For the last third of the twentieth century, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum had the reputation of being "the funniest musical every written" (21st century challengers to that title now include The Producers and Urinetown). The reason: the show is low comedy, a farce with plot elements lifted directly from the plays of Plautus. In fact, if you were to remove the songs, you would still have a hilarious show.
In addition to the ridiculous plot, the main character, Pseudolus, is not only the impetus for the action of the play, but the musical is written so that he is also the narrator, and can comment on the action, which allows for many comic possibilities. On top of this "clever servant" role (which has been a staple of theatre for two thousand years), Forum was written with the idea that a Borscht Belt comic should star in it. The lead role, Pseudolus, was first offered to Phil Silvers, who turned it down (he would star in one of the revivals), and then Milton Berle, who also balked. Zero Mostel, in the original production, would throw in ad libs with references to topical headlines and other shows on Broadway. (The producers got more than they bargained for when they cast comedians). The show is a terrific showcase for whatever comic actor plays Pseudolus (the 1996 Broadway revival featured Nathan Lane.)
If you’re considering staging this show, keep in mind the show’s inherent problems:
- There are no good parts for women. The virgin, Philia, is an idiot, and the wife, Domina, is a shrew. At least they each get a song. The rest of the women, the courtesans, wear sexy costumes and writhe around to arouse Psedulous. Apart from that, they’re chorus (Unless, as the Broadway revival did when Lane stepped down, you cast a woman in the lead role. Broadway chose Whoopi Goldberg.)
- Physical comedy: you’ve got to know what you’re doing.
- The chase scene. It’s written into the book, but there’s no score written for it. That doesn’t mean you should do the chase scene in silence. You’ve got an orchestra there, use it! Unless you’ve got a tiny set, it’s likely you’ll need to fill the time between the comic interactions of the chase. I saw a recent production with the chase scene done silently. It was surreal, like the scene in the film Amadeus where the ballet corps dances without music. Suddenly you're aware of the mechanics of the movement onstage, and you're jolted out of the world of the play and back into your theatre seat.
- The proteans ("Only six, yet they do the work of sixty") have a total of about three lines during the entire show. So their silent comic business requires excellent timing and physical skills—and most of all, a complete indifference to the audience. (A sure sign of amateur productions are actors trying to steal focus in non-speaking parts.)
- Farce: you’ve got to know what you’re doing. Only Pseudolus should play to the audience in addition to focusing on his objective, because from the very beginning of the show, he is the narrator. (You could make allowances for Captain Miles Gloriosus, to heighten the celebrity effect required by his character.) All the other characters need to pursue their objectives in order for the plot to unfold with maximum comic effect.
- Farce vs. Musical. Farce features recognizable people reacting to wildly improbable situtations, unwound at breakneck speed. Characters must be sketched quickly. For a farce to work, there should be no time for reflection. Otherwise, you start to realize the whole evening’s performance is too flimsy to care about.
Musicals, however, are based on character. People break into song, not to advance the plot, but to reveal their inner emotions and motivations. And so we come to the crux of the problem with staging A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
The songs bring the action to a dead stop. Moreover, songs reveal the depths of emotion of characters. These Sondheim songs, written early in his career (and so actually rather tuneful) turn to his favorite subject: human ambivalence. But why portray ambivalence in a farce? Who cares about the inner workings of a stereotype? Any trace of ambivalence, or god forbid, depth of character spoils the clockwork precision of the plot.
That being said, the vaudevillian "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," never fails to be a showstopper --in a good way--(for reasons I’ve never fathomed, even when I was performing the song in the show). And luckily, a few songs actually do move along the plot ("Bring Me My Bride," "Funeral Song").
Can these obstacles be overcome? Certainly. Will the audience have a good time regardless of how well the farce is executed? Probably.
The original 1962 Broadway production swept the Tony Awards (mostly beating out Oliver!) in the musical category, winning Best Musical, Leading Actor in a Musical (Mostel), Featured Actor in a Musical (David Burns), Best Director for a Musical (George Abbott), Best Producer for a Musical (Harold Prince), and author of a Musical (Shevelove and Gelbart). Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane each won a Tony Award in 1972 and 1996, respectively, for their performances in revivals.
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Production Credits." Internet Broadway Database, <http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=2779> (3 July 2003)
Lawrance M. Bernabo. Review of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962 Original Broadway Cast).Amazon.com.
27 February 2001. < http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B000002SOA/102-5324050-0256914?vi=glance> (1 July 2003)
Kelli Frost. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:
Something for Every-bawdy." Utah Shakespearean Festival Insights. 1995. <http://www.bard.org/SectionEducate/forumbawdy.html> (1 July 2003)
Judy Harris. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Personal Web Site. <http://users.bestweb.net/~foosie/forum.htm> (3 July 2003)
Steve Nallon. "Comic Rhythm in Farce: Shevelove, Gelbart and Sondheim’s and the plays of Plautus (lecture summary)" Personal Web Site. <http://www.nallon.com/lectures.html> (1 July 2003)
Paul Salsini. "Forum Settles In for a Comfortable Run." The Sondheim Review. Vol. 3, No. 1, Summer 1996. <http://www.sondheimreview.com/v3n1.htm> (1 July 2003)
David Spenser. Review of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Aisle Say. <http://www.aislesay.com/NY-FUNNY-THING.html> (1 July 2003)
"Tony Awards by Year - 1963." Fennec Awards Database. <http://awards.fennec.org/tony/T-1963.html> (30 July 2003)