detailing, such as in the “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid” sequence when Pseudolous, Senex, and Hysterium look like they’re standing on each other’s shoulders (They’re not.). The only other caveat is that it definitely isn’t for kids. There are scenes involving group bathing and odd tools that look like they get shipped in unmarked packaging, if anyone gets my drift.
In the ensuing years, Forum has been revived a number of times. Nathan Lane famously played Pseudolous in the 1996 revival, and even Phil Silvers decided to throw caution to the wind in the 1972 version. Wearing his glasses, of course. Jason Alexander slayed “Comedy Tonight!” in the 1989 Jerome Robbins tribute.
Forum’s popularity ebbs and flows most of the time, but it never fails to garner loads of Tony Awards and tremendous audience response every time the curtain goes up. I think the reason it works is because while the material is very dialed into both Broadway and comedy, it gleefully punches its way out of the proverbial box. That’s never going to get old.
Another post is coming up Friday. Thanks for reading, everyone…
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Secrest, Meryl. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York City: Vintage Books, 2011.