A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
October 16, 2021 5:42 AM   Subscribe

Stephen Sondheim was having another go. After his first show as lyricist/composer collapsed through no fault of his own, he retreated to lyrics-only for a while... West Side Story and Gypsy... I mean, ya know, as one does. But in 1962, one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time, with a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H), A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Here's Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, John Carradine, and others in the Original Broadway Cast Recording. [Archive.org link, streaming and download links]

We don't have much to document this actual production. That Cast Recording, Playbill did a Look Back earlier this year, a NYT review of the show, A souvenir program booklet [Archive.org link]. The production won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Actor, Best Book, Best Direction, but not for Best Score.

Well, also, you might be interested in the libretto, or even the piano/conductor score. Those are always fun too look at.

This program is also interesting. Maybe from a touring production? Still, fun to look at!

There is a "sort-of" document of the show. That would be the 1966 Film directed by Richard Lester (Beatles Movies, The 70s Musketeers movies), featuring many actors from the original stage show. Thanks to Archive.org, you can watch it, with streaming or download links. The movie does away entirely with the vaudeville setting of the stage show (obviously) and instead uses the then-pioneering quick cuts and some slapstick. There are a lot more actual horse-drawn chariots in the movie, but a lot less of the really witty dialogue and basically half of the songs are utterly gone. If this is your only experience of this show, you've really not seen it. Go see it even in a community theater production. It's nearly foolproof, and it's a lot of fun, if you can sort of slide with the subject matter. (More of that later.)

Of interest is the Motion Picture Soundtrack album [Archive.org link, with streaming and download links], which has the songs from the movie and the main instrumental tracks. The Rescue Of Philia - Into - The Chase is an interesting mashup of Sondheim melody with.. Beethoven? (I guess because of Fantasia?) Regardless, the film won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Score.

Trying to read the libretto of the show while watching the movie is fascinating, but not for those short of patience (or short of familiarity with the material).

The West End production of 1963 has a cast recording [Archive.org link, streaming and download links] that is quite, quite fine. I encourage a listen.

The first Broadway revival was actually the first that was going to star its original, role-written-for star, Phil Silvers. Ducking out originally because he was afraid of performing without his glasses, he starred in this production (with glasses!) that was a giant hit, and won Silvers the Best Actor Musical Tony. This is even less documented than the first, because Silvers died only a few months after opening (replaced by Tom Poston) and closed before any cast album was recorded. This blog as a look at the Silvers-led production. Oh, and here's a NYT review, quite positive. I wish I could hear his performance, really.

Two songs from that first revival are the song Farewell (written for Nancy Walker but dropped), and Echo Song, dropped originally put back for this, not a standard part of the book. [These are not performances from productions, but they are performances of the songs. And I think Farewell does a good job of exhibiting the spirit of vaudeville that was intended for this piece.]

The show had a second revival on Broadway, in 1996, this time with Nathan Lane as Pseudelous. Mark Lynn-Baker (Perfect Strangers, Doonesbury musical) plays Hysterium. The Cast Album from that production [YT link] is, for my money, the best of these I've heard. [{psst here's the thing, the first 45m47s of this 1h48m video are the actual soundtrack in order. the rest of it, that's a distraction, if you know what I mean.}] Nathan Lane won Best Actor Musical Tony for his performance in this show. Oh, and while a part of this recording, Pretty Little Picture was dropped from the final version of this revival.

[Ed. Note: This is ridiculous, but Jason Alexander performed Company Tonight in a f'n REVUE show, and he won a Tony for his performance. Do the Gods smile on this show, or what? Much more than on The Frogs!] (Also, if this is the original staging of the number, it gives you a good glimpse of the vaudeville nature of the show. I wish we had more.)

Now, look. Forum is horribly sexist. Horribly horribly so. It also has slavery, but the male slaves have a lot of agency while the female slaves are, well, they are property, and are trained to be property. Plautus, the source playwright of the three plays sourced for this show lived 254 – 184 BC. So, let's just say norms were different then. The questions about whether it's okay to find jokes from THEN funny NOW are kind of a thing with this play. The 1996 revival toned down some of the "stuff". One 2015 production tried to go back to ancient times to resolve some issues -- all the parts are played by men. (Article and video in link.)

Anyway, zillions have been in productions of Forum, and a lot of people know the songs. Or THINK they know the songs. Here's a real test: instrumental tracks for the show! (Libretto and score are linked above. p.s. the show song are not the same as the movie songs)

One tiny last note: the original opening song for Forum was Love Is In The Air (sung here by Sondheim). It wasn't working, and after a couple of attempts he came up with Comedy Tonight, and the show became a giant success.
posted by hippybear (25 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I saw Nathan Lane in Forum back in the '90s. At one point, some rube in the audience yelled out "I love you, Nathan!" Lane paused, said "I love you, too," then proceeded with the show.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:58 AM on October 16

This whole series of posts is great, hippybear. (I remain astonished at how much of it I've never even heard of, much less heard.)
posted by eotvos at 6:26 AM on October 16 [5 favorites]

LOVE this! It is a great show; done well it's nonstop laughs and tight as a drum. Glad to have been able to be part of a local production back in the day.

[Hippybear did you mean to reference Jason Alexander's stellar performance of Comedy tonight (vs. Company)?]
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:36 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

Yes, that should be Comedy Tonight. Jason Alexander was not in Company. He was, however, in Merrily We Roll Along. And also in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, in which he performed Comedy Tonight.
posted by hippybear at 6:41 AM on October 16 [2 favorites]

Thanks for that link. Deserving of the Tony!! What a great number that is, a tour de force for a performer of Alexander's caliber.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:44 AM on October 16

I saw the Nathan Lane production in the 90s and really loved it. A few years ago, I saw the filmed version and hated it without really knowing why. Thanks for the explanation.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:45 AM on October 16 [2 favorites]

The movie version was a staple of my childhood (infant Michael Crawford!) but has aged incredibly badly. I had no idea the stage version was so different! I do have a tremendous fondness for old vaudeville shtick (the Muppet Show and Marx Brothers movies were also in heavy rotation in my youth) so I'll keep a sharp eye out for a local production.

That Jason Alexander performance is a delight--thank you for sharing that!
posted by merriment at 7:28 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

I was on stage crew in high school and hung out in the lighting booth for many rehearsals and performances of this. I ran the colored follower spot when the different slaves are presented and do their sexy introductory dances [I have no idea of this part was local to our particular production or what].

In terms of problematic (a word we didn't use so easily back then), yeah, I certainly found it odd to see my fellow high school students (men, yes, but especially women) so highly sexualized.
posted by stevil at 9:04 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

I saw the original production on Broadway with my parents when I was 13. I'm pretty sure that I didn't get a lot of the jokes, but I do remember loving it. (On the same trip we also saw Barbra Streisand as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale.)
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 9:40 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

In terms of problematic (a word we didn't use so easily back then), yeah, I certainly found it odd to see my fellow high school students (men, yes, but especially women) so highly sexualized.

Yooooo late 90s problematic checking in here, watching our drama teacher as Marcus Lycus pimping out my classmates made me So glad I didn't take drama.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:50 AM on October 16 [4 favorites]

I saw the Nathan Lane production in the '70's when he was still Joe Lane and he played Hysterium and he was at the Mac-Hayden Theatre in Chatham, NY. I was very young and most of the jokes sailed over my head, but still had a good time. (I've seen other productions since and caught the nuances.)
posted by dannyboybell at 10:44 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

Whoopi Goldberg replaced Lane in the revival. What I wouldn't have given to see that; maybe my second-biggest regret about not staying on in NYC a year or two more, after missing Patrick Stewart in Shakespeare in the Park.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:39 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

My dad was Pseudolus in a community theatre production when I was 4 or 5. I knew all the words to Everybody Ought to Have a Maid, and can still basically sing the show forward and backward (I'm sad Pretty Little Picture routinely gets dropped. It's one of my favorites). Recently saw the movie, and it's utter crap. It's funny. For someone who loves movies as much as Sondheim does, his shows are pretty consistently made into terrible ones.

I recall that Whoopi Goldberg played Pseudolus at one point, which would have made a lot of things play rather differently. (Xpost with Halloween Jack!)

Someone once pointed out that Forum is basically a really funny script, and really funny songs, but the two have fairly little to do with each other. Which is...fair. and probably pretty vaudeville-y
posted by DebetEsse at 11:44 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

Because nothing is funnier than falling in love with a slave girl, except perhaps an older woman who is hated by her husband.

I was a lead in this show in college. Time to move on, world.
posted by amtho at 1:59 PM on October 16

I am always down for more Zero Mostel.
posted by y2karl at 2:03 PM on October 16

YouTube has some great college and community theater productions available...
posted by Czjewel at 2:16 PM on October 16

Check out AMTSJ. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum... San Jose Theater production on youtube.
posted by Czjewel at 2:20 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]

I do really like this show, as I do most French farces and Restoration comedies and PG Wodehouse novels. I know the movie better, but I never thought the humor was because it's "funny" to fall in love with a courtesan. It's funny (without scare quotes) because Hero and Philia are stock characters, as is everyone else, and like all innamorati they are not particularly bright. So the humor comes from their naivete coupled with Pseudolus's increasingly complex plotting to make sure everyone gets what they want so that he gets what he wants: his freedom.

Also because Buster Keaton is just a gem, even as he was dying of cancer. Seven times round the seven hills of Rome!
posted by basalganglia at 5:51 PM on October 16 [7 favorites]

This program is also interesting. Maybe from a touring production? Still, fun to look at!

The cover lists Alvin Theater, and the program is dated July 29, 1963 - I think it's just from later in the nearly two year run. Note the sketch of Judy Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli as a Marimekko fashion model. Her Broadway debut is two years later, also at the Alvin.
posted by zamboni at 8:14 AM on October 17

Sondheim originally had written a song called "Invocation" to open the show, but producer George Abbott told him it wasn't hummable. (This is such a cliche about Sondheim songs that he jokes about it in "Opening Doors" from Merrily.) So he then wrote "Love is in the Air" (about contagion, very timely today) which was hummable and used in the previews, which were by all accounts disastrous. Jerome Robbins was called in to doctor the show, and said that the problem was (still) the opening number, cute and sweet enough, but which wasn't properly setting up the audience for the all-out farce they were about to see. As hippybear says, Sondheim finally wrote "Comedy Tonight," and it's credited with making the show a hit when it opened in New York.

It always seemed slightly unbelievable to me that that single change made such a difference. But Sondheim later said, "The first song is what makes or breaks the show. You start out with the right opening, you can ride for 45 minutes on the telephone book. On the other hand, if you start off with the wrong one, it's an uphill fight all the way." (He later repurposed "Invocation" as the opening for The Frogs.)

By the way, this series of Sondheim posts is just fantastic. Thank you!
posted by How the runs scored at 9:47 AM on October 17 [2 favorites]

See also this AskMe from 2008 by I_Love_Bananas, asking about how to sing "That Dirty Old Man" for an audition-- with a really excellent reply from grumblebee.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:27 PM on October 17

... it would help if I remembered the link: this AskMe.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:34 PM on October 17 [1 favorite]

Now, look. Forum is horribly sexist. Horribly horribly so.

My lovely wife and I watched the movie a couple of weeks ago, and ... yeah.

The performances are terrific (Buster Keaton!), but the early sequence in which the slave girls perform for Pseudolus was uncomfortable to sit through (especially as it did nothing to advance the plot).

By the way, this series of Sondheim posts is just fantastic.

I agree completely!
posted by Gelatin at 6:07 AM on October 18 [1 favorite]

but the early sequence in which the slave girls perform for Pseudolus was uncomfortable to sit through (especially as it did nothing to advance the plot).

If you look at the libretto, you'll see that sequence is about twice as long and elaborate in the stage version of the show.

I mean, yes, Broadway in the early 60s was still a bit about watching beautiful women move their bodies. And this show, being from Plautus, certainly begged for it. I'm sure plenty of women were lining up to do the part.

If you look at it, Cassie's big solo dance toward the end of A Chorus Line is much of the same material, just in a different context. Although, if you think about it, not that different a context. Cassie, and the girls dancing in Forum, are dancing as auditions to be selected by men to work their craft for pay. Cassie's dance is more of desperation than sexualization, and that is what sets them apart.
posted by hippybear at 9:00 PM on October 19

My daughter directed Forum when she was teaching theater at UW(isc), and her slave girls were guys. I got to sit through a lot of rehearsals for this one, so I know it more than most of her plays.
She says her favorite opening is this one. (Bad video, but really funny)
She said Sondheim made a one-time allowance for this performance. She had wanted to do it as well, but was refused.
posted by MtDewd at 7:54 AM on November 2 [1 favorite]

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