A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
With Nathan Lane a Tony winner, Forum looks to a long run
A cast recording is made
Our reviewer wishes Forum were better
The new Philia and Hero are thrilled to be on Broadway
An honor for Sondheim at George School, a student production of Merrily at Williams
News & Notes
The story behind the Kennedy Center commission, news of the Woods film
Sondheim’s long history with the Tony Awards
The Signature reinvents Passion into a battle of wills
At Pegasus, Passion is yet another Sondheim show
Passion in California, Sweeney in Connecticut
A disappointing Night Music in Toronto and Assassins in Holland
Maria Friedman finds joy in playing Fosca in London
Longtime orchestrator Jonathan Tunick talks about working with Sondheim
The Sondheim Scrapbook
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
For Your Amusement
We’re pleased to present a puzzle by Sondheim himself
The results of our “dream Sondheim CD” contest
The form and pattern in Sondheim’s mysteries
The London Company, plus Harolyn Blackwell’s tribute to Bernstein
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
Forum settles in for a comfortable run
By Paul Salsini
If Stephen Sondheim was denied a long-running Broadway show with the revival of Company in 1995, he appears to have one with the revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Forum has settled in for what appears to be a comfortable run, often running at more than 80 percent capacity since its April 18 opening.
The $4.5 million show reportedly needs to take in about $350,000 a week to break even, and it has been grossing twice that. It had a $4.5 million advance in early June.
A Tony Award for Nathan Lane, for best performance by an actor in a musical, undoubtedly will continue the audience lure for months. Lane and other cast members have contracts through mid-February 1997.
Already there is speculation about who will be the next Pseudolus.
“It needs a star,” said Roger Berlind, one of the producers. “Whoever replaces him will have to suffer comparisons. It needs to be someone who is a good seller, someone who will do more than keep the curtain up. We’re thinking hard about that, starting now.”
Lane also received Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for his performance. Jerry Zaks was named outstanding director of a musical by the Outer Critics.
Forum was greeted warmly by many critics. According to Variety, it received eleven positive reviews, two negatives and five mixed.
Most important, it received an unqualified rave from Vincent Canby in The New York Times:
“This brazenly retro Broadway musical, inspired by Plautus, is almost as timeless as comedy itself. Here’s a glorious, old-fashioned farce that, with its vintage Stephen Sondheim score and its breathless book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, celebrates everything that man holds least dear but cannot deny himself: lust, greed, vanity, ambition; in short, all of those little failings that make man human.
“Yet for all of its disguises, mistaken identities, pratfalls and leering jokes, A Funny Thing is as sophisticated as anything now on Broadway. In its own lunatic way, it’s both wise and rigorously disciplined. Easy sentimentality is nowhere to be found here; in its place: the kind of organized chaos that leads to sheer, extremely contagious high spirits. A Funny Thing should be around for a long time.”
In the Sunday Times, Margo Jefferson wrote: “It might all be a little too old hat to arouse many laughs this time around. But the director, Jerry Zaks, has done a smart thing; he has made every single character on stage, whatever their age, gender or love object, look and act as if they are in drag. To steal a few words from ‘Comedy Tonight,’ Mr. Sondheim’s great opening song, it gives old situations new complications. And that is the extra dose of absurdity we need.”
Much of the attention, of course, was on Lane.
Confessing that he was a sucker for Forum, Clive Barnes in the New York Post said that the opening had something of the ambiance of a coronation–“Nathan the Good, King of Broadway.”
He continued: “It’s a great performance, a great show, and one of those few fantastic evenings on the town which really can send you home feeling like a blithe spirit dancing on air.”
In Newsweek, Jack Kroll said: “(Zero) Mostel was larger than life; Lane is life. A wacky Everyman, he puts you in touch with your inner clown.” In Time, Richard Corliss wrote: “The Birdcage has made Lane a movie star, but Forum shows his true home is the stage.”
Michael Kuchwara, the Associated Press critic, said that Zaks “has peppered the production with enough bawdy stage business–and gorgeous, nearly naked babes–to rejuvenate every tired businessman on Wall Street.”
However, Howard Kissel in the Post was disappointed and said that Lane’s portrayal was “simply that of a gagster.” He also had some comments about the score:
“Interestingly, the poster for A Funny Thing doesn’t even mention Stephen Sondheim. This is probably sensible marketing. There are, after all, people still alive who remember Passion and Assassins who might not know that when he wrote Funny Thing Sondheim still wanted to entertain audiences rather than enlighten or afflict them. His sparkling score for A Funny Thing, considered negligible in 1962, is the show’s greatest asset.”
In Newsday, Linda Winer said she didn’t smile once. “The humor tends toward big faces and bigger mugging. At its very best, it is good-natured horseplay. More often, it is just tiresome.” And Lane, she said, “only plays one note here, but it’s a very popular note.”
Jeremy Gerard, in Variety, said: “There’s something ultimately flat and wearying in all that hard work. This Forum is a mixed bag for Lane–and for Zaks, who has created a campy parody of a show that was doing just fine as Broadway musical-comedy satire.”
David Patrick Stearns gave the show two and a half stars out of four in USA Today: “The sparkle is inevitably muted in these politically correct times, which don’t permit all the salivating Zero Mostel did in the 1962 original.”
Paul Salsini is the editor of The Sondheim Review.
Another Sondheim cast goes to the Hit Factory
By Sean Patrick Flahaven and Paul Salsini
On Sunday, April 28, the cast, orchestra and creative team of the Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum gathered at the Hit Factory in midtown Manhattan to record their cast album. It was the same studio, producer (Phil Ramone) and record company (Broadway Angel) assembled for the recent albums of Company and Passion.
The high energy of the production was reflected in the enthusiasm of the cast. Ernie Sabella (Marcus Lycus) gushed, “I can’t believe that I just stood next to Stephen Sondheim in the buffet line! This is so great, working on this wonderful show. I’ve waited my whole career for something like this.”
The younger cast members were also excited that their first cast album recording was of such a milestone show. After resounding applause from the control room and the orchestra for “The House of Marcus Lycus,” one of the courtesans emerged from the studio exclaiming, “I love this show!”
Music director and conductor Eddie Strauss led the large and talented pit orchestra, supplemented, as usual for recordings, by extra strings. Sondheim and director Jerry Zaks worked closely with the cast and Ramone to ensure high musical and interpretive standards. In general, there were far more takes for each number than for Company. “Comedy Tonight,” one of the most well-known opening numbers in musical theatre, was done and redone in detail to ensure that the recording, like the show, would start with a bang. The additional material interpolated into the “tragedy” section made the number even funnier, but had to be further edited so that sight gags could translate to CD.
The stated nature of Forum is “a scenario for vaudevillians.” Since it is such a wild show and evolves as the actors become increasingly comfortable in their roles, their performances occasionally had to be reined in to fit the higher musical standards of the recording. Sondheim, who has said that he was not entirely satisfied with the 1962 original cast album, should be pleased with the time and energy spent on this one.
The album will include “Pretty Little Picture,” which was cut in previews. It was scheduled to be released June 25.
Sean Patrick Flahaven writes musicals in New York City and is the associate editor of The Sondheim Review.