Forum at 50? It’s possible!
Sondheim 101: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
News & Notes
News & Notes
Forum at 50: An overview of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sondheim’s first Broadway show as a composer and lyricist
TSR’s review of Forum’s original cast recording from 1962
Look, I Made a Hat: An exclusive interview with Sondheim about being an author
TSR reviews Look, I Made a Hat
Critical response to Sondheim’s second volume of lyric commentary
Sondheim can make mistakes — and correct them
Following Sondheim: Tom Kitt, composer of next to normal, talks about Sondheim’s influence on his work
2nd Company Productions revives Sondheim shows in London
Interview: Erik Lee Preminger on his mother, Gypsy Rose Lee
Vancouver Opera takes on West Side Story in a big way
At New York City Center’s Encores! Merrily We Roll Along veered from the usual approach
Interview: Rob Ruggiero talks about staging Sunday in the Park with George in St. Louis
Productions and Reviews
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staged Sunday in the Park with George
Gypsy at Chicago’s Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace
Symphony Silicon Valley presented a concert version of Gypsy
A new and sassy rendition of Into the Woods — using sock puppets!
Tony winner Daniel Evans plays Company’s Robert in a British staging at the theatre he now leads
Nashville’s Blackbird Theater stages Pacific Overtures
Recording: West Side Story’s Blu-ray release includes documentaries
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Forum at 50? It’s possible!
Sondheim 101: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
BY RUSSELL M. DEMBIN
It is something of a miracle when a musical successfully makes the journey to Broadway. The parents of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which celebrates its 50th birthday on May 8, 2012, struggled to bring the show into the world: Its birthing process had as many complications as, well, a Roman comedy. And while Forum was in development, the authors did simply call it A Roman Comedy. Larry Gelbart, who co-wrote the libretto with Burt Shevelove, recalls, “We were far too busy trying to get the piece right to take time out to think about what some lucky show poster would read if we ever actually completed it to our satisfaction.”
It was indeed a while between the time Burt Shevelove came up with the idea and the show’s eventual arrival in New York City at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon). While studying at Yale, Shevelove worked on two musical theatre adaptations of the plays of Roman dramatist Titus Maccius Plautus, one based on Mostellaria and the other on Miles Gloriosus and Pseudolus. The productions were well received, and Shevelove was convinced that such a musical would succeed on Broadway. Time passed, and Shevelove went on to have a career as a director and writer for television and the stage. Not long after West Side Story opened in 1957, several writers got together and lamented that low comedy had become totally absent from Broadway shows. Shevelove mentioned his idea for a musical inspired by the works of Plautus. Stephen Sondheim, who was present at the gathering, found Shevelove’s concept thrilling and offered to write the show’s music and lyrics, making it the first Broadway musical for which Sondheim served as both composer and lyricist. Shevelove then invited Larry Gelbart to write the book with him. Gelbart observes:
[While] Burt and I had worked together in television during the fifties, starting with Red Buttons, Burt acting as Red’s director, we had never before functioned as a writing team. Working in separate capacities, we learned that our tastes in comedy were identical; that we both laughed at the same things and, happily, always at the same moment.
The librettists got along well, and close to the beginning of 1958, they had nearly finished the first of many drafts. Sondheim had also been excited about the project from the start, but he was having a more difficult time. As the protégé of Oscar Hammerstein II, he had grown accustomed to writing lyrics that advanced the action or in some way developed the characters. Gelbart and Shevelove, having studied the plays of Plautus, felt the songs in this musical should serve the same purpose that they did in Roman comedy, which was to relish particular moments. Sondheim felt uncomfortable writing an entire show in this vein and sensed that he would just be interrupting the pace that a farce requires. As he recalls in Finishing the Hat:
I grumbled that Forum would be better off as a play than a musical — a suspicious echo of my earlier suggestion to Arthur [Laurents] about Gypsy. Burt replied that if it were just a play, it would be relentlessly and unrelievedly funny and the audience, unable to recover between gasps of laughter, would soon become restless for a breathing space.
Just as Sondheim grappled to find the right approach to the lyrics, all three of the authors strained to find a producer, director and star. The first producer who agreed to take on the show was Leland Hayward (Gypsy), but he dropped out. While Sondheim worked on Gypsy, the authors approached Harold Prince and Robert E. Griffith to take on their Roman musical, but Griffith balked, so he and Prince declined. Next was David Merrick, who was famously successful as a producer and infamously intolerable as a person. Jerome Robbins had previously agreed to direct, but he backed out based on his doubts about the show and his experiences with Merrick on Gypsy. (Earlier, when Sondheim had shown Robbins some of the songs he had written for what would become Forum, Robbins recommended to the producers of Gypsy that they hire Sondheim as their lyricist.) Joshua Logan was willing to direct, but he insisted on having, in Sondheim’s words, “more naked boys and things like that.” When the authors declined to make the proposed revisions, Logan left the show.
Sondheim then asked Harold Prince to direct, but Prince’s two least favorite genres — which happen to be the two genres that Sondheim likes best — are melodrama and farce. The creators then contacted Robbins again; he agreed, but only on the condition that Prince produce. Sondheim and his collaborators returned the advance pay Merrick had given them, withdrew the show and pursued Robbins. Prince and Griffith were now the show’s producers, but Griffith was still reluctant. Soon after taking on the project, Griffith died (Gelbart writes, “I like to think there was no connection between the events”), but Prince moved forward with the production. At this point the logistics of ordering scenery for the show meant that they needed a definite answer from the evasive Robbins, so they contacted him overseas. As Sondheim notes, it appeared Robbins would direct.
And then a letter arrived in the mail. As best I can remember, the letter was saying, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it.” It was torn in four or eight pieces, and then he’d put it in an envelope. That was to show how tortured he was for having let everybody down.
The production now had a producer but no director, so Prince sought 75-year-old George Abbott, whose reputation was based not only on the musical comedies he directed, such as Wonderful Town and The Pajama Game, but also on his skills as a play doctor. Abbott had been David Merrick’s first choice; the authors still didn’t want him, but they were left with little alternative. Abbott also required some convincing. Prince set up an audition in which Gelbart and Shevelove acted out the dialogue and Sondheim played the score. In its original form, the show lasted about four hours. About two hours into the audition, when the creators were barely halfway through acting it out, Abbott announced that he needed to keep an appointment and politely left. As Prince relates the story, Abbott told him the show was “sophomoric,” but Prince persuaded him to look at the full script before making a decision. Abbott called Prince the next morning, saying, “It is absolutely marvelous. I’ll do it.”
Finding an actor to play Pseudolus, the slave who spends the show trying to gain his freedom, presented another series of challenges. The authors had written the part with Phil Silvers in mind, but Silvers, best known for playing Master Sergeant Ernest G. “Ernie” Bilko on the television series The Phil Silvers Show, turned down the part, saying “This is Sergeant Bilko. I’ve been doing this all my life.” Craig Zadan asserts in Sondheim & Co. that Silvers rejected the part because he felt it was “old shtick, not realizing that that was precisely the show’s intention.” The writers wanted a vaudevillian, so Prince cast Milton Berle. Meanwhile, George Abbott, with some input from the librettists, started trimming the show to be more manageable and, in his eyes, more accessible. Berle had been enthusiastic, but, upon seeing Abbott’s cuts, he felt his best material had been lost. He subsequently requested that his contract give him final approval over script changes, the rest of the cast, the designers and the choreographer. Prince refused, and Berle left.
Prince next offered the part to Zero Mostel, which did not please the authors. They would have preferred Mostel to play Lycus, the “buyer and seller of courtesans.” Mostel was not a vaudeville type, nor had he appeared in a Broadway musical in the last 15 years (his most recent musical was in 1946, when Abbott directed him in Beggar’s Holiday). But he did have comic timing and unfailing energy, not to mention that he had won a 1961 Tony Award for his performance in Rhinoceros. If Prince had a difficult time selling the creative team on Mostel as Pseudolus, he had an even more difficult time selling Mostel on Mostel as Pseudolus. Initially, Mostel didn’t like the script. Then, according to Mostel, the night after he first heard Sondheim play through the score, his wife held up a knife during dinner and yelled, “If you don’t take it, I’m going to stab you in the balls!” Needless to say, Mostel took it. As a happy coincidence , Plautus’s Mostellaria is one of the show’s sources.
It was now 1962, and the show finally had a producer, a director and a star. Shevelove, Gelbart and Sondheim had been working on Forum for almost four years, and the script had undergone at least 11 separate drafts. Only after they had made the myriad revisions did the authors feel comfortable assigning the show its title: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. They wanted to suggest a Roman comedy without using those words, so they invoked the comedian’s standard opening, “A funny thing happened on the way to … ” and added “the Forum” in the hope that audiences would quickly associate it with ancient Rome. They did.
Rehearsals had begun, and the creative team was pleased with the show. But when the production reached New Haven for the first out-of-town tryout, the reviews were harsh. So Shevelove and Gelbart restored the material Abbott had told them to remove, but putting back the complications and subplots didn’t solve the problem. Even Abbott, who was known as a successful play doctor, was baffled. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “I guess we’ll have to call in George Abbott.” During the next tryout in Washington, Richard Coe at The Washington Post published a scathing review in which he recommended that the show close without going to New York and remarked that “a good deal more steam will be needed to reassure you that you haven’t wandered into amateur night.”
The team was desperate, so Sondheim suggested bringing in Jerome Robbins. This choice was risky for a number of reasons, one of them being that Robbins had named Jack Gilford’s wife as a Communist to the House Un-American Activities Committee (Gilford was playing Hysterium), and Mostel had experienced blacklisting during the Red Scare. Gilford was tempted to leave the show, but his wife talked him into staying. Mostel, recognizing that the production truly needed Robbins, told Prince, “We of the left do not blacklist.”
When Robbins arrived, he realized the show’s issue immediately: The opening number set the wrong tone . Originally, Sondheim had written “Invocation,” a comedic song with instructions to the audience (which later found a home in Shevelove and Sondheim’s The Frogs , but Abbott said he couldn’t hum it, so Sondheim wrote “Love Is in the Air.” Robbins observed that the new number prepared the audience for a quaint play, not an evening of low comedy. So that weekend, Sondheim wrote “Comedy Tonight,” and Robbins choreographed it the following week and restaged the chase sequence at the end of the show.
Prince was passionately optimistic about the show’s future, despite Richard Coe’s review, so he did bring it to New York. When it opened on May 8, 1962, with “Comedy Tonight” and Robbins’ new blocking, Forum was a hit. The reviews were almost unanimously positive, and the production began selling out shortly into the run. Forum went on to win six Tony Awards in 1963. Moreover, every actor who has opened on Broadway in the role of Pseudolus has won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical: Mostel, Phil Silvers (1972) and Nathan Lane (1996). Even Jason Alexander, who sang “Comedy Tonight” in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, won a Tony for his performance.
The original London production with comedian Frankie Howerd was well received in 1963, and Howerd went on to reprise his role as Pseudolus in the West End in 1986. Stephen Banfield notes that, in 1963, the show’s self-awareness “was perfectly encapsulated by Frankie Howerd … : instead of Senex as Prologus giving a résumé of the situation at the start of Act II, Howerd (Pseudolus) in improvisatory manner counted off on his fingers the songs that had already been sung as a way of recalling where the plot had gotten to.” In 2004 the Royal National Theatre presented a limited run of the show with Desmond Barrit in the lead role and Philip Quast as Miles Gloriosus.
Despite its popularity, it can be challenging to discern a comprehensive, concrete explanation for Forum’s enduring artistic success. One reason might be that Gelbart and Shevelove were meticulous in constructing the libretto, making sure that the play adhered to the conventions of Roman comedy and that it was free of anachronisms and contemporary references. Richard Lester’s 1966 film, with Mostel as Pseudolus and Phil Silvers as Lycus, abandoned the notion of timelessness on two accounts. Unlike the stage version, its score attempted to fabricate a pseudo-Roman musical landscape. The movie also used anachronisms, including a line that was deleted from its Broadway counterpart: inquiring about a bottle of wine, Pseudolus says, “Was 1 a good year?” The film’s rejection of the librettists’ conceit of timelessness could explain why audiences found the movie less compelling than the Broadway show. The fact that Forum’s creators considered the film a poor imitation of the original musical (Gelbart comments that watching the movie premiere “was like being hit by a truck that backed up and ran you over again”) underscores the idea that timelessness is what makes the stage version so effective.
The stage musical, on the other hand, does have a timeless quality, and it is one of the reasons that Sondheim calls Forum’s libretto “the tightest, most satisfyingly plotted and gracefully written farce I’ve ever encountered.” At the same time, Sondheim feels that his score is, with few exceptions, out of place. He posits that a farce cannot become a strong musical. In 1962, reviewers and Sondheim’s colleagues criticized Sondheim’s contributions — Leonard Bernstein told him to “[s]top writing all that ‘wrong-note’ music.” Sondheim’s work wasn’t even nominated for a Tony Award, and none of his collaborators mentioned him in their Tony acceptance speeches.
Sondheim certainly had difficulty writing the show: Excluding the unusual case of Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show, he discarded more full songs from Forum than he did from any of his other musicals. Counting songs he composed for subsequent productions, the grand total comes to 10. But the reviewers praised the score when the show was revived on Broadway in 1972 with Phil Silvers finally playing the part that was written for him. Gelbart once enumerated the qualities of Plautus that he and Shevelove wanted the show to embody: “puns, malapropisms, tongue twisters, the double entendre, insults, disguise, slapstick, mistaken identity, mime, wit and witlessness.” Sondheim’s lyrics elevate the verbal dexterity of Forum in a way that helps to make Gelbart’s list a reality. Perhaps most important of all is the show’s ability to make people — in the words of the omitted “Invocation” — “Forget war, forget woe,/Forget matters weighty and great.” In this fashion, over a half-century Forum has been a welcome escape for audiences and a fulfilling work of musical theatre. |TSR|
RUSSELL M. DEMBIN, an associate editor of The Sondheim Review, is a theatre educator and freelance dramaturg based in New York City. His work is also featured in the “Dramaturg’s Desk” column on TheCallboard.com.