May 8, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
My long and abiding affection for the Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is because it’s so true to its title: Funny Stuff Happens. When it opened fifty-eight years ago tonight, critics were mad for what was described by one as being “about as crazy as anything you’ve ever seen in old-time vaudeville.” When The Producers, with its similar style of low-comedy opened nineteen years ago, it was deemed the most hilarious show to hit town since the original Forum back in 1962. And with Nathan Lane, then the closest thing to bringing back the memory of Zero Mostel, it made people of a certain age nostalgic for a time when a comedian could lead a show to such uproarious heights.
The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q are modern classics that are extremely funny, but not star-centric. In order to produce Forum you must have a qualified clown. All three times it has been produced on Broadway it starred a one-of-a-kind performer: Mostel first, Lane third and Phil Silvers in between. There was even a revival planned for 2014 that was to star James Corden, relatively fresh off his Tony as Best Actor in the slapstick British comedy One Man, Two Guvnors (as we now know, Cordon took a far more lucrative gig).
Forum proved a gigantic audience pleaser — in fact, the longest running of all of Sondheim’s shows (964 performances). It won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, but get this: not only didn’t Sondheim win for its score — he wasn’t even nominated. That season the Tony committee found Bravo Giovanni more worthy (a show that ran for 76 performances with a score by the one-time-only Broadway teaming of Milton Schafer and Ronny Graham), and the winner was Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (exclamation point theirs, not mine). Like Rodney Dangerfield once complained, Sondheim got no respect. Even when the film of Forum was produced in 1966, it jettisoned nine of its thirteen songs. Again, no respect.
As with his two previous efforts to which he had supplied lyrics only, West Side Story and Gypsy, reviewers barely mentioned Sondheim’s contribution in their Forum reviews. When they did, it was mostly negative. “Less than inspired,” wrote John McClain of the Journal- American. “Stephen Sondheim’s music would have been a second-rate score even in 1940, but he has come up with some catchy lyrics,” Norman Nadel proclaimed in the World-Telegram & Sun. Of course, both those papers are long gone, and so are McClain and Nadel, and the name Sondheim has gone on to achieve (shall we say?) a certain level of immortality.
Back in 1962, the critics were too busy praising Forum’s book by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, to bother with Sondheim’s contributions to its success. And though seemingly effortless in execution, the book came out of intensely hard and disciplined work by its authors, conceived over numerous drafts. With the right balance and tone being very tricky for all concerned, Sondheim has referred to the lyrics as “the most difficult set I’ve ever had to write.” But over time, Forum’s score has settled into one that is recognized as superbly crafted. The witty lyrics set to the irresistible tune of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” never fails to bring down the house. And the airy and lilting “Lovely,” first used to express youthful love and lust in Act One, is reprised as low comedy when reprised in Act Two as a song for Pseudolus to sing to Hysterium, forced to dress in drag to substitute for a dead virgin.
In a story told so many times it has already passed into legend, “Comedy Tonight” was the last-minute swap of an opening number for Forum that Sondheim originally conceived as a sweet soft-shoe titled “Love is in the Air.” It didn’t properly set the audience up for what was to come, and at Jerome Robbins’s urging, when he came in to help the dying musical during its Washington D.C. engagement, Sondheim was instructed to write something funny — and fast. And as it turned out, fast and funny won the day. From the moment the song was put into the show, everything clicked. And the rest is musical theatre history.
As a child growing up in the sixties, movies were my first connection to the world of theatre, so it wasn’t until I was nine-years-old that I had ever heard of Forum. I was at my hometown’s local movie house when I saw the trailer for its film version in 1966 and there was Zero Mostel cavorting with scantily clad women all over ancient Rome and… I don’t know… it sure seemed like a lot of fun to me! When I told my mother that I saw the coming attraction and wanted to see the film, she told me “It isn’t for you!” Really? Not for me? If not me, who? It seemed perfectly suited to my interests … but I think I wound up obeying my mom and didn’t catch up with it until it was on TV a few years later. By this point, with my curiosity about it having been raised in more ways than one, I had become familiar with the Broadway cast album and was puzzled when I saw what the filmmakers had done to it. Why were most of the songs missing? It made no sense to me. It wasn’t until a few years later when I saw it on stage that I understood just why the bloated film version lacked the beauty and simplicity of how it worked on the stage.
I finally got to see a full-scale revival of Forum when it came roaring back to Broadway in 1972, starring the inimitable Phil Silvers. At this point in my theatregoing career which began when I was eleven, this was (by my meticulous and highly accurate account) my 159th Broadway show.
This Forum had me thrilled at the opportunity to see a classic musical. You see, this was long before revivals were part and parcel of every season. There wasn’t even a Tony Award category dedicated to revivals back then. The idea of the core Broadway audience wanting to revisit a show only a few years after having seen it wasn’t the mini-industry it is today. To make my point, only 5 of the previous 158 Broadway shows I’d seen were musical revivals.
It was only a decade after the original that a new production of Forum returned to Broadway. It hadn’t been planned, as it was only produced to be done in Los Angeles as part of the Ahmanson Theatre subscription season. The impetus for that production was getting Phil Silvers to star in it, as it was a show he always regretting turning it down, as he was the first choice to play Pseudolus. The creators wrote it with him in mind, since he was, at that time, not only an in-demand theatre star, but one of the most popular comedians on television. This was due to his wild success as Sgt. Ernie Bilko in You’ll Never Get Rich, quickly thereafter renamed The Phil Silvers Show, although it has forever been known as Bilko to its legion of fans ever since.
Forum’s limited L.A. run was such a hit, Silvers’ co-star, Larry Blyden personally sought investors and raised the money to take the show to New York. If possible, the New York critics were even more receptive to the show than they were the first time around. But revivals were risky in those days and even with Silvers and Blyden winning Tonys in the spring, its box office plunged in the summer tourist season. As a way to boost business, Blyden came up with the publicity stunt of giving away all the tickets to its July 4th performance for free. Even though I’d already seen it one and a half times (yes, I snuck in an intermission one afternoon because I loved it so much), my brother and I took a train into Manhattan from our home on Long Island to see if we could get in. Of course, we didn’t anticipate that thousands of people had the same idea. We were told when we got there that every ticket had already been given away.
Another teenager who adored Phil Silvers took a train in that afternoon. All alone, young Joe Lane (later to change his name professionally to Nathan Lane) came in from Jersey City and had much better luck than my brother and I did. We discussed this specific day when I interviewed him back in 2013: “I was sixteen years old and showed up for that 4th of July matinee. They were giving away every seat in the house for free, which would never happen today. I was the last one to get in. They closed the door after me. And with everyone there for free we went berserk when Phil Silvers came out. What a day that was. I thought he was phenomenal. I’m so glad I got to see him.”
Little could Lane have predicted that he would win his first Tony Award for playing the same role in what would be the next Broadway revival of Forum twenty-four years later.
So a very Happy Anniversary, especially to Stephen Sondheim and Tony Walton (sets and costumes), now the only two surviving creative members of the original team of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Thanks for all the laughs.
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