A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, and Stephen Sondheim

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Even the ancient Romans needed a laugh now and then. When they weren’t conquering most of the known world or enjoying the latest bloodletting in the Coliseum, they were attending the comic plays of Plautus. Some twenty centuries later, the characters and situations Plautus developed to entertain an empire are still with us, and still funny. But while the sets and costumes are vaguely Roman, the heart of this show lies in the comic slapstick and bouncy musicality of a more recent tradition – American vaudeville. Join the CU Theatre Department for “Old situations, new complications, Nothing portentous or polite: Tragedy tomorrow! Comedy tonight!”

Pseudolus wants to be free. Not an unusual thing for a slave in Rome (second century, BC) to want, but a rare thing for her to receive. Pseudolus, however, possesses in abundance gifts the gods sometimes grant to the terminally lazy – boundless cleverness and uncommon guile. Being smarter than your owners is a great boon to a slave angling for her heart’s desire. When her masters, Domina and Senex take a trip to the country, Pseudolus discovers that Hero, the adolescent son of the house, is passionately in love with a young virgin next door. This revelation launches her headlong into a scheme to get Hero his girl in exchange for her freedom.142


This being a comedy, there are, of course, complications in the path of Pseudolus’ambition. Hysterium, loyal slave of the household, has been charged by the aptly-named Domina with guarding Hero’s moral well-being while his parents are away. Naturally, he stands in Pseudolus’ way. Then it comes out that the virgin, Philia, is a recent acquisition of Lycus, the buyer and seller of courtesans, and is already promised to the great captain, Miles Gloriosus. And so the plot, like a fine stew, thickens. Amply stocked with a young couple in love, a domineering wife and her lustful, hen-pecked husband, an old man who has lost his children, a mighty warrior in love with his own reputation and a pressing need for a vial of mare’s sweat, all that is needed to bring the madcap hijinks to a boil is the witty and engaging score by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim.26

The Men Behind the Musical . . . 

Larry Gelbart has been a writer for radio, television, film and theatre since the 1940s. His early radio credits include work for Danny Thomas, Eddie Cantor, Jack Parr, and Bob Hope.  His association with Hope led to his writing for the new medium of television, which in turn led to a writing job for actor and comedian Red Buttons.  That’s where he met Burt Shevelove, who was Buttons’ director. Perhaps his best known work was as developer, co-producer, writer and director on the television series M*A*S*H. His screenplays include Oh, God! (1977) and Tootsie (1982). [NOTE: Gelbart died in 2009]

Over the course of a long career that extended to his death, Burt Shevelove (1915-1982) wrote, directed, and produced for legendary stars like Jack Benny, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand.  On Broadway he directed Hallelujah, Baby (1968) and revised the book for the 1925 version of No, No, Nanette prior to directing the successful 1971 revival. He is credited by all involved with the initial idea for Forum, since “he had done an embryonic version of a Roman comedy in his university days and had long felt that a professional, full-blown Broadway production would have every chance of success.” It seems he was right.

Though he has also dabbled in teaching, screenwriting, composing film scores, creating crossword puzzles for New York magazine, and authoring “straight” (non-musical) plays, Stephen Sondheim (1930 – ) is primarily known for his ground-breaking work as a composer and lyricist for the musical theatre. Arguably the most daring and controversial twentieth century practitioner of the form, Sondheim has revolutionized the musical by consistently opening up the genre to new possibilities.

The best of Sondheim combines lush, elusive, complicated melodies with brilliant lyrics to create unique characters that challenge the notion that musicals must be shallow and witless.  Before Forum, Sondheim’s primary work was as a lyricist on such enduring classics as West Side Story and Gypsy. Forum was followed in 1964 by Anyone Can Whistle and, then, his pair of contemporary commentaries on the difficulty of forging relationships in the modern world (a recurring theme of his work ever since), Company (1970) and Follies (1971).

In 1973, the experimentation with form began in earnest when Sondheim composed an inventive score for A Little Night Music–all in 3/4 (waltz) time. With Pacific Overtures (1976), he successfully combined Kabuki (and other Japanese theatre traditions) with Broadway conventions to create a piece that illustrates the cultural realignment which took place with Japan’s opening up to the West at the end of the 19th century. Hardly the stuff of which conventional musicals, often thought of as light, witless fare, are comprised. Continuing Sondheim’s tendency to buck musical-comedy tradition, 1979 saw the premiere of the “musical thriller” Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Based on 19th century “penny-dreadful” novels, Sweeney told the story of a murderous barber who slit his customer’s throats and his restaurateur companion, who baked their remains into meat pies for sale to London’s teeming masses. A pair of years later, Merrily We Roll Along (1981) arrived, employing the unique tactic of telling its story backwards, from end to beginning. Sunday in the Park with George (1984), inspired by George Seraut’s famous impressionist painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte,” became one of the handful of musicals to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Only three years later, 1987’s Into the Woods featured themes and characters from children’s fairy tales, in a story that explores the darker side of growing up and into the “real” world.

One of the many events scheduled in celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 70th birthday is a concert version of Sweeney Todd playing at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on May 4-6, 2000) with the New York Philharmonic and featuring Broadway diva Patti LuPone and opera star Bryn Terfel. [NOTE: Sondheim’s career continues, at this writing. Though his production of new works of musical theatre has diminished, there have been significant revivals of several of his most important shows and he has recently published a two-volume annotated edition of his lyrics, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat).

How They Made it Happen . . . 

It is somewhat amazing that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum got to Broadway at all.  In his book Laughing Matters, Larry Gelbart devotes a chapter to how he, Burt Shevelove, and Stephen Sondheim wrote, re-wrote, re-re-wrote, edited, hacked apart, pieced back together, and eventually came up with the final script.

98The goal of these three men was to write a musical comedy that required actors with comic skills, to fill what Gelbart describes as “a vulgarity vacuum on Broadway.”  Looking at the list of hit shows that were running when Forum finally had its opening in the spring of ’62, the vacuum is apparent:  My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Camelot, and Carnival had all been running for more than a season.  Not a single decent vulgarity in the lot.

The trio poured over the works of Titus Maccius Plautus, the Roman master of comedy. From his surviving plays they excavated the characters and situations that became Forum, a process that took nearly five years before the play found its final form–one that adhered to the Three Unities of Time, Place and Action as did much Greek and Roman drama.

Sondheim had originally provided a song called “Invocation” to open the show.  However, the man who was directing Forum, the legendary George Abbott, believed that the show needed something “hummable” to start the evening, so Sondheim agreed and wrote a new opening number, a clever and gentle soft-shoe called “Love Is In the Air.”  This was followed by a song called “Love, I Hear,” the callow hero Hero’s gentle ode to being in love for the first time, which made for two very nice, gentle songs acting as the introduction to what was really a raucous, bawdy comedy.  No wonder audiences were confused.  The opening needed to be fixed.

The man brought in to fix the show was choreographer/director Jerome Robbins.  Sondheim wrote a new opening number better suited for the show, Robbins got it staged, everything clicked, and on opening night Forum proved to be a hit. Forum was Sondheim’s first produced show for which he had written both the music and lyrics; at the age of thirty-two, he was the toast of Broadway.

The original production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starred Zero Mostel as Pseudolus and vaudeville veteran Jack Gilford as Hysterium and won six Tony Awards in 1963.*  Thereupon followed two successful Broadway revivals, the first in 1972 with comedian Phil Silvers in the role of Pseudolus, the second in 1996 with Nathan Lane in the starring role.  When Lane left the show, the producers decided on a rather radical replacement: Whoopi Goldberg.  Without changing the plot, Pseudolus was now a she, much to the delight of critics and audiences.  The CU production will embrace this cross-gender casting in the roles of Pseudolus and Lycus


* In an intriguing coincidence, one of the Plautine comedies on which Forum is based is titled Mostellaria–variously translated as The Monster House or The Haunted House.

 The Roman Comedies of Plautus

plautus_XZab3Titus Maccius Plautus (254 BC-184 BC) was the masterful writer of comic farce whose work as the source of character and plot for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. We have only 20 and a half plays by Plautus – all that have survived from an output that we can only presume to have comprised a great body of work. Though strongly influenced by Greek comic models of Aristophanes and others, Plautus took a relaxed attitude towards his adaptations, drawing on the popular performance tradition of Atellan farce common to the region of Naples. Though some passages from his plays are directly translated from the Greek, he radically rewrote much of what he found. Though the visual references, from costumes to coins, remain largely Greek, the language is distinctly Roman.

A central figure of Plautine comedy is the trickster slave and, in fact, the leading character of Forum is eponymous with the title of a play by Plautus about such a servant.  The other characters in the play represent various stock types: “the handsome youth, cowardly and concerned only with sex; the father: usually very rich, and often presented as a senator; the mother: wielding the power of her dowry; the prostitute: a positive figure in Plautus…the braggart soldier: the antithesis of Roman military values, and thus helping to define those values; the parasite: in Plautus, a symbol both of the poor citizen bound in a client relationship to a rich man, and of the dramatist who earns his keep by entertaining”  (Wiles).

The young man in love with a woman of whom his parents would not approve, the father who lusts after young women and is afraid of his battle-axe wife, cases of mistaken identity, of long-lost relatives reuniting, and of the conniving servant/slave manipulating his “betters” through a series of ever-escalating confusions remain basic to comedy even today. “Certainly, there was comedy in everyday life before Plautus set quill to parchment,” Larry Gelbart says, “but it was he who created comic conventions and made use of humorous wordplay within the discipline of well-made plays.”

 More About . . . 

Three Unities of Time, Place and Action — The unities were an idea, largely developed and professed in the 18th century, that early Greek and Roman playwrights had adhered to a strict rule when composing their plays, namely: a play must take place in one location, over a set period of time (usually no more than a single day) and formed a single, continuous action–from inciting incident (the first thing which happens to set the play’s events in motion) to conclusion, when all complications are resolved.

Vaudeville — a form of popular theater that emerged in the United States in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.  It grew out of beer hall entertainment and did not develop as a separate form until the 1870s and 1880s. In the American West, vaudeville answered a desperate need for light entertainment amongst audiences of miners, lumbermen, cowboys, and gunfighter s; and in the eastern cities it soon became big business thanks to Tony Pastor and others, who popularized a cleaned-up version of vaudeville with respectable, middle-class audiences. Like British music hall, the form died off with the advent of the talking film in the 1920s. Vaudeville consisted of a large number of variety acts–comedians, serious and comic singers, jugglers, dancers, magicians, acrobats and the like, usually with orchestral accompaniment and all occurring, one after another on a set “bill” which was frequently performed twice a day. Many of the most famous performers of early radio and film came out of vaudeville, including W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, and George Burns and Gracie Allen.

“Penny-dreadful” novels – short, cheaply produced mass entertainment novels on sensational subjects full of crime, adventure, and romance, stories that were a staple of the 19th century book trade.

Works Cited in the preparation of this preview

 Wiles, David. “Theatre in Roman and Christian Europe.” The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre. 1995

This special A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum edition of CU THEATRE & DANCE PREVIEW SEASON 2000 was brought to you by . . .

. . . Tom Joyner, Bud Coleman, Steven MacDonald