May 8, 2019: 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 is true to its title: Funny Stuff Happens. When it opened fifty-seven 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 eighteen 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. But with Broadway not going anywhere anytime soon, we can wait for what eventually should be a smash revival of Forum starring Corden at some point down the road.
Forum also marked the debut of Stephen Sondheim as both a composer and lyricist. At the start of his career, when he was young and untested, he thought of himself primarily as a composer (and still does). And the only reason West Side Story came about for him was that its chosen lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, were forced to step aside when they couldn’t get out of a Hollywood contract. Even then Sondheim wasn’t considered, as Leonard Bernstein took on the task of writing the words to his own music. When it proved a hardship for the Maestro, the door then opened for Sondheim to step in and (at first) share the lyric writing chores. As Sondheim describes it, “We worked together, but by the time we opened in Washington all the lyrics were mine, with some one or two-line exceptions. And so he [Bernstein] very generously took his name off the lyric writer list.”
Over the years Bernstein noted that this single act of generosity wound up costing him millions in residuals, as there was no way he could have predicted its songs would wind up a royalties bonanza, the result of WSS’s highly successful film version. He would say this laughing, but one wonders if Bernstein really thought it was all that funny.
As for Sondheim, though happy to have gained the necessary experience WSS provided, he has also spent a lot of time over the years self-deprecatingly disparaging some of his work due to youthful oversights and overkill — “today the world was just an address,” from “Tonight,” being his chief example. It was the first time he ever wrote lyrics to someone else’s music and, as he wrote in his 2010 book Finishing the Hat, “the someone else was a legend verging on myth.”
His next job, which Sondheim very much wanted to write both music and lyrics, was Gypsy. With a book by WSS’s Arthur Laurents, it was conceived by its director-choreographer Jerome Robbins as a star vehicle for the one-and-only Ethel Merman. As someone whose first song she ever sung on a Broadway stage was George and Ira Gershwin “I’ve Got Rhythm” (in 1930’s Girl Crazy), Merman was beyond-spoiled when it came to composers. Cole Porter wrote five shows for her, and Irving Berlin designed Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam around her talents. Merman’s one time testing unknown songwriters resulted in the unhappy musical Happy Hunting, just prior to her taking on Gypsy. It was acknowledged as one of the few failures among her dozen or more Broadway musicals and it didn’t allow her the confidence in hiring Sondheim as both composer and lyricist. She wanted the indefatigable Jule Styne (who she got), leaving Sondheim reluctantly agreeing to provide lyrics, since the project intrigued him and his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II told him that writing for a star like Merman and working again with Robbins and Laurents (and now Styne) was nothing to turn down lightly.
Even with Gypsy a success that garnered excellent reviews, it did little for Sondheim in the way of a career move, since it was never his intention of being a lyricist for hire. It took the following four years to write a new show (this time on spec) that would finally serve to introduce him to Broadway as a composer-lyricist.
Forum was an enormous hit — proving to this date 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 WSS and Gypsy, reviewers barely mentioned Sondheim’s contribution in their Forum reviews, and when they did, it was 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 hilariously 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. Forum has been making audiences laugh in productions throughout the world for the past fifty-seven years now. So a very Happy Anniversary, especially to Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince (producer) and Tony Walton (sets and costumes), the three surviving creative members of its original team.
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